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Inspiration for Brain Fitness

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A recent study from Northwestern University researcher Mark Beeman extends his work on creativity and inspiration. We all know those moments when we’ve been struggling with a problem for a while, and then suddenly we see the answer. An article in the New York Times gives an example: what do “trip,” “house,” and “goal” have in common? Think about if for a moment. It isn’t the kind of problem that you can sit down and work through, like a math question. Even if you start going through possibilities in your mind, you may eventually have a moment when you see the answer (they all can come after “field”).

Beeman shows that people can do this kind of puzzle better when they are in a relaxed frame of mind, such as after seeing a comedy video. Beeman speculates that at such a time, your mind is more able to make the kind of new connections that help to solve this kind of problem.

This has implications for understanding the neurochemistry of puzzle solving. Why do we enjoy puzzles, games, and problems? One possible answer is that working them stimulates the release of the brain chemical dopamine in the parts of your brain that are associated with pleasure (interestingly, drugs of abuse also stimulate the release of dopamine). Working and especially solving puzzles may be inherently rewarding because of dopamine release, explaining why so many of us can spend so much time on them.

Dopamine is key in understanding cognitive abilities such as working memory and psychomotor speed, as it is critically important to both of them. One theory of the cognitive changes that occur with increasing age implicates lower levels of dopamine in the brain, so anything that helps keep that chemical system active is probably important.

Beeman’s work suggests that getting to the solution may also involve other brain systems, or at least a change in the status of brain systems that focus attention. Instead of tightly focused attention on the problem, being able to disconnect from it in a limited way may facilitate the problem’s solution.

The bottom line: Developing the ability to let go and relax when solving a problem may be an important part of getting to the solution. Deadly serious practice of cognitive tasks may promote your brain’s fitness, but getting to the answer of some problem may be facilitated by relaxing.

5 Ways to Train Working Memory for Brain Fitness

Map of South Florida

If working memory is important for brain fitness, and training it may make it better (and even improve scores on other cognitive measures), how do you train it?

Here are 5 ways to train working memory:

The single best way to train working memory for brain fitness is to use (almost the) same computer program used by Jaeggi et al. in her study. You can’t get exactly the same software that will automate something called n-back training. You can, however, use Brain Workshop, free open-source software that closely imitates the procedures used in studies of working memory. The software for brain fitness training is free, and you can download it here.

As useful as n-back training is, you may want to branch out and do other things. A visual game that can train working memory is called concentration, a matching game that makes you remember the position of pictures while you look for a match. There are lots of these kinds of games on the web (and one version is included in the Posit Science brain training software. I put one up on the Web – click here to try it out. (I borrowed the code for this game from a book called ActionScript Game Programming University and can’t take personal credit for it. It’s a great book about Flash game programming, and you can find the author’s website here.)

Away from your computer? Why not try Sudoku? You can do it on paper in books, and you can find a number of applications for your phone or handheld game device. You can even download and print them from the web. I found several sources, including here. Don’t know what Sudoku is? Find out more about it here.

Standing in line at the grocery store? Pick out numbers off the cover of the magazines and add them in your head. Too easy? Subtract them and multiply by another number. Still too easy? When was the last time you did a square root in your head?

Sitting on the couch at home? Spend time visualizing the route from your home to a place you only go to once in a while. Get a mental picture of your own home, then create a mental image of the first turn, and then the next, and the next. Did you get there? Now reverse the route until you get home.

Brain Fitness

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Gray haired woman lifting weight

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Concentration

Old book pen magnifier

Maria Konnikova posts an interesting article in this past Sunday’s New York Times on the effects of undivided attention and mindfulness. In her post, she links concentration to Sherlock Holmes (perhaps because that’s a link to her forthcoming book), but she provides a nice if brief review of some of …

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