Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Old Grey Matter Test... How to keep your brain at its best

By Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway
Last updated at 3:58 AM on 16th January 2011

Everyone wants their brain to work at its best - whether you need to stay sharp to keep up with your children or to come up on top at work. The exciting thing is that science now provides evidence for what works and what does not. So training your brain no longer has to be a case of trial and error.

Those who use their brain more efficiently tend to have better jobs, better relationships and happier and more fulfilling lives. And you can change your brain and, as a result, change your circumstances.


Ever heard of cognitive reserve? It's a buzzword in the scientific community. The theory is based on the idea that those who have a larger reserve of neurons and stronger cognitive abilities can tolerate some brain deterioration without showing symptoms. In other words, the more you use your brain, the greater your chances of avoiding symptoms of memory loss.


Speaking quickly can do wonders for your verbal short-term memory. The length of a word makes a big difference in how well you can remember it. Look at these words: refrigerator, hippopotamus, Mississippi, aluminium.

You're more likely to forget them compared with words that you can repeat more easily, such as bus, clock, spoon and fish. The longer it takes to repeat or rehearse something, the harder it is to remember.

This is known as the wordlength effect, which means that longer words are harder to remember. To boost your memory of longer words, ask to look at a list, rather than just listen to it.


A list of words that are distinct (such as bus, clock, spoon, fish, mouse) are much easier to remember than a list of words that sound similar (rhyming words such as cat, mat, cap, map, can, man).

When things sound similar, you're more likely to get confused. So if you're trying to remember a shopping list, group your items by categories (dairy, meat, bread) rather than alphabetically.


As you get older, you take longer to come up with an answer because you have so many more life experiences and it takes longer to sift through them all to find the right word or image.


I looked at working memory in people aged five to 85. This continues developing in your 20s and peaks in the 30s, and actually declines very little over the decades.

Working memory in those in their 60s looks like those in their 20s. Studies show that at any age, you can do something to make a difference to your memory. As you age, your brain shrinks by about two per cent every ten years, although it is unlikely to be noticeable until you hit your 60s.


If you were to list your top 20 memories, you may find most are from your 20s and 30s. This is not unusual. People tend to try things for the first time during this period so often remember them more clearly.

This may include first loves, holidays and first mortgages. This period is known as the reminiscence bump, because there is a bump or peak in the number of memories you can easily recall from this time.


Everyone struggles with the tip of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT for short). This is when you can describe a word's meaning in detail but you just can't remember what it is.

Here's how TOT works. I'm thinking of a fruit, I ate one for breakfast, it's juicy and I can see it in my head but I just can't remember what it's called. Two hours later, the name pops into my head while I'm in the middle of a meeting - I was thinking of a pomegranate.

This example is simple - you more commonly search for words you say less frequently. So don't get stuck in a rut, using the same words and same ideas every day. The more often you use language and seek out opportunities to use language creatively, the less likely you are to experience TOT.


Play a mental memory game with yourself or, alternatively, challenge someone else. Set yourself a target - for example, name as many animals as you can in 30 seconds. Try to name one animal per second.

Now make it harder - name as many animals as you can with names that start with the letter P in 30 seconds. Then try a different topic, with fruit or furniture. You can add time on if you find it too difficult, or pick harder letters.

The aim of this game is to challenge your mind to create connections between items in a category. You may even find yourself making a mental store of animal names when you read the newspaper.


Different parts of the brain show more activation just before a problem is presented. This means the brain gets ready and gathers information from different parts in order to generate a solution.

When you're faced with a problem, the solution seldom comes from thin air. The answer is often the result of hours (and sometimes years) of preparation. So, the next time you have a problem to tackle, do your homework and prepare well. A creative solution will soon follow.


Sometimes talking about a problem that needs to be solved can ruin the creative process. Studies have found the creative process works best if you're not constantly vocalising plans.

In many ways, the creative solution is an automatic process. So next time you're trying to be creative, avoid talking about it and let your brain do the work.


Scientists have found that high levels of stress can reduce the volume of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for absorbing new information), as well as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is linked to controlling stress hormones.

Stress leads to hypertension and high blood pressure. In a group of almost 1,000 adults aged 65 years and older, scientists found that those with high blood pressure were at a greater risk of mild cognitive impairment.

This means that these adults found it harder to focus, had a hard time performing simple cognitive activities and reported that they forgot things more frequently.


You cannot use the excuse that you're too tired to exercise. Scientists have discovered that 15 minutes a day can make a big difference to your sleep cycle. Exercise helps you get REM (deep sleep) and feel more awake during the day.


A change of scene can make a big difference to your mental health. For example, if you take the dog for a walk in the same place every day, change your route.

You may not realise this, but looking at the same trees or flowers each day may be dragging you down. Finding somewhere new to go for a walk is a quick pick-me-up. You may be surprised by how energised you feel.


Some people adore puzzles that allow them to play with words: crosswords, logic puzzles, riddles, word searches, word scrambles and so on. Some just seem to have the knack of solving them.

Others don't have the knack at all and wouldn't recognise the answer if it smacked them in the forehead.

So how do you get the knack? Start with something like a word search. Most of us will have done these in school to reinforce spelling and vocabulary.

The thing I love about word searches is that they're really low-stress. If the word list is provided, I guarantee you can complete the search - no matter how large the grid or how many words you're looking for.

How often in life do you get the satisfaction of knowing you're going to get the right answers?

That fact, in itself, makes working word searches fun. Plus, they're great puzzles for increasing concentration and blocking out the world for a while.

Training Your Brain For Dummies, by Dr Tracy Packiam Alloway

Article retrieved from:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A workout for working memory

New research suggests that mental exercises might enhance one of the brain's central components for reasoning and problem-solving.

Monitor Staff
September 2005, Vol 36, No. 8
Print version: page 48

People may be able to remember a nearly infinite number of facts, but only a handful of items--held in working memory--can be accessed and considered at any given moment. It's the reason why a person might forget to buy an item or two on a mental grocery list, or why most people have difficulty adding together large numbers. In fact, working memory could be the basis for general intelligence and reasoning: Those who can hold many items in their mind may be well equipped to consider different angles of a complex problem simultaneously.
If psychologists could help people expand their working-memory capacity or make it function more efficiently, everyone could benefit, from chess masters to learning-disabled children, says Torkel Klingberg, MD, PhD, an assistant cognitive neuroscience professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, might especially benefit from working-memory training, says Rosemary Tannock, PhD, a psychologist and psychiatry professor at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"It could be that working-memory problems give rise to observable behavioral symptoms of ADHD: distractibility and also poor academic achievement," she says. Working-memory deficits might also underpin some reading disabilities, as it controls the ability to recall words read earlier in a sentence, says Tannock.

But how--or even if--working memory can be expanded through training remains a topic of hot contention among psychologists. Some argue that working memory has a set limit of about four items, and that individual differences in working memory arise from the ability to group small bits of information into larger chunks. However, new research suggests that working-memory capacity could expand with practice--a finding that could shed new light on this central part of the mind's architecture, as well as potentially lead to treatments for ADHD or other learning disabilities.

Functional limitations

One such study--by researchers at Syracuse University--hit upon the potential trainability while attempting to resolve a debate in the literature on the limits of working memory.
Since the 1950s, psychologists have found one aspect of working memory--sometimes referred to as the focus of attention--to have severe limitations. For example, George Miller, PhD--a founder of cognitive psychology and a psychology professor at Princeton University--established that people generally can't recall lists of numbers more than seven digits long. Those who exceeded that limit tended to make smaller groups of numbers into larger ones, using a process called "chunking." For example, people familiar with U.S. intelligence agencies would see the letter group "FBICIA" as two chunks, rather the six letters, and that set of letters would only occupy two slots in a person's memory, rather than six.
In recent years, however, evidence is mounting that the limitation of working memory is somewhere between one and four information chunks. The downward revision results from new techniques to keep people from chunking information, which can create the illusion of greater fundamental storage capacity, says Nelson Cowan, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. In one common chunking-prevention method, participants repeat meaningless phrases over and over while performing working memory tasks such as memorizing lists of numbers.

A recent literature review by Cowan, published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Vol. 24, No. 1, pages 87-185), makes the case that a variety of working-memory measures all converge on a set limit of four items.
Other researchers have suggested that working-memory capacity is limited even further--to just a single item. In a study by Brian McElree, PhD, a psychology professor at New York University, participants underwent a test of working memory called "n-back." In the task, the participants read a series of numbers, presented one at a time on a computer screen. In the easiest version of the task, the computer presents a new digit, and then prompts participants to recall what number immediately preceded the current one. More difficult versions might ask participants to recall what number appeared two, three or four digits ago.

McElree found that participants recalled the immediately preceding numbers in a fraction of the time it took them to recall numbers presented more than one number ago--a finding published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (Vol. 27, No. 1, pages 817-835.)

"There is clear and compelling evidence of one unit being maintained in focal attention and no direct evidence for more than one item of information extended over time," says McElree.
In an attempt to reconcile the two theories, psychology professor Paul Verhaeghen, PhD, and his colleagues at Syracuse University replicated McElree's experiment, but tracked participants' response times as they practiced at the task for 10 hours over five days. (See November Monitor , page 35.)

"We found that by the end of day five...their working memory [capacity] had expanded from one to four items, but not to five," says Verhaeghen. "It seems that both theories are correct."
The focus of attention might expand as other working-memory processes become automated, Verhaeghen says. Perhaps practice improves the process of attaching a position to a number, freeing up the mind to recall up to four numbers, he notes.

Some researchers believe the practice effect uncovered by Verhaeghen reflects more efficient information encoding rather than expanded working-memory capacity. According to McElree, the response time measures used by Verhaeghen do not provide pure measures of memory-retrieval speed, and the changes in response time with practice could indicate that participants in his study simply became more practiced at encoding numbers vividly, he says.
If Verhaeghen's findings can be replicated using other tasks, it could change how scientists conceptualize working-memory limitations. Rather than there being a set limitation, working-memory capacity could improve through practice--suggesting that those with working-memory problems could improve their capacities through repetition. However, practice would need to occur on a task-by-task basis, says Verhaeghen, and, as he points out, "It is doubtful that practice on n-back generalizes to anything in real life."

Stretching the limits

New research on children with ADHD, however, might show tasks such as n-back can improve working memory in general, and could help children with the condition.
People with ADHD tend to have difficulty with working-memory capacity, and that deficit could be responsible for their tendency to be distracted and resulting problems at school, says Tannock.
Seeking to alleviate such difficulties with his research, Klingberg ran a randomized controlled trial of 53 children with ADHD in which half of the participants practiced working-memory tasks that gradually increased in difficulty. The other half completed tasks that did not get harder as the children became better at them. Both groups of children--who were 7 to 12 years old--practiced tasks such as recalling lists of numbers for 40 minutes a day over five weeks.
The children who practiced with increasingly difficult memory tasks performed better on two working memory tests--which were different than the practice tasks--than the control group, reported Klingberg in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (Vol. 44, No. 2, pages 177-186.) In addition, the parents of children with memory training reported a reduction in their children's hyperactivity and inattention three months after the intervention, while the parents of the control group participants did not.

Subsequent, yet-unpublished experiments build on those results, Klingberg says.
"We have looked at other groups too: adults with stroke, young adults without ADHD, children with...traumatic brain injuries," he says. "A general pattern [we've found] is as long as you have working-memory problems and you have the ability to train, you can improve your abilities."

Some researchers suggest that memory training may have more of an effect on motivation than working memory.
"It seems to me that children in the training group may have learned to have a better attitude toward the testing situation, whereas children in the control group--who repeated easy problems--may have learned that the testing situation was boring and uninteresting," says Cowan. "The differences that emerged on a variety of tasks could be the result of better motivation and attitude rather than a basic improvement in working memory."
Or, says Klaus Oberauer, PhD, a psychology professor and memory researcher at the University of Bristol in England, the practice effect in both Klingberg's studies might result from people learning to use their limited working-memory capacity more efficiently--perhaps by grouping information into larger chunks or by enlisting long-term memory.
"I think the practice effect [they found] basically is just an ordinary practice effect, in that everything gets faster," he says.

So, even if working memory can't be expanded, adults with grocery lists and children with ADHD may be able to make better use of what little space is available by practicing the task itself or repeating tests of general working memory. And, in the end, the milk gets bought and the reading assignment finished.


ADHD in many cases has been linked to diet, which includes food allergies and nutritional deficiencies…simply eliminating certain foods or adding others may reduce symptoms or eliminate them altogether. Hyperactive children are especially vulnerable as they are ‘hyper' sensitive to sugar and other stimulants. Have you ever noticed how your child's behavior changes very shortly after he or she consumes a soft drink, sugary cereals or chocolate? We believe it is worth attempting to address the ‘root' of the problem first, if it is indeed nutritional, before ingesting the potentially toxin pharmaceutical alternatives that merely mask the symptoms. Making healthy food choices for you and your child is NOT difficult. There is NO downside to adopting a healthy eating program and huge benefits for everyone, whether dealing with a current health issue or preventing future ones.

Another suggestion for a healthy diet may be to consider buying certified organic products…these are foods which are grown without the use of potentially harmful long-lasting pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Since organic foods are also grown without genetically modified seeds, sewage sludge or irradiation, some people feel that this is a more wholesome choice. If you choose to adopt the strategy to “cleanse” the body first to reduce symptoms of ADD, this may be an option you would like to consider. Imagine if we put dirty fuel in our cars and never changed the oil…how efficiently do you think they would run?

Below is a copy of an AHDD diet eating program for ADHD kids and adults. It is not a very strict program unless you are a regular at fast food restaurants. This is a “back to the basics” program and is recommended for every member of the family…not just someone with ADHD.
First, what NOT to eat for TWO WEEKS:
1) NO DAIRY PRODUCTS, especially cow's milk. This is the single most important restriction. Instead try Almond milk, Rice milk, or Better Than Milk. Drink water instead of milk. In fact, drink lots of water. The brain is about 80% water, and increasing your water intake to 7 to 10 glasses per day might be helpful all by itself. Sodas, Gatorade, teas, icees, etc., do not count as water. Water counts as water.
2) NO YELLOW FOODS. Especially Corn or Squash. Bananas are white. Don't eat the peel.
3) NO JUNK FOODS. If it comes in a cellophane wrapper, don't eat it.
4) NO FRUIT JUICES. Too much sugar content. One small glass of apple juice has the sugar content of eight apples. Later on you can have juice, but dilute it with water 50/50.
5) CUT SUGAR INTAKE BY 90%. If you can, cut it down to zero. Sugar is in just about everything, but give it a try. Do your best without going crazy.
6) CUT CHOCOLATE BY 90%. No more than a single piece, once a week.
7) NO NUTRASWEET. None. Period.
8) NO PROCESSED MEATS and NO MSG. Only get meats with labels that say, “Turkey and Water,” etc. If the meat has chemicals listed that you can't pronounce, don't buy it.
10) AVOID FOOD COLORINGS WHENEVER POSSIBLE. See if your child is sensitive to any particular colors, such as Reds, Yellows, etc. For now, though, avoid all if possible.
SUMMARY: Just eat foods that God made for a while. Eat like people did in the 1940's. Go to a used book store and get a Betty Crocker's Cook Book for recipe ideas. There really are about 10,000 meals that you CAN eat. Just not much in the way of “fast foods” or “convenience” foods.

AFTER TWO WEEKS begin adding these foods back into your diet, one food every other day. Eat A LOT of that food every day for four days. If you have a problem with one of the foods, you will see some kind of a “reaction” within four days. The reaction can vary from big red splotches on the body to ears turning bright red to explosive temper outbursts. If there's a problem, you'll know. If there's no problem, enjoy the food.

1) FOR BREAKFAST SERVE HIGH PROTEIN, LOW CARBOHYDRATE MEALS. Say, “Good-bye,” to Breakfast cereals and milk. Serve 60% Protein and 40% Carbohydrates for Breakfast. Other meals should be 50% / 50%.
2) PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS might be needed to get the added protein for Breakfast. They are often very helpful in the afternoon as well. Here is our favorite recipe for a Protein Shake:
a) Make a cup of coffee, using one of General Mills' International Coffees, or something like that, with a flavor that you or your child will like (yes, I know I'm breaking my own rules here, as these coffees have dried milk and some sugar, but I'm trying to get your kid to actually drink the thing, and also get some caffeine mixed with the protein.). Pour the hot coffee into a blender with about 6 oz of ice. Turn on the blender for a bit.
b) Add a good quality protein powder. There are many good ones available. If you can't find one that you like, ask at your local health food store. Get protein powders that are mostly protein and very little carbohydrate. Add between 15 and 20 grams of protein to the cold coffee in the blender.
c) Turn on the blender again.
d) Drink it up.
This protein shake is helpful for a lot of people. For many small kids, and many adults, this recipe works about as well as a small dose of Ritalin (100 mg of caffeine is roughly the same as 5 mg of Ritalin). So many who might just take a small dose of Ritalin might get away with just doing this.
Don't forget, though, that even caffeine can have some side effects. Every once in a while we find someone that has problems with the caffeine in the coffee. Usually, though, the caffeine in the coffee helps the person to focus better. The protein helps to feed the brain. If you find this helpful, have one with Breakfast, and one around 3 pm. If it is not helpful, then don't bother with it.
3) MINERAL SUPPLEMENTS may be helpful. Colloidal Minerals or fully chelated minerals are the best. We like the MinPac from VAXA, but there are several good choices. Don't buy minerals in the grocery store. Get good minerals.
4) ATTEND, EXTRESS, or MEMORIN from VAXA. We recommend the "Attend" product for everyone. "Extress" is recommended in addition for those with problems with hyperactivity and temper, and "Memorin," in addition to the "Attend," for those with poor concentration or memory. These are strongly recommended.
5) FLAX SEED or PRIMROSE OIL. High sources of Omega oils. Borage oils and some fish oils are good as well. Very important. Mix about a spoonful a day into foods as you prepare them, or add to salad dressings, etc.
6) EAT LOTS OF FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. Avoid Aluminum exposure. Eat in a healthy manner.
Try it out and let us know what you think. Oh, before you email back and ask, “Well, what can we eat?” please look through your Betty Crocker Cook Book and you'll find hundreds of recipes that will fit. It's the convenience foods that are most of the problem. Re-discover the lost art of cooking!
Wishing you the best of success,
by Doug Cowan, Psy.D., MFCC

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