This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind


An aging brain is not a poorer brain!

Continuing along with the last post's topic of aging and death and all sorts of other uplifting things, I thought I'd throw out a link to an interesting article on the middle-aged brain and what wonderful things it has to offer the world.

While getting older does necessarily entail the loss of certain kinds of functions, it may also lead to an increased ability to perform other tasks better.

Researchers have found that one of the first aspects of cognition to take a hit, and one of the strongest in young people, is "fluid intelligence," an aspect of your cognition that lets you deal with new information more quickly, adapt to new situations, and work out intense logical conundrums.

However, that still leaves a significant chunk of your intelligence intact, researchers say.  Working alongside your fluid intelligence is "crystallized" intelligence - a database of knowledge, heuristics, and wisdom that has been built up over the many years of your middle-aged life!

Studies have shown that this kind of knowledge is significantly stronger middle-late aged adults compared with younger folks - likely due to the fact that they've built up more experience over the years than their more flexible progeny.  Whether this is ultimately for the better is probably dependent on your life situation, but in general older people can perform all kinds of tasks more efficiently than young adults.

What causes this disparity between types of intelligence?  Researchers aren't sure, but some say that it has to do with attentional abilities in general.  Young adults tend to be better at performing tasks that require sustained attention, suggesting that their brains are more well-suited to keep from straying from the task at hand.  Because older adults have more difficulty focusing on one particular thing, it makes it more difficult for them to encode information for further retrieval.

Regardless, it's important to remember that, while certain cognitive abilities decline as you age, this doesn't necessarily mean that you will find yourself at a disadvantage to all the youngsters vying for your job.  You've got crystallized intelligence - and in this arena, time is on your side!

via The Star


Notes in the Brain

One of the topics that I've been interested in for a long time is creativity and where it is represented in the brain.  Unfortunately, most research tends to focus on other aspects of cognition, since it's often tough to relate the study of creativity to a tangible benefit to society (or at least that's what most would have you think), but a recent article interviewed one researcher that is challenging that belief.

Charles Limb is a doctor-researcher at John Hopkins University.  He is also a saxophonist, pianist, and bassist.  This unique combination of talents has left him with a burning interest in the nature of creativity and spontaneity, two qualities that are inherent to any musical piece.

When he isn't performing cochlear implants, Dr. Limb has an fMRI lab that uses brain imaging to examine what exactly goes on in our brain when we conjure up musical expression from the deep recesses of our unconscious.

His most recent (and most promising) study involved placing six musicians in the fMRI machine with a specially-constructed plastic keyboard.  They were asked to play a typical 12-bar blues, then were told to start improvising on their own.  The fMRI recorded their brain activity while they did so, allowing the researchers to compare brain activity between playing music and improvising music.

What they found was an increase in activation of the medial prefrontal cortex - an area that is often associated with movement planning and decision making , coupled with a decrease in the lateral prefrontal cortex - an area that has been associated with inhibition and self-regulation.

While such a finding is preliminary at best, it does suggest that there are some very real, very fundamental differences between creation and recall from memory.  It is really difficult to determine what exactly is going on as these musical processes are carried out in the brain, but future studies with more subjects and more sophisticated recording techniques should shed light as to what exactly is going on in the brain.

Importantly, Dr. Limb emphasized that creativity is inherent to human beings, and an essential part of our society.  While he is a medical scientist, required to spend half of his time helping patients, perhaps this research will serve as a stimulus to the rest of the scientific community out there.  The nature of creativity is an elusive and complex phenomenon, and it will surely require an equally elegant and creative approach in order to be understood.

via Urbanite Magazine


How to Facilitate Motor Memory

I think this website, This Is Your Brain on Awesome, should be about getting your brain on awesome.  Almost like a how-to guide for squeezing the most out of your melon.  Usually, this would probably involve applying some sort of exogenous brain stimulation.  I'm partial to noninvasive electromagnetic stimulation myself, but to each his own.

With that in mind, here's a tip on how to get started getting your brain on awesome - shut down your prefrontal lobes when trying to learn new motor memories.

Two main categories of learning you'll often hear people refer to are declarative and procedural.  Declarative memories can be likened to facts you know about the world - for example, we all know that driving through the entire state of Kansas on I-70 is worse than Chinese water torture and the best parts of Kansas City are actually in the state of Missouri; procedural memories, on the other hand, tend to be more automated and motor in nature - like driving a car or tying your shoe.

A recent study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Galea et al., 2009) demonstrated that using transcranial magnetic stimulation to inhibit the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex led to increased consolidation of procedural skills.  Put more simply, what this may mean is this: by temporarily shutting down a region of the brain important for higher order cognitive function directly after performing a motor memory type task, you will see an increase in the retention of that motor memory.  The group that published the paper suggests this effect may be caused by disrupting dorsolateral prefrontal cortical functioning, which eliminates or reduces it as a resource competitor in the brain, "leaving more resources to be recruited by the procedural memory system".  By what mechanism this works isn't exactly clear, as other lines of evidence dealing with the prefrontal cortex function suggest inhibiting the prefrontal cortex could be releasing an inhibitory control that derives from that area (called disinhibition).  Regardless, the main findings still stand and make sense in light of the consolidation competition hypothesis, which suggests that memory systems interact on a competitive level with each other, especially when it comes to the consolidation stage.

So, to start getting your brain on awesome, here's what you may want to do: pull out the old guitar that's sitting in its case collecting dust, hook up some excitatory brain stimulation over your motor cortices (there is evidence this is beneficial - I'll write about those later), and practice until your fingers can't take it anymore.  Then, immediately after, apply inhibitory brain stimulation over your prefrontal cortices for a little while.  With this approach, you may be maximizing plasticity in the motor regions of the brain during skill acquisition and minimizing interference from declarative memory systems during memory consolidation.

Consider your brain juiced!  You'll be shredding like Yngwie Malmsteen in no time... but you're on your own when it comes to finding the cool outfits and necessary jewelry.