Dr Jack Lewis is keen to get people motivated to get the best out of their brains, so has compiled a quick overview of brain training options:
Brain teasers are good for you. Brain teasers include word games, number puzzles, spot the difference, Where’s Wally-type games, attention directing or splitting challenges, general knowledges quizes and so on. Brain training simply involves perfoming various different brain teasers on a regular basis. Your brain constantly adapts to serve you better. The more often you perform a certain mental function the more the brain will do to make changes so that the next time you do it, you can perform it slightly faster, with a greater degree of success and more efficiently.
How do we know that practice increases the connections between different brain areas? Two brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when people practice a skill very hard for prolongued periods of time despite the fact that the changes happen at the ultramicroscopic level of the synapses where two brain cells meet the net effect of billions of these changes occuring over many months is that the grey matter gets larger in the part of the brain responsible for that function. The part of the brain that controls hand movements is significantly larger in professional string and keyboard musicians than non-musicians because of all the training they have done over the years to manipulate their instruments with split second precision. Another brain region, the hippocampus, creates and recalls memories particularly for geographical locations and is significantly larger in the brains of London Cabbies – who navigate around their city based on a sound KNOWLEDGE of every landmark, road and bridge – than in the brains of bus drivers – who simply drive the same route over and over again.
The synapses connecting various different groups of brain cells together that are responsible for perfoming a certain task, say a crossword for instance, are strengthened each time to try to solve the puzzle in order that they can function slightly more efficiently next time round. If you do the crossword every day, then the net effect of many slight overnight adjustments to the brain areas involved in searching your memory for suitable words that have a certain meaning, a certain number of letters and specific letters in at certain positions within the word, become noticably better after just a few days. The same goes for number puzzles. Or games that involve prolonged concentration. Or the ability to recall trivia when it becomes relevant to conversation.
We all know that practice makes perfect and the strengthening of connections between the relevant brain areas to enable more efficient communication between them is the reason why. Of course getting good at doing crosswords is not particularly useful in its own right, but the point is that once you become good at recalling suitable words for the sake of the crossword, you will also find it easier and quicker to bring the appropriate word to mind during conversation or when creating written documents – and that can be extremely useful.
There are numerous websites that have compiled a large variety of different puzzles (http://www.brainbashers.com/puzzles.asp) and various others where you can try out electronic versions of classic physical puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi (http://www.mazeworks.com/hanoi/index.htm). However these all pale into comparison next to custom-designed brain training games such as those available at Lumosity (www.lumosity.com), which have not only the advantage of a much more aesthetically-pleasing look and feel of games that are genuinely fun and engaging to play, but also as you have to log in to play (they offer a free 30 day trial) you can keep track of how your performances improve over time.
Nintendo DS were the first console manufacturer to produce and market games with the aim of improving brain function which all started with the release of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training in 2005. This predominantly involes some quite predictable tasks like the Sudoku number puzzles, simple rapid-fire arithmetic, but also some unexpected treats like the Stroop Test (naming the colour of the font ignoring the meaning of the word which can be tricky when the word RED is written in blue font!) which take advantage of some pretty nifty voice processing software. I must admit I found myself thinking “can I really speak to this machine?”
The effect of the advertising campaign that accompanied the release of this game was quite profound as it not only encouraged everyday consumers to purchase Nintendo’s products, but more importantly sent out the message that the brain is something that you can do something pro-active to improve; a concept that has been long-accepted to be the case in children but the mantra “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” meant that this was rarely considered to be applicable in adults. Such a message is particularly enticing for people entering into old age, for whom the prospect of holding onto their marbles for as long as possible is extremely desirable and thus motivating. In this regard the key thing to remember is that, as far as the brain is concerned, it’s a simple matter of use it or lose it. Exercising brain areas involved in problem-solving by tackling word games, logical reasoning problems, memory challenges and number puzzles keeps such mental faculties in tip-top condition. If you don’t continue to use these mental abilities then they will fall into disrepair because the brain receives no indication that connections between appropriate areas should be maintained and reinforced. The upshot: it is never too late to improve your mental fitness. By emulating the lifestyles of individuals enjoying a healthy brain in their 80s and 90s, who have regular social interaction, cards games, read extensively, stay physically active and challenge themselves daily with various puzzles and quizes, the odds of being afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease are reduced by 25%.
Dr Jack Lewis believes that it is important to realise that the brain needs a constant supply of blood to remain healthy and is capable of recovering from even serious brain injuries given sheer determination and absolute dedication to training undamaged regions to take over:
The brain is a very delicate piece of equipment, yet head impacts resulting from trips and slips, or sports like rugby or boxing, only rarely result in brain damage. This is all thanks to the clever design of the skull’s inner surface and the three-layered sack that envelopes and protects the brain – the meninges. The meninges act as a shock absorber, cushioning the brain against blows and holding the brain tissue firmly together (similar to the way a weightlifter’s belt prevents hernias by holding the gut in place during the lifting of heavy weights which exerts large and potentially harmful forces across the abdomen). Special grooves inside the skull spread the brain’s impact evenly against its inner surface – in order to help minimise the damage that would occur if all the force was focused upon one small area. Although these design features help to protect the brain from the potential damage of most blows to the head, if blood flow to any area of the brain is interrupted for more than just a few seconds, then brain damage quickly follows.
The brain is extremely energy demanding, using 20% of the blood that leaves the heart at rest, and a whopping 50% during intense mental exertion. The requirement of a constant supply of freshly oxygenated blood to keep the highly energy demanding cells of the brain alive and firing on all cylinders means that blockages within the brain’s blood vessels (ischaemic stroke) or rips in the blood vessel that leak into the surrounding tissue (haemorrhagic stroke) can quickly lead to catastrophe.
Different brain areas are responsible for different mental functions – a division of labour across different regions – and so the disabilities suffered by stroke and haemorrhage victims vary widely according to which brain areas are cut off from that vital supply of fresh blood. For instance, damage the left motor cortex – a strip of brain containing different parts that each control head, arm, body and leg muscles, respectively – and the right side of the body becomes paralysed. You are unable to talk properly, slurring your words and drooling out of the side of your mouth, due to loss of control over the muscles in one side of your face and mouth. The muscles of your right leg are locked in a state of permanent contraction, so you cannot walk and must be pushed around in a wheelchair. Similarly the muscles in your right arm have also gone into spasm so it curls up uselessly and often painfully against your chest. Mentally you are the same old you, but the slurred speech, inability to move around under your own volition etc creates a different impression. When friends and family visit they speak to your partner or carer not to you – judging a book by its cover.
An incredibly inspirational man, whom I met whilst on a summer holiday on the south coast of England, suffered exactly this injury when the jack holding up a car he was working beneath collapsed, crushing the left side of his skull like an egg. Yet he refused to believe the numerous medical physicians who, in his words – “threw him on the rubbish heap” – by saying that he would never walk again and that there was no realistic hope of recovery. Undaunted by this hopeless prognosis, he researched extensively on the internet and found reams of rehabilitation exercises that enabled him, painstakingly, muscle-by-muscle, through hours and hours of dedicated practice, to retrain intact parts of his brain to take over the functions of the damaged areas. He even learned to play the 12-string sitar in the process and I distinctly remembering marvelling at the fact that, had he not told me his story, I would never have guessed as his recovery was so advanced, that he seemed completely normal to the outside world. He achieved this miraculous recovery, regaining the ability to function normally and completely independently, through sheer grit and determination. When he discovered that I was neuroscientist, he told me his story saying that, one day, he hoped I would be in a position to pass his story on to a wider audience so that others could benefit from his experience.
His example demonstrates that dedication to brain training can fix damaged brains – just think what you can do with a healthy one…
“Body Language Secrets” aka “How To Get What You Want” co-presented by Dr Jack Lewis, Mondays, 8pm, Sky One
BODY LANGUAGE SECRETS – the new name for How To Get What You Want – is a brand new series that airs at 8pm on Mondays (Sky One) and Saturdays (Sky Two), consisting of 8 x 1 hour episodes that unveil the mysteries of human behaviour.
- Episode 1: Attraction – first aired at 9pm on Sky One, Mon 15th February 2010
- Episode 2: Power – first aired at 9pm on Sky One, Mon 22nd February 2010
- Episode 3: Winning – first aired at 9pm on Sky One, Mon 1st March 2010
- Episode 4: Lying – first aired at 8pm on Sky One, Mon 8th March 2010
- Episode 5: Humour – first aired at 8pm on Sky One, Mon 15th March 2010
- Episode 6: Love – first aired at 8pm, Sky One, Mon 22nd March 2010
- Episode 7: Selling – first aired at 8pm on Sky One, Mon 29th March 2010
- Episode 8: Money – first aired at 8pm on Sky One, Mon 5th April 2010
- [All episodes were also repeated on Sky 2 and 3 throughout 2010, am, noon and pm]
This exciting new series was commissioned by Stuart Murphy, the controller of Sky One, as part of his drive to revamp the channel by creating fresh, sharp and sexy original programming that will entertain and inform in equal measure.
The three presenters bring together their complementary areas of expertise regarding how our brains produce our emotions, drives and perceptions (Dr Jack Lewis – neuroscientist), why our minds cause us to behave the way we do (Anjula Mutanda – psychologist) and how our facial expressions, posture and gestures can betray what we are really thinking (Dr Peter Collet – body language expert).