• Body Scan Meditation

    Over the past few months I’ve given four talks at Thrive Approach conferences all over the UK: Barnsley, Pontypridd, Brighton and Norwich. Thrive is an amazing organisation that provides training and support for teachers and carers that work with troubled children; helping them with their emotional and social development needs.

    As part of my talk I have a section on the neuroscience of mindfulness and later in the day I’ve been running a couple of mindfulness workshops. I promised I’d make the Body Scan script I’ve been working with available in this month’s blog, so here it is…

    Kids can meditate too

    It looks like a poem, but it isn’t. I structured it like that to help me get the appropriate pacing; to remind me where to pause before moving on. If the script is delivered at a reasonably slow pace, it should last about 20 minutes. Too long for many children, but just right for busy adults. It can always be shortened to suit kids of different ages by concentrating on specific body parts and skipping the others.

    If some of the words are not the kind of language you’d normally use in your part of the world, please feel free to change it to make it sound more natural. But do try to keep the verb structure. Words like: “moving,” “shifting,” “accepting” – invite the listener to focus on different parts of their body rather than instructing or commanding them to do so. It can sound a bit wishy washy, but it’s important that people don’t feel like they’re being bossed around. Using non-confrontational language like this helps to avoid getting people’s heckles up.

    Body Scan in action in Brighton

    So, here’s the body scan meditation I’ve been working with:

    “This body scan meditation is designed,

    To bring greater awareness to body and to mind.

    We’ll be doing this in a state of physical motionless,

    So try to arrange a time and a place,

    In which you’ll be comfortable,

    And you won’t be disturbed

    Dressing in loose and comfortable clothing

    Which won’t restrict your waist or your breathing

    This meditation is usually done while lying on your back

    But can be done in any position that is comfortable for you

    It can be done on a rug, a mat, or towel laid out on the floor,

    Or even in a comfortable chair or lying on a bed.

    If you are lying on your back

    Position your arms so that they are lying alongside you

    Palms up towards the ceiling, so long as that is comfortable for you.

    Place both heels on the floor,

    And allow your feet to fall away from one other.

    And as you’re lying there…

    Allow yourself to notice whatever pops up into your awareness,

    Simply accepting whatever is happening in your body and your mind,

    Experiencing it with clarity,

    And as it is in the moment.

    Noticing where your body makes contact with the floor, the chair or the
    bed,

    You may feel sensations of touch or pressure

    On your heels…

    Your calves…

    Your legs…

    Your bum…

    Your upper back…

    Your arms…

    And as you’re becoming aware of these sensations,

    Bring your awareness to the fact that you’re breathing [extended pause]

    Noticing the physical sensations of breath,

    Just noticing the rhythm of your breath.

    As it moves your belly,

    Slight movements of your chest.

    You may become aware of how the air enters your nostrils,

                And through your windpipe and into
    your lungs

    Allowing that natural movement of your breath to continue,

    Without really having to do anything about it at all.

    There’s a tendency to
    want to control the breathing when we bring attention to it

    Just noticing how it
    is, is just fine…

    Whether it’s short and
    fast…

     Or long and deep…

    Just allowing it to
    move at its own rhythm……….

    And when you’re ready,
    on your next in-breath,

    Allowing the breath
    that comes in to fill up your lungs, move your tummy up

    Imagine that your
    entire body is hollow

    …and accepts the air
    as it comes in through the lungs

    accepts the air as it
    comes in through the nostrils

    … in through the
    lungs…

    … imagining that it
    goes all the way in, down into the belly, into the legs

    … all the way down
    into the toes

    You may notice
    tingling, or warmth, or coolness, or pulsing…

    … or you may not be particularly
    aware of anything at all

    If that’s the case,
    just be aware that that’s where your attention is…

    And as you breath out,
    allowing your awareness to move from your toes

    … to the balls of your
    feet

    Allowing your
    awareness of the balls of your feet to dissolve…

    … as you move your
    awareness to the whole sole of your foot

    … all the way down to
    your heel

    Spread your awareness
    across the whole triangular part of your foot…

    … the areas that make
    contact  with the ground when you walk

     And noticing where your heel is touching the
    floor…

    … and the floor is
    touching the heel, right now

    And whatever you might
    be noticing,

    Is just what you
    happen to be noticing right now.

    There’s no right or
    wrong feeling or sensation to have.

    And allowing your
    awareness to move to the ankles.

    All the way from the
    surface of the skin to the inner parts.

    The bones and tendons
    inside that support your body when you walk.

    And on your next
    out-breath, moving your awareness to the calves of your legs

    … including the part that
    is making contact with the floor

    … and the muscles and
    tendons that run alongside the shin bone

    And when you’re ready,
    moving your awareness to your knees,

    … including the back
    of the knee

    … the kneecap itself

    … the joint inside

    …. the skin around the
    whole circumference

    And moving from your
    knees to your thighs

    … the quads on the
    top, to the hams on the bottom

    … bringing your
    awareness to the whole circumference of your thighs

    The muscles and
    tendons right down to the bone…

    … seeing what it’s
    like to have your awareness on this part

    You may feel
    heaviness, or your pulse, or tingling, or pressure…

    … whatever comes to
    awareness is right, there is no wrong…

    And as you’re ready to
    do this, bringing your awareness higher to the hip

    … the pelvic area

    … buttocks where they
    touch the floor

    And moving your
    awareness from the pelvic area to the lower back

    … right the way round
    to your abdomen, all the way round the circumference

    … & being aware of
    how your movement of breath affects this part of your body

    On each in-breath your
    tummy expands a little

    On the out-breath it
    flattens somewhat

    And seeing if it’s
    possible to maintain awareness of your breathing through a whole cycle

    And how it’s
    physically moving with your abdomen

    All the way through
    the in-breath, to the pause between in- and out-breath

    As you’re ready to go
    in the other direction – through the out-breath

    Noticing how the
    expansion and contraction affects the sensations on your skin…

    … from your clothes,
    or pressure from the floor…

    Moving your awareness
    higher up your body..

    …to the area of the
    diaphragm, deep inside the base of the ribcage

    Including the areas
    both on top and below the diaphram

    …where some of the
    internal organs are

    …and bringing your
    awareness into rib cage … and your middle back

    If, as we’re doing
    this, you’re noticing any holding or tension…

    …in any part of your
    body…

    …just noticing that
    that’s there

    Letting your breath
    move through that part of your body…

    … if your breath is
    affecting it

    Imagining your breath
    going into that part of your body

    Imagining it leaving –
    in it’s own rhythm

     And when you’re ready bringing your attention
    and your awareness

    … inside the cavity of
    your chest

    … your ribcage

    … round to your upper
    back

    … where it touches the
    mat or the floor

    Noticing how the chest
    is expanding and contracting…

    just slightly with
    each breath…….

    Being aware of how the
    entire torso area moves ….

    … very slightly during
    each in-breath and out-breath ….

    … being aware of how
    your shoulders are affected by each breath….

    … including the upper
    parts of your shoulders

    …. the sides of your
    shoulders

    … the upper back

    Moving your awareness
    from the shoulders themselves

    To where they attach
    to your neck

    And sensing into those
    areas of connection

    Starting from a broad
    base at the top of the shoulders…

    … and narrowing to the
    neck itself

    With your next
    in-breath,

    … allowing your
    awareness to move back into your shoulders…

    … through your upper
    arms

    … through elbow to
    your lower arms

    ….. all the way down through
    your hands

    …. to your fingertips

    Imagining your breath
    moving in / out of that area…

    … and shifting your
    attention now to the back of your hands….

    …… and the palms of
    your hands

    …. The base of the
    thumb, where it connects to the hand itself

    …. And shifting your
    awareness to your wrists

    Moving to your lower
    arms …

    …. Extending all the
    way from your wrists to your elbows

    And moving your focus
    from your elbows to your upper arms…

    … and back up into the
    shoulders

    And the base of the
    neck…

    … and moving from the
    base of your neck round to the sides and the throat area

    … and up into the jaw

    … now including the
    sensations you might have in the inside of your mouth

    When you’re ready
    shifting your attention into your tongue

    … shift your attention
    into your gums and your lips

    … and being aware that
    your lips have both an interior and exterior surface

    … and then into the
    cheeks

    To the nose…

    … noticing how the
    cool air comes in through the nostrils

    … and noticing the
    warmer feel of the breath as it passes back out again

    Moving up into the
    eyes…

    … and the muscles
    around the eyes …

    … including the upper
    cheeks and the eyebrows…

    … and the corners of
    your eyes

    And moving to the
    forehead …

    … and the surrounding
    scalp area

    …. From the crown of
    your skull to the ears

    …. And on to the back
    of your head where it makes contact with the floor

    And when you’re ready,
    sensing into the entire body

    From the top of your
    head

    To the bottom of your
    feet

    All at the same time.

    Allowing and noticing
    whatever sensation may appear…

    … as you include all
    of the body

    Head and shoulders…

    Arms, torso…

    Bum and hips…

    Thighs and calves…

    Feet …

    … allowing things to
    be just as they are:

    Beyond the tendencies
    of the mind to want everything to be a certain way…

    Beyond liking and
    disliking…

    Seeing ourselves as
    complete… And whole …

    Right here … Right now
    … Just exactly as we are…

    Noticing and
    experiencing… the fullness of life

    Acknowledging our
    ability to be present… with whatever presents itself

    And as this meditation
    ends… you might want to wiggle your toes and fingers…

    Stretch in whatever
    way feels comfortable to you right now …

    If your eyes have been
    closed, allowing them to let the light in, little by little …

    And as you’re ready,
    re-establishing contact…

    … with the entire
    world outside your body.

    Thus ends the body scan meditation!

    I hope you find this useful.

    I’ve also recorded an audio file of me reading out the script in case people would find it useful. I haven’t quite figured out how to upload it yet but as soon as I do I’ll update this post.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I regularly tweet about any interesting neuroscience research that hits the press (@drjacklewis) and next month I’ll finally be launching my new YouTube channel BRAIN MAN VR!!

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  • Changing Brains

    Zazetsky & Luria

    Way back in 2011, I reviewed Norman Doidge’s incredibly inspiring book The Brain That Changes Itself. It tells remarkable stories of various individuals who – long before the idea of adult human neuroplasticity had become widely accepted – managed to defy the odds to overcome adversity by physically changing their own brains. One man was able to regain full control of his speech, movements and faculties, ultimately returning to his beloved lecturing job just a few years after a catastrophic stroke in his mid-60’s. He regained the ability to move and speak fluidly, having been completely paralysed for many months down one side of his body, thanks to years of intensive, daily (and mind-numbingly boring) rehabilitation exercises dreamed up by his neuroscientist son.

    One woman – Barbara Arrowsmith-Young – managed to overcome several profound, life-long, learning disabilities; also using brain training approaches of her own design. She was inspired to give it a go by the work of trailblazing Soviet neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria (on right of photo) investigating brain injured war veterans (on left of photo). These seemingly miraculous achievements enabled patients to use the brain’s tremendous potential for change, even during adulthood, to defy the advice of medical experts of the day and take control of their own fates. In defense of the experts of the time, what these people had managed to do was unprecedented. Regaining lost cognitive capacities, or further developing those that had never flourished in the first place, had simply never been documented at that point in time, so it had been presumed impossible.

    Arrowsmith-Young has written her own account of her adventures in neuroplasticity

    Each and every time the key ingredients to success in the brain re-training stakes was always: tireless adhesion to gruelingly intensive, daily, long-term training regimes for the brain trainee themselves. The impulse to take a leap of faith to try something that, while seemingly logical, was both completely unproven and deemed by most experts to be a fool’s errand. These interventions yielded benefits either by retraining intact brain areas to take over the function of permanently damaged parts, or by improving the processing capacity of certain chronically under-served brain areas. In the case of the young woman who fixed her own learning disabilities, her difficulties with reading clock faces inspired her to developed clocks with hands not just for the hours, minutes and seconds, but also for the days, weeks, months, years, decades and so on.

    It is now a broadly-accepted fact people can change their brains for the better. Not everything that is touted as brain training actually works of course. Certainly the Mozart Effect is a load of old nonsense. The Tellytubbies project didn’t exactly go to plan. And the manufacturers of brain training apps are apt to vastly overstate the benefits of their rather drab games. Yet is an inviolable truth that, through sheer grit and determination, many people have now overcome incredible neurological adversity, which means that for those with brains that are functioning pretty well in the first place some desirable brain changes must surely also be achievable.

    The Mozart Effect – a load of old nonsense

    Indeed, as described in my first book – Sort Your Brain Out – when aspiring cabbies want to drive one of London’s famous Hackney Carriages (a.k.a. a black cab) they memorise all the major routes and landmarks within a 6 mile radius of central London to pass an exam known as: The Knowledge. In so doing, they increase the density of synapses packed into the rear-most parts of their hippocampi: brain areas critical to their ability to successfully navigate the complexities of London’s sprawling road network, without having to look at map ever again! The original brain imaging studies demonstrating that hippocampal grey matter actually physically changes when comparing drivers’ brains before versus after The Knowledge were published back in 2011.

    Sort Your Brain Out

    These findings were subsequently replicated and extended further by comparing taxi drivers brains to bus drivers brains; re-scanning taxi drivers after retirement etc. Eventually these follow up studies convinced even the most hardened skeptics that neuroplasticity in adults might genuinely be the real deal. Broader acceptance of the idea that adult humans aren’t stuck with whatever brains they end up with by the end of adolescence is empowering. That it is within everyone’s power to affect physical changes to the fabric of their own brain, can genuinely inspire people to take the necessary steps to elevate themselves. But, along the way the simplicity of this message has become corrupted by a combination of those wishing to profit from it, and those pushing back against the hyperbole.

    Juggling changes your brain

    The optimism that greeted these early studies was somewhat dampened when the results of studies into other areas of skill acquisition turned out to be much more underwhelming. For example, juggling induces surprisingly fast (but later, it transpires, relatively short-lived) changes in brain areas involved in processing movements of visual objects in space. So while quick brain changes were possible in the first week, beyond that juggling didn’t really seem to confer any benefits. Add into the mix the emergence of various brain training products trying to exploit the newfangled idea that certain games might improve specific cognitive capacities to a degree that delivers benefits in real life, but not a shred of data to prove this, and the baby of neuroplasticity was on the verge of being thrown out with the dirty brain training bathwater.

    Let’s not throw the neuroplasticity baby out with the bathwater

    A large scale study conducted jointly between a couple of high profile Oxbridge scientists failed to show any meaningful benefits from the brain training games and training regime they devised. That is what happened in that widely broadcast news story. But as SCIENTISTS FAIL TO SHOW MUCH is a pretty lousy headline the BBC went instead for: BRAIN TRAINING GAMES DON’T MAKE US SMARTER. I’ve ranted elsewhere about this so I won’t take up any more precious column inches here by repeating myself, save to point out that in the eyes of the general British public the adult neuroplasticity movement was another case of emperor’s new clothes. To redress this cruel imbalance – I offer a few pearls from the the neuroplasticity literature with a view to convincing you that despite the various cases of snake oilsmanship out there – brain’s really CAN physically change in a way that propels you positively forward in life, if only you can adopt the appropriate lifestyle.

    I am of the opinion that, despite the various setbacks, it is still worth keeping an eye on the research hitting the science press that investigates adult human neuroplasticity. It has such huge potential in terms of motivating people to adopt a more positive lifestyle that I find myself determined to wait for a clearer picture to emerge on this potentially revolutionary insight into the nature of the human brain. So this month’s blog is an update on some of the recent published research investigating the potential for neuroplastic change in the adult human brain.

    Keyboard musicians change their brains

    Musical people were among the first to come under the scrutiny of scientists looking for the tell-tale signs of neuroplastic change in the brains of professional versus amateur musicians (e.g. Gaser and Schlaug, 2003). Since then the timing of the grey matter changes in musicians brains have been captured by Groussard et al (2014). They demonstrated observable changes in the left hippocampus and right superior/middle frontal regions after just a few years, but only after more extensive musical training were further structural changes observed in the right insula, supplementary motor area and left superior temporal cortex. Another recent study demonstrated that pro keyboard players brains exhibit clear differences in the volume of gray matter in brain areas dedicated to:

    1) precision control over movements (operating the keyboard, striking correct keys with appropriate timing, rhythm, tempo, expression etc)

    2) sound-processing brain areas (enabling efficient conversion of vibrations into the tones, timbres and musical textures we hear in elaborate music)

    3) brain regions that monitor where everything is terms of time and space.

    Drummers change their brains

    In 2017, Amad and colleagues published a paper demonstrating that: not only did the skill level of the participants improve considerably over the course of eight weeks-worth of half-hourly drumming sessions three times per week, but that their brain’s functional connectivity changed significantly too. Specifically, the resting state functional connectivity between a brain area known to be very important in musical perception – the posterior part of the superior temporal gyrus – and ALL other brain areas (i.e. every other voxel) increased by a significant margin.

    Sanskrit scholars change their brains

    In an interesting tangent in the neuroplasticity research a paper published in 2016 by James Hartzell and colleagues essentially applied the basic logic of the taxi driver study – committing a large amount of information in memory is likely to result in significant brain changes – to a different information domain. Rather than scanning the brains of people who had been engaging in memorising an important body of information for about 2 years, they scanned the brains of people who had been doing it their whole lives. Pandits are Indian scholars who learn 10,000-40,000 word long Sanskrit texts so that they can recite it from memory. They are not just “word perfect” but each word is pronounced absolutely perfectly as well.

    While it was not possible to scan them before and after they underwent all those brain changes, and so it is impossible to know for sure whether the various differences in brain structure occurred over the course of training, or whether they were there all along (i.e. they were accepted into Pandit training due to pre-existing aptitude for verbal memorisation), it is still interesting to note the various huge differences observed in the Pandits versus the age-matched, control subject brains. Firstly, they had significantly larger grey matter volumes in the lateral temporal lobes, on both the left and rights sides, both hippocampi were larger than usual and they found enlargements of the tissue across the entire anterior cingulate cortex. That their brains seemed to have undergone such significant changes is perhaps no surprise given how intensive Pandit training is.

    Action video gamers seem to end up with better connected, more cognitively flexible brains

    Ever since significant differences in cognitive flexibility were found between those who have intensively played action video games compared to a control group who have not (Colzato et al, 2010), the race has been on to find evidence of adult neuroplasticity that might account for these improvements. In 2017, Gong et al published a brain imaging paper where they compared the white matter of hardcore gamers to non-gamers. They found significantly strengthened structural connections between prefrontal, limbic and visual regions known to be involved in cognitive control (e.g. task-switching tasks) and sensorimotor (hand-eye coordination) skills. Another 2017 paper, this time by Schenk and colleagues, showed that the performance of regular video gamers in a “weather prediction” game (a probabilistic learning task) was superior to non-video gamers and this was related to stronger activation of various brain areas involved in semantic memory (hippocampus), visual imagery (precuneus) and cognitive control.

    It is still relatively early days when it comes to realising the full potential (and fundamental limitations) of human neuroplasticity. But what seems abundantly clear is that what was once a trickle of relevant papers is turning into something of a stream and as we head into the 2020’s I have no doubt that it will turn into a torrent. That torrent will hopefully be instrumental in helping to propagate the message that, no matter how old we are, there are always things we can do to change the very fabric of our brain in a meaningful fashion that actually improves cognition.

    In addition to these monthly blogs I also tweet about interesting neuroscience articles I come across on a regular basis (@drjacklewis). And in spring 2019 I will be launching a new YouTube channel called Virtual Vive Sanity. In each episode I explore a new Virtual Reality realm and share some neuroscientific pearls of wisdom to help everyone optimise their experiences. I feel very strongly that VR has huge potential, not just to provide excellent entertainment, but to accelerate various types of therapy, improve cognitive skills, fitness and well being. This channel aims to introduce newcomers to the basics and to open experienced VR users eyes to its transformational potential, while learning from our encounters with the dark potential of other new technologies to maximise the benefits while reducing the risks. Watch this space…

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  • Brain Benefits of Mindfulness – PART 1

    Hippie-MeditationI used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.

    A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”

    WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?

    Cluttered MindMindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.

    These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.

    GETTING STARTED

    Mindful-Happiness_Breath-Meditation-Practices-BreathingPaintingThere are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.

    FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND

    When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.

    FocusIt sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.

    To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.

    If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.

    I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis

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  • Brain Benefits of Mindfulness – PART 2

    In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.

     

    NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?

    Attention

    Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.

    MRI_anterior_cingulate

    Emotional Regulation

    Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings /  the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.

    amygdala_mindfulness

    Self-Awareness

    The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”

    GhostbustersMarshmallowmanIn the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).

    A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.

    DMN in meditationThe medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.

    So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).

    Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.

    slider-eating-mindfully-bookDuring my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.

    My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).

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  • Sort Your Brain Out – new book by Dr Jack Lewis and Adrian Webster

    Webster_Sort_Your_Brain_Out_3D_FINALFiguring out what I should write about in my blog this month really was a no brainer. It’s not every month that I have a new book about to hit the shelves (Friday 28th March 2014). So from April onwards, if you happen to be passing a WHSmith’s then please do consider popping in. You should find Sort Your Brain Out prominently displayed in the Non-Fiction and Business charts. If you can’t find it then please drop me a line!

    Although we have specifically targeted the business market in the first instance, primarily due to their familiarity with my co-author’s previous work, this truly is a book for everyone. We hope that business professionals will decide that other members of their family would also benefit from reading it and pass it on; whether the recipients are their children – to help them get the most out of their brains to achieve more in their education, or their own parents – to help them get the most out of their brain during the post-retirement years. In fact, the book has been carefully put together to ensure that readers of all ages will be able to get something out of it. Happily we’ve already had some feedback that suggests we have been successful in achieving this goal. If you fancy flicking through a few select pages, or perhaps even pre-order a copy with a 30% discount, then please click here to see it on Amazon.

    We are encouraging people to tweet photos of Sort Your Brain Out when they find it in the wild with the hashtag #SortYourBrainOut or #SYBO for short – we’ve been made aware of sightings all over the UK and the world – from Jamaica to Hong Kong and Cornwall to Edinburgh.

    This is my first foray into the world of publishing. Strictly speaking it’s the second book I’ve ever written, if you count my Ph.D. thesis. However I doubt whether more than a handful of people have ever pulled it out of the vaults of the University of London library in Senate House. For most readers it would be pretty incomprehensible anyway what with being laden with complex scientific terminology. The whole point of Sort Your Brain Out is to make the latest neuroscience accessible for everyone, not just the science enthusiasts. So with this in mind, for my first published book, it only seemed appropriate to co-author it with someone who has extensive experience in writing books that everyone can get something out of. And a few years back, thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, I met the perfect collaborator.

    polarbearpiratesAdrian Webster and I both contributed as motivational speakers at a conference in Tenerife in 2011,  presenting me with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a truly exceptional individual. An internationally best-selling author, his first book Polar Bear Pirates was a massive hit. It is very unusual to see a business book packed full of cartoon characters, yet this unorthodox approach may well be precisely what made it resonate with such a broad audience. We’ve tried to reproduce this effect with a handful of illustrations commissioned for Sort Your Brain Out. For a sneak preview: click here.

    Over more than a decade Adrian has been one of Europe’s most popular and influential motivational speakers. His uncanny ability to spin a yarn in an entertaining yet impactful way, leaving audiences not just spellbound by his performances but also much wiser about how to get the best out of themselves at work is unparalleled. He distils many years of experience in the workplace into witty/moving anecdotes and wise observations about how best to motivate ourselves and those around us. Here’s a quick taste of his speaking style brilliantly animated by some young and very talented animators.

    Running MachineOur book Sort Your Brain Out aims to make what modern neuroscience has discovered about the strengths and weaknesses of human brain function accessible to the broadest possible market. We wanted to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of your brain, whoever the reader happens to be. After all, every one of us has a brain, but it doesn’t come with a user guide. So we thought we’d pen a book that illuminates what’s going on within our skulls and what brains need to function optimally. The Sunday Express kindly published an article we wrote to support the launch of the book and the following Monday we got a mention in the Daily Express. We also penned a short article on how to stoke the fires of creativity which you can also read online.

    We asked a few kind souls to read the final version before it went to print and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback. Below you’ll find just a small selection of the endorsements we received:

    This truly inspiring and fascinating book leaves you never wanting to waste a single second ever again. Everything you need to know about how your brain works and how to maximize it is contained in an easy-to-read way. The book proves you really can do anything and there are lots of simple ways to help ensure you too can make the most of your biggest asset – your brain! Without doubt, a book you cannot be without!”

    Dame Sarah Storey, DBE

     

    For all the debate about governments nudging people to make better decisions or to adopt better behaviours, it is easy to overlook the fact that we can actually nudge ourselves. This book is a wonderful guide to how to do just that.”

    Rory Sutherland

    Executive Creative Director and

    Vice Chairman, OgilvyOne London

     

    I thought it was accessible, thought-provoking and full of useful, easy-to-follow tips about improving your everyday life through a better understanding of the brain.”


    Killian Fox

    Writer for The Observer and other publications

     

    This book explores the kind of topics we all think and talk about: Is the internet making us stupid? What do alcohol and caffeine really do to our brains? It provides you with kind of fascinating nuggets of information you end up reading out to whoever you happen to be with, as well as practical tips on how to maximise what we all have between our ears. Forget brainstorming, it’s all about brainshaking and dunking now. Neuroscience demystified and simplified without being patronising; a must-read.”

    Olivia Walmsley

    Mail Online

     

    A really great book that explains in layman’s terms how the brain works and how you can then translate that knowledge to enhance your own performance. Thought-provoking and insightful, it will add considerable value to anyone still willing to learn, irrespective of which rung of the success ladder they are on. It’s an enjoyable and extremely useful read.”


    Mark Hussain

    HSBC

     

    Sort Your Brain Out is a must-read for everyone. It is a clever and thoughtful book designed to help the lay reader understand more about the brain’s most intimate workings but most importantly it provides erudite yet easily consumed bite-sized gobbets of information on how to improve one’s lobar lot. The fascinating examples are eminently readable and marvellously memorable; the reading of this book will stretch the brain in exactly the way the authors have devised. This is mental stimulation at its best.”


    Chantal Rickards

    Head of Programming and Branded Content

    MEC

     

    As someone who has spent their life reviewing neuroscience material, I was struck by how the overview on offer contextualises some aspects of brain function in a novel and refreshing way. In short, this is a delightful and illuminating read – it is the book that I would (will) give my family, when they ask searching questions about neuroscience – and what it means for them.”

    Professor Karl Friston FRS

    Scientific Director

    Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging

    University College London

     

    Sort Your Brain Out is has clarity of purpose and many features that puts it ahead of its competitors in an expanding area of interest. Making the best use of the amazing brains we all inherit, even though they are destined to operate in a world far removed from the environment that shaped their evolution, is crucial. There probably is no more important a task for us as individuals or for the groups we live and work in than this. Help and the chance to expand our insight is at hand.”

    Ian Edwards

    Head of Strategy

    Advertising Planning firm Vizeum

     

    Engaging, accessible, demystifying.”

    Dr Daniel Glaser

    Director

    Science Gallery London

     

    If you do decide to purchase a copy we’d be really grateful if you’d find time to review it on Amazon.

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  • Man the Manipulator by Dr Jack Lewis

    We humans have far more control over our environment than any other species on planet Earth. We have developed an innate propensity for making and using tools to such a degree that we can now fundamentally change – through architectural, engineering and scientific innovation – the very environments in which we exist and with which we interact every day.

    In modifying places in which we spend thousands of hours: our homes, schools, places of work and leisure – we exert more power than any other species in shaping our own brains.

    Iterative cycles of human brains adapting to environments and environments being adapted by human brains have enabled our species to thrive in a wider variety of ecological niches than any other mammal across the length and breadth of the entire globe. Of vital importance to our adaptability is the emergence of cognitive faculties enabling us to circumvent the painstakingly slow processes involved in evolutionary change that drive behavioural adaptations in most other multicellular species.

    Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, for example, had to wait for many generations to evolve a useful adaptation that conferred a survival advantage over their competitors. This is because the vast majority of genetic mutations do not yield any useful, adaptive characteristics. For genetic mutation(s) to result in, say, a beak of appropriate dimensions to access an otherwise inaccessible food source, a great many decades of annual mating must pass before this random process eventually hits the jackpot.

    Humans confronted with a similar scenario would likely invent a tool to access the food in question. Offspring, or anyone else for that matter, could then mimic the movements necessary to successfully make and manipulate the tool. This is all thanks to “mirror” neurons, which provide us with our natural ability to convert observed movements into movements that we perform ourselves (In his TED talk VS Ramachandran describes the importance of mirror neurons quite beautifully). Behavioural adaptation through tool use is thus not, unlike genetic adaptation, limited to being spread down through subsequent generations.

    Humans are not the only creature to use tools. New Caledonian crows are top of the pecking order when it comes to birds intelligent enough to use tools. They use a variety of different tools and in the appropriate sequential order, to obtain a food reward that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each bird is clever enough to figure this out for themselves, or at least to learn from others, but their capacity to propagate this information beyond their immediate habitat is prohibited by a lack of sufficiently sophisticated communication tools.

    Chimpanzees strip the leaves off of long straight sticks to use the resulting tool as a means to “fish” for termites in a termite mound. However, as E. O. Wilson famously pointed out: non-human primates do not have the necessary intelligence to prepare a neat stack of fishing sticks the night before. Non-human species only make and use tools as and when they are needed. In more recent times exceptions to this rule have been observed.

    It was long thought that we humans were the only species with sufficient foresight to predict the need for certain tools in the future and to prepare them in advance. However a chimpanzee residing in a Scandinavian zoo turned this assumption on its head by building a stack of stones in the morning to hurl at visitors later on once the zoo had opened to the public!

    That said, we still enjoy the unique status of being the only species able to share knowledge of making and using tools through verbal or written communication. This has propagated knowledge of all sorts of tools way beyond our own communities, to other members of our species across the entire globe – eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel and build upon the creativity of others.

    Arguably the kings of tool use (homo sapiens exluded) are surely the bonobos. The below footage shows our closest primate cousin making tools out of stone, just as our caveman ancestors did, and using them to perform a variety of scraping, cutting and boring purposes.

    In addition to these monthly brainblogs you can catch my daily #braintweet several times a day by following me on Twitter.

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  • High Sugar Diet Impacts Negatively on Cognition (but Omega 3 Protects) by Dr Jack

    Rats fed high fructose corn syrup supplement navigate a maze significantly slower than others fed normal rat feed: click here for full article. Researchers suspect that the increase in insulin that results from high blood sugars may be to blame. In the body insulin serves to instigate biochemical process by which the sugar is taken out of the blood and put into storage. Yet although insulin can get into the brain, there no room there for excess sugars to be stored and so its role in the brain is not well understood. It is thought that elevated levels of insulin induced by the ingestion of sugary foods somehow interferes with the mechanisms of learning.
    Whatever the cause of this disruption to the brain apparatus for maze navigation – a highly cognitively demanding ability – the study also observed that rats fed flax seed oil, a source of the essential fatty acid: omega 3, were protected from the debilitating effects of a high sugar diet.
    And what does this mean to you? Stop stuffing your face with sweets, fizzy pop, cake and other snack foods high in quick release simple sugars. They cause your blood sugars to roller coaster in the following way:
    1) large quantities of insulin are released (from your pancreas) to bring blood glucose levels back down to safe levels (by putting it into storage – ultimately as fat surrounding organs and under the skin).
    2) Very high levels of insulin will often remove too much glucose from the blood – leading to hypoglycaemia.
    3) Very low blood glucose levels detected in the brain (the hypothalamus, if you’re interested) triggers feelings of hunger and food seeking behaviours, which invariably entice modern man into a hunt for snack foods. These of course usually comprise high sugar foods sending blood sugars rocketing (please go back to stage 1).
    It has been known for some time that the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce and release insulin, get worn out through overuse and that the insulin receptors doing the bidding of this life-saving hormone become increasingly unresponsive after decades of overuse resulting in diabetes, obesity and ultimately heart complications. What is new here is the suggestion that even before all that damage is even done the high levels of circulating insulin might be blunting our cognitive capacities.
    How to avoid the sugar roller coaster?
    Slow release carbohydrates. Eat porridge for breakfast and vegetables, fruit, wholegrain-rich meals for lunch and dinner so that all the carbohydrates aren’t dumped immediately into your blood stream – but instead are gradually released over the course of hours rather than minutes.
    Not only will this help to protect against diet-related diabetes and obesity, but it will stabalise mood AND it seems from this latest research – improve your cognitive abilities to boot.
    In addition to these brainblogs you can follow me on Twitter and if you like the sound of this Brain Optimisation Principle then why not book a Brain Coach Live seminar so I can share the other BOPs I’ve accumulated over 15 years of studying the brain.

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  • Does brain training really work? by Dr Jack Lewis

    BBC study slams brain training – but don’t throw your Nintendo DS away just yet…

    Since Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training (UK) / Brain Age (US) game was launched on the Nintendo DS in 2005 a great buzz has been generated by the enticing prospect of sharpening up our mental faculties. Indeed, claims that it can improve memory, make us smarter, sharpen reaction times and improve general brain power have convinced over 3 million of us in the UK alone to buy this game (including me! – I’m in the process of writing a review on it, so watch this space). Then, in 2007, Lumos Labs launched “Lumosity” – a web-based, subscriber-accessed, brain training program with an ever-expanding range of colourful and engaging brain training games. Just one year later Lumos labs managed to attract $3,000,000 in private investment to further develop their cognitive training offerings. Brain training has become a billion dollar global industry.

    In a previous blog I suggested that there is nothing special about each individual brain training game – I argued that the same benefits would be achieved by picking up a puzzle book containing number games, word puzzles and problem solving tasks on a daily basis:

    http://www.drjack.co.uk/brain-teasers-brain-training/

    However what these commercial offerings do provide is a structured training program, consisting of a wide variety of different games and puzzles, the opportunity to measure and keep track of your progress and the convenience that might encourage you to train for long enough and regularly enough to notice some benefits. The only problem is that in the 5 years since these games were launched there has not been a single shred of independent evidence (to my knowledge) that these games actually benefit brain functions useful in everyday life, rather than just the inevitable performance improvements in the games themselves. We already know that practice makes perfect. There have been reports that brain training works – but these studies were invariably linked to the very companies that had a vested interest in such findings.

    Doubts started to be voiced in early 2009, for instance, Which? magazine assembled a panel of experts who concluded that Brain Training on the DS had no “functional impact on life whatsoever”. By the autumn of 2009 the BBC had clocked that is was high time that the concept of Brain Training was put to the test and set the “biggest brain training experiment ever” in motion – an independent clinical trial the results of which would be published in a suitable peer-reviewed journal. They asked distinguished scientists from the University of Cambridge (Dr Adrian Owen, MRC Cambridge Brain Unit) and King’s College London (Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society) to design a suitable experiment involving 11,000 participants, which ultimately led to the conclusion that “Brain Training Games Don’t Make Us Smarter”:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/results/braintestbritain/1_results_summary.html

    However, lack of proof of a brain training effect is not the same as proving beyond all reasonable doubt that brain training doesn’t work. At the bottom of this piece is a list of 5 reasons why the results of Bang Goes the Theory’s Lab UK study does not necessarily mean that brain training on consoles like the Nintendo DS is ineffective. These are centred around the following facts: they created their own games rather than using commercially-available ones (maybe their games were not as effective?), they required people to train only 3 times per week (maybe it would have worked with a more intense training regime?) and the games involved people sitting at a PC using mouse and keypad to register responses (i.e. they missed out on the technological advances of touch screen and voice recognition in the Nintendo DS). They have certainly demonstrated that the games they created, when played infrequently, across a relatively short period of time, using an outdated user control interface (that slows down the speed at which responses can be made in time-critical games), did not lead to improvements in a separate set of ‘benchmarking’ games that may or may not have been sensitive enough to detect improvements in attention, memory and problem solving skills. However, their failure to detect any improvements whatsoever (in the under 60’s at least) could boil down to any of these factors or more likely a combination of them. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these results are invalid. All I’m saying is that the proverbial jury is out regarding the putative efficacy of brain training – we must wait until more evidence has been gathered before potentially throwing the brain-train-baby out with the bathwater.

    The compromises that they had to make in order to pull off such a large clinical trial are inevitable, but may have hampered their ability to capture any discernible effect. In order to get such large numbers of people to participate they clearly needed to avoid requiring people to give up their time too often and for an unnecessarily protracted period of time; otherwise people would have dropped out of the trial like flies. What led them to create their own games, rather than testing existing ones, may have involved the desire to avoid the potential wrath of powerful multinational companies. Even if they had been brave enough to wish to test the actual games to which the claims were attached the BBC would never have got away with wasting license fee payers money by coughing up the cash to issue each of these volunteers with a Nintendo DS – even if it would mean benefiting from the advances of speed-enhancing touch screen and voice-recognition technologies. Yet until further clinical trials, including some that investigate the potential of brain training in a way that gives it the best possible chance to shine, have confirmed or contradicted the current findings – I myself will not be throwing my DS away just yet.

    If I was Nintendo I would wish to tackle this issue head on. I would ask an independent scientific body to find a suitable group of research scientists who could conduct a fully independent study totally uncorrupted by any conflicts of interest. This group should together combine a thorough understanding of the human brain with specific experience in measuring the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals – perhaps an education specialist, an occupational psychologist and a neuroscientist. They would oversee a further large-scale, independent, clinical trial that implements a more intense training program based on the best brain training game in the Nintendo DS armoury. I would develop a battery of tests that are able to capture improvements in brain function that actually come in useful during everyday life, as opposed to performance improvements in a rather arbitrary batch of computer games.  For instance, if a person’s ability to tot up the cost of a batch of 10 items in a shopping basket improves as a result of intense brain training, they will be better able to spot when a cashier over or under charges them at the till and it would become possible to confidently state that they have benefited from the brain training in a meaningful way. If they are better able to remember a route on a map after training, then they will be less likely to suffer the stress and inconvenience of getting lost. If they are better able to pay attention to and ultimately recall verbal instructions, in an environment containing a cacophony of visual and acoustic distractions, then the benefits from brain training may actually help them in real life. To ensure participants stay with the program to the very end I would incentivise the much more intense training regime with cash rewards e.g. if they successfully completed 1 month of 2×30 minute training sessions per day they would receive a cash bonus, 2 months and they get a double cash bonus plus a further prize and if they complete the full 3 months they would get a quadrupled cash bonus. I would dish out 10,000 Nintendo DS consoles to individuals who would benefit most from the alleged cognitive improvements that are expected to occur – the chronically unemployed perhaps. That way, whether or not any improvements in cognitive function was detected, any improvement in the employment status of these 10,000 compared to a control group of another randomly selected 10,000 (who have also been receiving job seekers allowance for a prolonged period), would give Nintendo a possible second bite of the cherry by demonstrating a generic improvement in motivation levels and the power to benefit society as a whole. In addition to the milestone incentives, if they did look to keep unemployed hands and minds busy, it might also help to improve brain training dedication by dangling a carrot over the “high score leader board” – whereby those that achieve the best scores overall could be given paid work experience in a role that utilises the skills tapped by each specific game. Just think of the headlines: “Intense Brain Training DOES Improve Mental Abilities AND Gets The Chronically Unemployed Back Into Work”

    Get Dr Jack Lewis’s daily #braintweet by following him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrJackLewis

    5 Potential Flaws with the Lab UK Brain Training Study:

    1. At least 3 times per week for 6 weeks
      1. POTENTIAL FLAW: the training regime is very sparse. In other words not surprising that there was no significant improvement because it didn’t tax the participants brains hard enough to benefit memory, planning, problem solving etc.
      2. REASONING: I would expect multiple training sessions EACH AND EVERY DAY to be necessary for significant improvements because the brain is only likely to invest resources in building better lines of communication between brain areas supporting a certain function if it is really needed (i.e. often used)
      3. SOLUTION: a commuter training regime – twice per day (on bus or train) on the way to and from work or school. Perhaps longer sessions at the weekend.
      4. BONUS: using dead time when people would otherwise be staring into space – even if it doesn’t translate into long term improvements such a brain training regime definitely helps to wake up a sleepy brain (it works for me!!)
    1. Brain training transfer to other brain skills like memory, planning or problem solving
      1. POTENTIAL FLAW: improvements in memory, planning or problem solving may have occurred but were not successfully detected
      2. REASONING: the selected tests may not have been sensitive enough to detect subtle improvements that occur with such a sparse training regime.
      3. SOLUTION: use more sensitive tests or increase frequency of training.
    1. Choice of brain training games
      1. POTENTIAL FLAW: brain training games may not have been sufficiently taxing to elicit significant improvements
      2. REASONING: the games were not those used by Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and so the results of this experiment might not be applicable
      3. SOLUTION: perform a study using the actual Nintendo DS game and console.
    1. No improvement in PC-based brain training games compared to just using the internet
      1. POTENTIAL FLAW: this does not capture the ability of the Nintendo DS to do brain training on-the-go, nor voice activated responses, nor faster responses enabled by touch screen technology – scribbling a letter/number or tapping at a certain location.
      2. REASONING: portability of Nintendo naturally lends itself to more intense training regime, writing on touch screen lends itself to faster responses than a keypad or mouse, voice activation allows verbal responses i.e. exercises different brain areas.
      3. SOLUTION: compare brain training games on Nintendo DS to normal games on Nintendo DS in order to take these important issues into account.
    1. Further investigation into effects of brain training in 60+ year olds
      1. POTENTIAL FLAW: Brain training must have shown some promise in the elderly yet it’s reported negatively to fit into “BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK” headline
      2. REASONING: Usually studies inflate even weak results to justify the study. Here they seem to want the negative findings and hence the improvements in the elderly are downplayed until further investigation.
      3. BONUS: Clearly you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!
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