Tuesday, May 25, 2010

How to think smarter.

Post 495 - Since the days of Descartes, the 17th century mathematician, Western science has followed the belief that the mind and the body are separate. Although we now know that emotions and the mind play a critical role in our physical responses, many doctors still practice medicine as if this were not so. And scientists know surprisingly little about how to apply the new knowledge of the neurosciences in real life situations. However, current research is shedding light on a number of areas: the unreliability of memory, our capacity to keep learning as we age, the good that exercise does, and the harm caused by stress. Here are some more details:

- Accurately recorded memory is a very rare thing because the brain isn't interested in reality but is interested in survival instead. So it changes the perception of reality in order to stay in the survival mode. The moment of fixing a memory is so complex that we have little understanding of what exactly happens. We do know that our memory, such as it is, can be very easily modified by traces of earlier memories. So, it appears that our understanding of reality is approximate at best. Memory isn't fixed at the moment of learning, but repetition improves the odds of retrieval.

You can produce more reliable long-term memories by consistency re-exposing yourself to the information, and by a phenomenon known as "elaborative rehearsal." Elaborative rehearsal is relating new material to material that's already familiar so it can be more easily remembered. For example, if you're presented with a list of digits for later recall (4968214), grouping the digits together to form a phone number transforms them from a meaningless string of digits to something that has meaning. You can also improve your chances of remembering something if you can reproduce the environment in which you first put it into your brain. If you learned something when you were sad, you're likely to recall it better if you're also sad when you try to remember it.

- A lot of research findings connect exercise - especially aerobic exercise - with brain health. Since exercise is good for the cardiovascular system, it follows that it keeps the blood vessels in the brain healthy as well. There's a growing body of scientific opinion that a many Alzheimer's cases are vascular rather than genetic in origin. Research shows that people who exercise regularly are 50% less likely to contract the disease compared to those who don't.

- Stress causes the body to produce a set of hormones called glucocortoids (cortisol or hydrocortisone is the most important one in humans). These are good for short-term responses to stress but in the longer-term, they damage the body, including the brain. People suffering from depression, anxiety, panic disorder, malnutrition, and alcohol abuse are often found to have elevated glucocortoid levels in their bloodstream.

Stress hormones seem to congregate in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that's deeply involved in many aspects of human learning. As a result, people who are stressed don't do well at math. They don't process language very efficiently either and they have poorer short- and long-term memories. These are often the skills needed in business so stress causes people to be less efficient at work. Some studies conservatively estimate the financial costs in the U.S. of the lost productivity that results at more than $200 billion a year.

Now you know why 70% of us don't handle conflict or stress effectively. The decisions we make today for ease and lowered stress charge high interest rates. There’s no thirty-year fixed option on the price of reality. It’s a balloon note which always come due when we’re least able to pay.

One way to keep abreast of the many exciting findings emerging in brain research is to subscribe to the Scripps Research Institute newsletter at:


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