Archive for August, 2011

A new study reveals some surprising insights about the relationship between physical exercise and brain health in old age.


Researchers found that light exercise had the same effect on brain health as no exercise at all. They recommend engaging in “moderate to intense” exercise on a regular basis.

Of the elderly individuals who participated in the study, about one-fifth reported regularly engaging in moderate or intense exercise, “such as hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball.” Those individuals showed a 40% lower risk of developing a host of brain problems later in life. It seems reasonable to reach a more broad conclusion from this research, which is that in general, intense exercise promotes better brain health than light exercise.

It seems that they saying, “no pain, no gain,” applies well to the brain.



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The Myth
Making big decisions certainly isn’t easy, especially when they have to do with personal preferences and well-being (rather than finances or physics). Sometimes, the most tempting option is to just try and make them more rational; after all, that seems to work for scientists and engineers, right? We feel the need to systematize our choices, running options through cost-benefit analyses and scrutinizing them according to objective criteria. We think this guarantees better decisions and happier outcomes.

The Reality

But what if we’re wrong? Often, the best choices arrive not through superior logic, but more refined intuition. It’s a surprising finding of recent brain research–our inner minds know a lot more than we credit them for.

Psychologist Timothy Wilson got his inspiration from an odd place–the jam aisle at the grocery store. In his research, he asked people to rank strawberry jams based on how they tasted. Their responses were consistent at first, and they lined up well with Consumer Reports’s professional taste test. But when he asked them to supply the reasons why they liked or disliked the jams, the results became chaotic. They were inconsistent, and bore no correspondence to Consumer Reports’s test.

Intuition had worked alright. Thinking led them astray.

Wilson went on to find similar results for other behaviors, like buying cars and choosing pieces of art. In both cases, people made better decisions and reported higher satisfaction later on when they made their decisions without having to list the reasons why. A participant would simply look at the options, get distracted by a crossword puzzle, and then go with his gut. Ap Dijksterhuis, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, found identical results examining people’s home buying and grocery shopping behavior.

The Science

These surprising results find their explanation in the science of the brain. Let’s look at two parts of the brain, then see how they play into our discussion.

The prefrontal cortex lies on the brain’s outer shell, beneath the forehead. It’s the seat of logic and fore-planning, and it’s what we use when we undergo conscious deliberation about a course of action.

The limbic system on the other hand is the brain’s internal core. Its functions are more primal; it deals with instincts, desires, and (of course) intuitions.

The first reason that more thinking doesn’t always equal better decisions is information overload. As George Miller eloquently points out in “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” the brain can juggle about seven pieces of information at a time. So when we make choices involving more than just a handful of data, the prefrontal cortex starts dropping valuable factoids.

The second reason is that our actual desires and goals reside in the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex has to leap across a huge gap in order to access and understand those preferences. Often it ends up doing a rather poor job. What we think and say we want might not be what we actually want, simply because of the giant disconnect between the conscious mind (prefrontal cortex) and the unconscious desires (limbic system).

The Application

Absorb as much information as you can; even the limbic system, with its intuitive unconscious processing power, uses input data. Pay close attention to the variables for different options. Then, get distracted. Better, sleep on it. After about ten minutes (or a good night’s sleep) you’ll be better equipped to make an informed, prudent decision.

But here’s an important caveat: some decisions are simple enough that your prefrontal cortex is more than able to process them. Dijksterhuis points out that simpler choices can be made mroe effectively by thinking them through. It’s just a matter of how complex they really are.

Additional (really awesome) reading:



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This article in Science Daily recently caught my attention.

Highlights: Talking to people boosts memory and intelligence about as effectively as so-called “intellectual” activities like solving cross-word puzzles (but more than watching tv).

Need a brain boost today? Call up some friends, and go hang out!


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Some interesting highlights from this article, (with more text available here):

Visual darkness leads our brains to ponder more “distant” things across for dimensions: space-wise, time-wise, hypothetically, and socially. We think more globally and abstractly (hypothetical), we picture broad social contexts rather than narrow ones, and we become more focuses on long term, long distance situations.

Here’s an interesting paradox: in social interaction games people exhibit slightly more sociopathic and self-interested tendencies, but also view others more positively and are more likely to volunteer for charity.



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Enjoyable and practical highlights from this excellent article:

Give kids “brain training” games, talk to people more often, and ride motorcycles. Eat breakfast whenever possible, avoid artificial food additives and colors (in exchange for 14% higher IQ), and eat more fish (or at least take the Omega-3 supplements).

That’s all for now, folks!


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