Saturday, May 16, 2009

New Places, New Faces

Throughout the blog I've emphasized the importance of breaking routines, and vacation time opens up rich possibilities. Go where you've never been before. Travel broadens, but not if you seek out the McDonald's in Paris or the shopping mall in Singapore. Make it a point to explore the visual, auditory, and olfactory differences a new place offers. Sample the local food and entertainment, and shop and travel the way the locals do. Try to avoid traveling in large tour groups, and really get to meet people in different cultures.

At every turn, traveling involves something novel for the senses. Spatial maps used for everyday navigation are suddenly unusable and new ones must be constructed. The stress you may feel taking in new sights, sounds, foods, and a foreign language is actually your brain moving into high gear! An afternoon spent talking with the owner of a small shop in a new place may be more memorable (and better for your memory) than going to yet another "must see" sight.

Improve your Home or Dinner Setting

Enhance your sensory environment at home. For example, change the dinner environment. As I've said, meals are not just about food. Candlelight, visually pleasing china and flowers, beautiful tablecloths, and music provide multisensory stimulation to link with the smells and flavors of food. When you don't have the time or money to indulge, try a new set of place mats or a vase of flowers, or use the good china once in a while—even when you're alone.

Enriching the sensory, social, and emotional environment surrounding meals feeds your brain, even though you may not be aware of it at the time. Conversely, when you strip life down to its basics, you deprive your senses. While eating a frozen dinner at a bare table with the TV on satisfies basic caloric needs, it doesn't do much for your olfactory or taste systems, and certainly the emotional impact and novelty factors are low.

Musical Chairs at the Dinner Table

At dinnertime, have everyone switch seats. In most families, everyone has his or her "own" seat, and it's remarkable how permanent these arrangements become. Switching seats changes whose "position" you occupy, who you relate to, your view of the room, and even how you reach for salt and pepper.

Like rearranging your desk, changing your seat at the dinner table provokes "social rearrangements." Each seat has associations attached to it—the kid's seat, the head of the household's seat. Simply by changing places you are challenging and reworking these timeworn associations.

Also, try eating your food in silence. You'll be surprised at how the foods you taste and the things you hear are greatly enhanced. You'll automatically slow down, savor the food, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, and hear a new ambience that conversation usually smothers.

The Fruit Gatherer

Each season, you can gather edible plants, fruits, and nuts in the wild—fiddlehead ferns, dandelions, wild asparagus, and grape leaves, various wild berries, mushrooms (careful!), chestnuts and wild peas. (If you don't know what things are, or how to prepare them, take a field guide to edible plants with you on your foraging trips.) Visit a pick-your-own orchard or farm to gather strawberries, blueberries, corn, or pumpkins. Make the "harvest" a social event by taking along kids or friends. Another variation is to shop without a list and plan a meal from what looks good at the market that day.

Searching for food in the wild prevents the brain from using the easy way out, and hones its ability to make fine discriminations. Is that round green thing a fiddlehead fern (good) or a skunk cabbage sprout (bad)? Without bins, packages, and labels, your brain is forced to pay attention to every cue available in the natural environment.

Neurobics at the Supermarket

Use your senses. Close your eyes and distinguish fruits by their smell or by the feel of their rinds. Use self-serve bins to buy small amounts of grains, cereals, or spices with different tastes, textures, or odors (health food stores are especially good sources).

Change your usual route through the aisles.

Ask the people at the meat, fish, or deli counters to help you choose something instead of just picking out prepackaged foods.

Change the way you scan the shelves. Stores are designed to have the most profitable items at eye level, and in a quick scan you really don't see everything that's there. Instead, stop in any aisle and look at everything displayed on the shelves, from top to bottom. If there's something you've never seen before, pick it up just to read the ingredients and think about it (you don't have to buy it). You've broken your routine and experienced something new.

Turn your World Upside Down

Take pictures of your family, your desk clock, or an illustrated calendar upside down.

Your brain is quite literally of two minds when it comes to processing visual information. The analytical, "verbal" part of your brain (sometimes called the "left brain') tries to label an object after just a brief glance: "table," "chair," "child " The "right brain," in contrast, perceives spatial relationships and uses nonverbal cues. When you look at a familiar picture right side up, your left brain quickly labels it and diverts your attention to other things. When the picture is upside down, the quick labeling strategy doesn't work—and your right-brain networks kick in, trying to interpret the shapes, colors, and relationships of a puzzling picture. The strategy of looking at things upside down is a key component for awakening the latent artist in us, as described by Betty Edwards in the Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Bring your Family to Work

This is not by any means a daily activity and will get you fired from your job. But sometimes your work has a party and there is no harm in bringing a family companion like your child. Everything you take for granted—the pictures in the halls, the machines you use, your familiar coworkers—are seen anew through another person. It’s a novel experience that does wonders not only for your child but for your own neural networks as well.

The simple act of making introductions fosters the all-important social interactions that we know are crucial for a healthy brain. Introducing your child to your coworkers exercises your abilities with names far more effectively than sitting at your desk and trying to memorize them.

Learn Braille

In most developed countries, new public elevators and ATMs have Braille instructions for blind or visually impaired individuals. In today's world, it's sighted people who suffer "tactile deprivation." Use your fingers to learn the Braille numbers for different floors of your office building or for controlling the elevator doors.

When you learned to read, you learned to associate a very specific visual stimulus—a letter or number—with a sound, then with a word, and eventually with meaning. Learning to make distinctions and associations with your fingers—such as between two dots and three dots—activates a whole new set of pathways linking the cognitive regions of your cortex (those parts that know what a letter or number stands for) to the sensory regions. By the time you're able to "read" the button for your floor, using just your fingertips, you'll have built quite a bit of new circuitry in your cortex.

Task Odors

You can activate your memory by pairing an odor and a specific task. For example, to help you remember a certain phone number, use a specific smell every time you dial it. (For this exercise, use few small herb plants.) Crushing some thyme, mint, or sage provides a strong and effective olfactory cue.

Certain odors produce increased alertness and energy. In Japan, nutmeg or cinnamon odors are added to air-conditioning systems of office buildings to enhance productivity (Aromatherapy). This exercise takes the use of odors one step further: Rather than providing odor stimulation as a passive background to everything you do, odors can be used to highlight specific aspects of your workday, which provides a tag for longer-lasting memory.

Monday, May 11, 2009

See Things with new Colors

Colors convey meaning to us through natural associations and psychological symbolism. It is not a matter of mind control but the fact is that people are comfortable when colors remind them of similar objects or events. For example, a light shade of blue triggers associations with the sky and brings a sense of calmness to you.

Try this exercise at your work or at your desk to stimulate your brain through colors: -
Place different-color gelatin filters (available at art supply or photography stores) over your desk lamp, perhaps even at work (Check first for fire hazards).

Colors evoke strong emotional associations that can create completely different feelings about ordinary objects and events. In addition, the occasionally odd effects of color (a purple foam coffee cup) jars, enhances your brains expectations and lights up more blips on your attention "radar screen."

Tea Break

There's more to a tea break than loading up on theanine (a brain performance enhancer, actually). Tea and lunch breaks give you time for mental stretching and social interaction. A brisk fifteen-minute walk outdoors invigorates the body, clears the mind, and opens the door to real-world sensory stimulation. Try fostering non stressful, mind-expanding interactions during this time as well. Enlist some coworkers to start a walking, talking, or discussion group during breaks or lunch. Breaks allow to you to relax and recollect your thoughts, but your mind never stops working. So make the best of your break to stay sharp, even in relaxing times.

Be Social

Don't pass up the many opportunities to enhance the social nature of your commute. Buy the morning or evening paper from a person rather than a vending machine. Need fuel? Pay the clerk at the counter rather than just swiping your credit card at the pump. Wave back and smile or play funny-face games with the kids in the backseat of the car in front of you. Stop at a new place for coffee and a sandwich, or a different dry cleaner or flower stand.

Scientific research has repeatedly proved that social deprivation has severe negative effects on overall cognitive abilities. The ongoing MacArthur Foundation projects validate keeping active socially and mentally as critical factors for mental health.

Touch your Mind

Place a cup filled with different coins in your cup holder. While at a stoplight, try to determine different denominations by feel alone. If your car is equipped with a change holder, then place the coins into the correct slots, using only your sense of touch. You can also do this exercise with other small objects of subtly different sizes or textures (various sizes and types of screws, nuts, earrings, or paper clips, 1-inch squares of material such as leather, satin, velour, cotton, or grades of sandpaper). Try to match up a pair of earrings or cuff links, for example.
Because we normally discriminate between objects by looking at them, our tactile discrimination abilities are flabby like underused muscles. Using touch to distinguish subtly different objects increases activation in cortical areas that process tactile information and leads to stronger synapses. This is the same process that occurs with adults who lose their sight. They learn to distinguish Braille letters because their cortex devotes more pathways to processing fine touch.

The Smell of Music

During your drive use aromas to form novel associations between smells and sounds. Instead of using a visual stimulation, this exercise associates auditory stimulation—music—with a specific odor. Start by choosing an odor of your choice (either deliberately or at random) and a favorite song on a CD or tape. Use the odor and take a good sniff every time you listen to that song. Imagine pairing pine odor with a country-western ballad, lavender with the first movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, or cloves with the sound of the Bee Gees. Be creative with your sound-smell combinations: Try some odd pairings and see what kinds of new association springs to your mind.

The goal here is not to remember anything specific, but to provide more raw-material to provoke your brain into weaving more associative networks. Both music and smells are powerful stimuli that evoke different emotions. Normally we don't listen to music in the context of odors or vice versa. In this exercise, the repeated pairing of these two stimuli makes your brain create powerful links between the two, increasing the number of pathways available for storing or accessing memories.

Fresh Drive

Simply opening the windows as you drive will let in a tapestry of smells—fresh rain on a concrete road, a street vendor's cart, leaves burning in autumn—and sounds—birds singing, kids yelling in a school playground, sirens—that mark your route. Like an ancient navigator, your brain will begin to make and recall associations between the sights, sounds, and odors that you encounter.

Remember that the hippocampus is especially involved in associating odors, sounds, and sights to construct mental maps. Opening the windows provides these circuits with more raw-material.

Mental Routes

Take a different route to work. If you're driving, open the windows to help construct a new mental map. If you walk to work, the Neurobic possibilities are even greater.

On your routine commute, the brain goes on automatic pilot and gets little stimulation or exercise. An unfamiliar route activates the cortex and hippocampus to integrate the novel sights, smells, and sounds you encounter into a new brain map.

In one Seinfeld episode, Kramer is asked how to get to Coney Island from Manhattan. He launches into an elaborate description of subways and buses involving numerous changes scattered throughout the city, various alternatives at each point, and the consequences of each choice. Elaine pipes up and says, "Couldn't you just take the D train straight there?" Well, of course you can. But in this case Kramer was thinking and living "Neurobically," looking for alternative pathways, new possibilities, and engaging his brains associative powers and navigational abilities to engage in flexible, spatial thinking. Elaine, alas, remains trapped by routine.

Aural Pleasure

Read aloud with your partner. Alternate the roles of reader and listener. It may be a slow way to get through a book, but it's a good way to spend quality time and gives you something to discuss other than your day at work.

When we read aloud or listen to someone reading, we use very different brain circuits than when we read silently. One of the earliest demonstrations of brain imaging clearly showed three distinct brain regions lighting up when the same word was read, spoken, or heard. For example, listening to words activated two distinct areas in the left and right hemispheres of the cortex, while speaking words activated the motor cortex on both sides of the brain as well as another part of the brain called the cerebellum.


I wouldn't recommend trying all these things on the same morning, but do incorporate one or two of the following: -

• Vary the order in which you do your normal routine (e.g., get dressed after breakfast).

• If a sandwich and coffee is your daily fare, try something else like hot oatmeal and herbal tea.

• Change the setting on your radio alarm or tune into a morning TV program you never watch. Cartoons, for example, may arouse the brain to notice how much of what you take for granted is explored in depth by children.

• Walk the dog on a new route. (Yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks.)

Brain imaging studies show that novel tasks activate large areas of the cortex, indicating increased levels of brain activity in several distinct areas. This activity declined when the task had become routine and automatic. Much greater "brain power" is exerted for novel verses automatic tasks.

Silence Please

Wear earplugs when you join the family for breakfast and experience the world without sound.

Has your spouse ever complained that you are only "half-listening"? If you're in the middle of a morning routine, it's probably true. By virtue of ingrained routines, your brain has a pretty good idea of what to expect each morning, so only a few words are enough for you to follow a sentence. And, engrossed in a newspaper or listening to the radio, you "tune out" most other sensory inputs. Blocking a major sensory route by wearing earplugs forces you to use other cues to accomplish even simple tasks like knowing when the toast is done or passing the sugar bowl.

A Touch of Style

Without looking, choose clothing, shoes, and so on, with matching or contrasting textures. For example, make it a silky, smooth day or a rough, nubby day. Use not only your fingers but also your cheeks, lips, and even your feet—they're all packed with receptors for fine touch.

Extensive practice using the fingers to make fine distinctions between objects or textures causes the expansion and rewiring of the brain areas involved in touch. This has been observed in monkeys trained to use their fingers to get food and in brain imaging experiments in blind human Braille readers.

Research has shown that this type of exercise can result in a rapid and substantial expansion of circuits in the parts of the cortex that control and process tactile information from the hand.

Brushing Routine

Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand (including opening the tube and applying toothpaste). This is the easiest exercise you can perform in the morning and it easily fits into your morning routine. You can substitute any morning activity—styling your hair, shaving, applying makeup, buttoning clothes, putting in cuff links, eating, or using the TV remote.

This exercise requires you to use the opposite side of your brain instead of the side you normally use. Consequently, all those circuits, connections, and brain areas involved in using your dominant hand are inactive, while their counterparts on the other side of your brain are suddenly required to direct a set of behaviors in which they usually don’t participate.

Variation: Use only one hand to do tasks like buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, or getting dressed. For a real workout, try using just your non-dominant hand. Another exercise that associates unusual sensory and motor pathways in your cortex with a routine activity is to use your feet to put your socks and underwear in the laundry basket or pick out your shoes for the day.

Shower with your eyes closed

Locate the taps and adjust the temperature and flow using just your tactile senses. (Make sure your balance is good before you try this and use common sense to avoid burning or injury.) In the shower locate all necessary props by feel, then wash, shave, and so on, with your eyes shut. Your hands will probably notice varied textures of your own body you aren't aware of when you are "looking." This exercise promotes your senses and stimulates your brain to perform more efficiently. Similarly to a blind person, you will be able to heighten your other senses by performing actions with your eyes closed.

Please maintain caution while practicing this exercise. Do not slip and hurt yourself in the bathroom.

Morning Aroma

Start exercising your brain as you wake up in the morning. I realize most of us are lazy when we wake up. Thus, keeping that in mind, this exercise is simple to follow. It merely practices your usual morning olfactory association— instead of waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee—wake up to something different—vanilla, citrus, peppermint, or rosemary. Keep an extract of your favorite aroma in an airtight container on your bedside table for a week and release it when you first awaken, and then again as you bathe and dress. Odds are you can't remember specifically when you "learned" to associate the smell of coffee with the start of a day. By consistently linking a new odor with your morning routine, you are activating new neural pathways.