Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Practical advice on how to remember better

More on better memory from the same issue of Wired — some practical advice (excerpts only):


Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower

04.21.08 | 6:00 PM

Face it: Your IQ is basically hardwired. Still, there are lots of ways to get smarter — to max out your so-called functional intelligence. Think of it as a software upgrade. Our guide to better brainpower shows you how to boost your memory, sharpen your concentration skills, and even pop the right combination of drugs and supplements. Start download now.

Brains + drugs = fried eggs, right? Not always. Some pills can boost your cognitive output. But we at Wired aren’t doctors. Anyone who takes a bushel of drugs based on our say-so must be high.


What it does

Possible side effects


Thought to optimize levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, enhancing concentration and turning mundane tasks into wondrous ones. Often prescribed to ADHD patients (wink, wink).

Addiction, headaches, insomnia, Tourette’s-like symptoms, heart attack


Seems to boost release of glutamate, speeding neurotransmission and improving memory. Not a ton of evidence, though.

Anxiety, agitation, insomnia, dizziness, epigastric heaviness (feeling full)


An Alzheimer’s drug that may also enhance memory in healthy adults. Thought to reduce the breakdown of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps relay messages around the brain.

Nausea, diarrhea, fainting


Triggers the release of dopamine. Can increase concentration and creative output. Prolonged use can also make you stupid and crazy.

Parkinson’s-like symptoms, addiction, stroke, psychosis, prison, death


A narcolepsy medication that improves focus, pattern recognition, and short-term memory. The exact mechanism of action is unclear. Good for card counters.

Chest pain, nausea, headache, life-threatening rash


Chemically similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Spurs faster interaction between nerve cells in the brain, aiding memory formation and attention.

Addiction, cancer, social isolation (depending on delivery mechanism)


Originally used as an antidepressant. May elevate levels of cyclic adenosine monophosphate to boost memory. Improves cognition (in rats).

Headache, nausea, intense vomiting


Produced naturally in the pituitary gland and used in the formation of new memories. Shown to help users learn more effectively (especially men). Prescribed as a drug for diabetes insipidus.

Angina, nausea, wheezing, belching, coma

Desperate to memorize a crucial fact? Look over there! (Kidding.) The trick is to distract yourself by studying stuff that’s slightly different from whatever you’re trying to learn. Your brain will then work harder to permanently store the original information. It’s a tricky concept, but here’s an example: In 2007, researchers asked UCLA students to try to memorize a set of 48 word pairs (country: Russia, fruit: lemon, flower: lily, etc.). After studying the list, some students then had to sit through a slide show and view closely related material (flower: rose). Guess what? The distracted students performed better on subsequent recall tests. “Distraction forces you to engage in processing,” says Benjamin Storm, a UCLA researcher who oversaw the study. Hey, up in the sky — is that a blimp?

Coffee, yerba maté, Red Bull — there’s a caffeinated beverage for every demographic. And no wonder: Caffeine jump-starts the body and sharpens the mind. But studies suggest that we Yanks are doing it wrong. For optimal brain gain, regular tea breaks, as favored in the UK, are more effective than a 20-ounce French roast sucked down at Starbucks in lieu of breakfast.

Throughout the day, your noodle fills up with adenosine, a chemical thought to cause mental fatigue. Caffeine blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors, countering the chemical’s dulling effects. To maximize alertness and minimize jitters, keep those receptors covered with frequent small doses — like a mug of low-caf tea or half a cup of joe — rather than a onetime blast. Test subjects reported that periodic small shots made them feel clearheaded and calm, both of which enhance mental performance. Even better, add a lump of sugar or have a carbohydrate-rich snack at the same time for an extra cognitive kick. It seems that glucose and caffeine together do more to enhance cognition than either does alone. Biscotti, anyone?

If you’re fleeing a cave bear, it’s good to be stressed — you’ll run faster. If you’re stepping onto the set with Alex Trebek, that same anxiety will put your brain in jeopardy. While a little nervousness can boost cognitive performance, periods of intense stress essentially turn us into Neanderthals: The amygdala, known as the fear center, one of the most primitive brain regions, overrides the prefrontal cortex, which handles working memory and executive function. “When those deep brain areas are active, they shanghai your cortical neurons,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy. “Your IQ plummets. Your creativity, your sense of humor — all of that disappears. You’re stupid.” How to quiet your inner caveman? By slowing and synchronizing your pulse and respiration, thus sending a message to your brain that everything is cool. Yoga or power napping could do the trick. Or try the StressEraser, a biofeedback device that suggests a target breathing rate to help you calm down. That should help you nail that Daily Double.

One way to learn Better: Mix yourself up. That’s advice from Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and a leading expert in memory and learning. Volunteers in his experiments exhibited superior recall when they learned information in randomly ordered chunks. For example, he asked subjects in one group to memorize five-letter sequences on a computer keyboard. First they learned one sequence, then moved on to the second, and then the third. Compare that to a second group of volunteers, who practiced the five-letter combos in a random order. When tested, the random group had much better recall — something to remember when you sit down to memorize stolen-base success rates before your next fantasy baseball draft.

It should take you two and a half seconds to read this sentence. Any faster and you won’t absorb its meaning. The motor response of the retina, and the time it takes the image of a word to travel from the macula to the thalamus to the visual cortex for processing, limits the eye to about 500 words a minute. (That’s peak efficiency; the average college student can expect a rate about half that.) “There is no such thing as speed reading,” says Keith Rayner a cognitive psychologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “Not if your definition of reading is comprehending text.” Studies show that fast readers fare worse than slower ones when questioned about the text. So, to get smarter, slow down. It’s even OK to move your lips.

Learning new things actually strengthens your brain — especially when you believe you can learn new things. It’s a virtuous circle: When you think you’re getting smarter, you study harder, making more nerve-cell connections, which in turn makes you … smarter. This effect shows up consistently among experimental subjects, from seventh graders to college students to businesspeople. According to studies carried out by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck and others, volunteers with a so-called growth mindset about learning (“persist in the face of setbacks”) have more brain plasticity. In other words, their noggins are more adaptable. They exhibit increases in cognitive performance compared with those who have a so-called fixed mindset (“get defensive or give up easily”). “Many people believe they have a fixed level of intelligence, and that’s that,” Dweck says. “The cure is to change the mindset.” Certain that we’re wrong? Enjoy stupidity!

Can exercise make you think better? In some cases, yes. Here’s what works best.

Aerobic Training — Don’t cut that PE class! In 2006, Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois used MRIs to prove that aerobic exercise builds gray and white matter in the brains of older adults. Later studies found that more aerobically fit grade-schoolers also perform better on cognitive tests.
Impact on intelligence: Strong

Lifting Weights — When weight lifters talk about getting huge, they aren’t referring to their hippocampus. Researchers have found only the most tenuous link between heavy resistance training and improved cognitive function. Got that, meathead?
Impact on intelligence: Negligible

Yoga — When facing a stressful situation or even a scary email, people often hold their breath. Yoga can break that habit. Under pressure, “most people breathe incorrectly,” says Frank Lawlis, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and author of The IQ Answer. The result: more stress and less oxygen to your brain. “So the first thing that goes is your memory.”
Impact on intelligence: Possibly strong

Studying on the StairMaster — A spinning class may rev up your mental muscle, but that doesn’t mean you should study while huffing and puffing on the StairMaster. Research shows you’ll just confuse yourself. “It’s like doing something while you’re driving,” says Charles Hillman, a kinesiology professor at the University of Illinois. In other words, you won’t do either task well.
Impact on intelligence: Negligible


May 1, 2008 - Posted by | brain | ,

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