13. Cognitive Fitness

(Mental Health)


. Research is emphasizing the importance of keeping mentally active. There is a misconception that brain activity diminishes with age. In fact, important brain functions, such as motor behaviour and memory, can improve with age; this phenomenon is called neurogenesis.

. The brain anatomy, neural networks and cognitive abilities can be strengthened and improved through your experiences and interactions with your environment. The brain is not just a product of childhood experiences and genetic inheritance; it reflects your adult choices and experiences

. You can make physical changes in your brain by learning new skills

. Cognitive fitness is defined as

"...a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan and adapt that is enhanced by certain attitudes, lifestyle, choices, and exercise. The more cognitively fit you are, the better you are able to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will allow you to be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behaviours..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007

. Recently the way the brain processes experience to encode learning and build performance capacity has been determined.

"...the discovery of dedicated neural systems that represent objects, people and actions...... the so-called mirror neurons......allow us to internally reflect our external world is a quantum leap in our understanding of how humans comprehend and master their environment. Experience gained through observation activates these performance-enhancing neurons which accelerate learning and the capacity to learn......traditionally, scientists assumed that people gain new skills through practice - that is through direct experience - that the existence of mirror neurons means you can also gain skills through observation and indirect experience......the brain's ability to learn in this way makes a biological case for the use of simulation and case studies..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007

. Measures your basic cognitive ability, ie ability to understand when something is more complex than it first appears and to move past impulsive answers to deeper, analytic judgments.

. Importance of focus, ie to think a little harder can improve your thinking ability

. Using simulation and case studies is a cost-effective and efficient way of learning. For example, short-term simulation experience helps establish a neural readiness for real experience. Ways of doing this include "management by walking around"; it is good management practice and a sound cognitive exercise. Indigenous Australian's traditional activity of "walkabout" in which adolescents undertake a prolonged and challenging physical journey is a good example of cognitive learning.

. By some estimates (Caitlin Dewey, 2015) the average American consumes 5 times as much information now as he/she did 20 years ago, ie 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes daily (NB 34 gigabytes is equal to 2 times the memory of the entry-level iPhone). When you encounter new information, it stimulates your brain to produce chemicals like dopamine & norepinephrin. This makes you feel alert and helps you process the information. On the other hand, if you process too much information too quickly, like scrolling through information on the computer screen, you will burn up the brain's energy, and feel foggy, irritable, unproductive or angry. For example, around 20 tweets an hour is the most that most people can handle before their mental processing slows.A little bit of stimulus improves attention but too much stimulus degrades attention

Remember: the brain is like a muscle and needs energy to operate

Some additional ways to improve cognitive fitness include

. Encourage experimentation and play. Play is linked with imagination and promotes emotional intelligence. Furthermore, play is closely tied to pleasure and strongly associated with the brain's reward system. Play is linked with joy which is linked with the release of specific neuro-chemicals that help the brain developed and expand its synaptic networks, ie

"...in adult life, play engages the prefrontal cortex (now most highly evolved and recently acquired brain areas), nourishing the highest level cognitive functions - those related to incentive and reward processing, goal and skill representation, mental imagery, self-knowledge, and memory......play......improve ability to reason and understand the world..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007

Geniuses, like Albert Einstein, regularly used mental imagery to develop ideas. In fact, Einstein believed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

Games and play

"...The idea that play in and of itself isn't enough, that there needs to be some tangible benefit, either through the development of transferable skills or by going pro, is common, but it can undermine the play itself. This tension between play for pure escapism and play as a purposeful endeavour has been argued for centuries..."
Holly Neilsen 2019

The morality and influence of games and play has been going on for centuries; video games are merely the latest in a long line of games.

"...The benefits of video games are often framed in terms of skill development: their potential for helping to improve reaction times of problem-solving abilities..."
Holly Neilsen 2019

"...Play is one aspect of a healthy lifestyle; we shouldn't attempt to discredit one form of play in an attempt to encourage other, more socially approved, activities..."
Holly Neilsen 2019

The enhancing problem-solving abilities that arise from playing games has been proven.

One of the challenges is to find the right environment in which your brain can thrive, ie a balance between risk and security. Risk activates the brain's capacity for both reason and imagination. On the other hand, too great a risk creates stress which activates the brain's security system (amygdala and other limbic areas). In extreme cases, stress can trigger anxiety disorder and chaotic behaviours.

Play can be hard work!!!!!

. Search for patterns

The brain is composed of 2 hemispheres that are interconnected but have very different functions and specialized roles: the left hemisphere is the primary source of neural information that is used to carry out routine tasks, while the right hemisphere deals with the creative activities.

The left hemisphere of the brain is more important in pattern recognition, ie

"... is the brain's ability to scan the environment; discern order and create meaning from huge amounts of data; and thereby quickly assess a situation so that appropriate action can be taken right away and with a high degree of accuracy. It is a complex chain reaction that uses the highest level of capacities for abstraction and reflection that are based on the deepest repositories of stored experience......for executives trying to make sense of a rapidly changing business environment, superiority in pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest competitive advantage that can be developed..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007

The best way to develop pattern recognition is by continually challenge your existing mindsets by listening to different points of view, by reading about different ideas in articles, books, etc

Reading fiction is a different from reading for knowledge.

"...To read fiction well is to appreciate the beauty of the language and the story. But to read non-fiction well is to increase your understanding of the world......Reading speed and absorption is substantially driven by your level of context. Reading introduction, conclusions and chapter summaries before reading the rest of the book dramatically increases context recall, which also increases pace..."

Stephen Pell 2019

The use of e-books, via, eg Kindle can allow you to read several books at the same time.

Friends, colleagues, associates etc can suggest the most appropriate books. Don't rely on recommended reading lists

. Seek novelty and innovation

The right hemisphere of the brain is the exploratory part of the brain that is dedicated to discovery and learning. Later on the new knowledge is transferred to the left exploitative hemisphere where it is organized, encoded, and available for daily retrieval and use, ie

"...the left hemisphere is about language expression, and the right is about language acquisition..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007


"...the more new things you learn, the better you become at learning. Actively engaging in novel, challenging activities capitalizes on your capacity for neuroplasticity - the ability of your brain to reorganize itself adaptively and enhance its performance......people who remain engaged in life consistently displayed an attitude of openness to new and unexpected experiences......people who are receptive to novelty and innovation also perform well in a crisis, because they are open to seeing opportunities..."

Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007

Exercise your brain (a personal program) by performing the following exercises

. "Managed by walking around" - walk and observe in unfamiliar territory which will broaden your perspective. Furthermore, the physical activity of walking invigorates the brain. This activity also helps to overcome mental blocks by getting you away from your desk and changing your environment

. Read funny books - humour promotes insight and enhances our health - even the immune system benefits

. Play games - activities like bridge, chess, crosswords, online games, etc provide good neural workouts

. Play - play involves discovery and imagination that expand your behaviourial repertoire

. Find out what you are not learning - read outside your usual reading list; try something different; ask a colleague to help with suggestions

. Get the most out of your business trips - become a tourist and go sightseeing; talk with the locals. These activities will increase your cultural IQ.

. Take notes - if hear or see something different, record it

. Try new technology - playing with new technology will help with your auditory, visual and tactile networks linking with your limbic system and your prefrontal cortex. Discussing what has happened with a friend will extend activity throughout the brain

. Learn a new language or instrument - this will put you at the pinnacle of mental athleticism

. Exercise, exercise, exercise - your brain is part of the system that benefits from cardiovascular exercise, good diet and proper living habits. Cardiovascular and strength training have beneficial biological changes, such as increases in endorphins and cortisone.


Music can light up the brain. Recent work on elderly people with dementia has shown that playing them music they are familiar with and like reactivate them mentally and physically. This is not a short-term or temporary benefit.

It is now thought that music produces benefits in non-musical cognitive domains including academic areas like reading, maths, language skills, spatiotemporal reasoning (rotating three-dimensional images in your head) plus general intelligence, speech, physical development, listening ability and mood.  This is apparent in all ages starting from infants. Some examples, music training boosts

- language skills (research as shown that students neuro-architecture changes in a way to boost both motor skills (writing) an auditory skills (word recognition); other research showed that 10-year-olds practising a musical instrument for at least 3 year had a boost in both vocabulary and non-verbal reasoning; other students who started musical lessons prior to first grade showed superior sensory-motor integration as adults.  These reinforce the benefits of starting music lessons before age 7.)

- working memory (this is most obvious in the phonological loop and visuospatial pad. Working memory is a key element of the executive function which is a better predictor of students' future undergraduate performances than their IQs. It improves the selection and focus on relevant stimuli from a host of choices, eg help students pick out specific auditory streams in a room filled with irrelevant noise - this is an important component of executive functioning)

- speech (even though music and speech are not processed identically in the brain, they do share some common  regions (psychologically and physiologically) and features, eg rhythm, pitch (like when asking a question, our pitch goes up at the end of the sentence), etc.)

- social skills (detecting complex emotional information like sadness and fear, etc; musicians are better at detecting subtle changes in the sound, timing and pitch of the baby's cry; become more relational and empathetic, ie ability to decode emotional information in social surroundings, both verbally and non-verbally including imitating facial expressions)
"...music training boost foundational speech-processing tasks, spatial skills, detection of emotional cues, empathy, and...... social skills..."

John Medina, 2014

- moods (music induces hormonal changes involving dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin, eg dopamine is released when people listen to their favourite music; cortisol  release reduces stress; oxytocin involved in social bonding can stimulate temporary feelings of trust, love, acceptance, orgasms, lactation, etc. Language doesn't do it, music does.

"...music makes people happy, calms them down, maybe even makes them feel close to each other..."

John Medina, 2014

- therapy (using music as medicine with sick patients, ie calm them down and reduce pain, eg aid speech recovery in head trauma patients, recovery rates of particular cognitive abilities in stroke patients' verbal memory, focused attention, motor difficulties (Parkinson and cerebral palsy's sufferers). It is thought to work by forcing the brain to unused regions of the brain, ie the brain can be extensively activated by music.

"...music-therapy patients routinely outscore patients exposed to more traditional therapies in the measurement of arm movements and of gait as they walk. Music seemed to serve as a predictable metronome that helps people coordinate their movements..."

John Medina, 2014

Babies are known to have a positive response to music by swaying and responding with glee; also they enjoy it when an adult talks to them in musical speech which is rhythmic and high-pitched, and with long, drawn-out vowels. Prematurely-born babies gain weight more rapidly when music is played; music helps them learn how to suck their mother's breast more readily; it reduce their overall stress levels

Music is a key part of cultural expression in virtually every culture ever studied. It is thought that music may serve some evolutionary function, ie we may be hardwired for music, with regions in our brains specially devoted to music.

Music can give people a sense of well-being.

"...there's something for everybody in music, the very strong emotional component of it......The intellectual side is very powerful..."
Ida Lickter as quoted by Steve Dow, 2017

There is 'synergistic synaesthesia' (an immersive experience that cross-pollinates different art forms). Synaesthesia is the mixing of diverse sensory stimuli, ie

"...Hearing more with your eyes and seeing more with your ears..."
Richard Tognetti
as quoted by Steve Dow, 2017

It's interesting to note that it is estimated that 10m. Chinese students play the piano and 10 m. the violin (Narelle Hooper, 2012)

(sources: John Medina, 2014; Narelle Hooper, 2012; Roderick Gilkey et al, 2017)

(source: Roderick Gilkey et al, 2007)


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