Integrated Brain Fitness for March

Monday, March 7, 2016

Give yourself a gold star for each of these brain-healthy activities you do this month.

Express Your Brain: Doodle

Once thought to be a waste of time—and an indication that you weren’t paying attention—doodling has gained new respect in recent years. There is now some evidence that people who doodle consolidate ideas and remember more. Here are some ideas to get started with doodling:

  • Step 1: Do you have negative associations with doodling, or have you felt guilty for doodling? Get a different perspective by watching expert Sunni Brown’s 6-minute TED talk titled “Doodlers, Unite!” (For a more in-depth discussion, check out her book, The Doodle Revolution.)
  • Step 2: Going to a lecture, class, meeting, or other event where listening is important? Pack a notebook and pencil and try doodling while listening. (No artistic talent required!) Researchers think doodling might help you remember by keeping your brain engaged enough to prevent full-scale daydreaming—but it might not be for everyone. See how you feel and think about how much you remember after the event.
  • Step 3: Need some inspiration? Many famous people have been doodlers—online, you can find doodles from a bunch of celebrities, U.S. presidents, authors—and there are tons of fantastic doodlers on Instagram and other social media. To see some amazing doodle art, check out DoodleArtsMagazine.com.

The Science of Doodling

Many studies show that trying to do two things at once decreases performance. But doodling may be different. For instance, in one 2009 study, people were asked to listen to a long phone message that mentioned the names of numerous people and places. The people who doodled during the message were able to remember 29% more detail than those who didn’t.1

1 Andrade J. What does doodling do? Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 2010. 24:100-106.

Nourish Your Brain: Feast on Fish

Research suggests that regular fish consumption is related to better cognitive function4. Many scientists believe it’s the omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA) in fish that make them good for the brain. Those tend to be more concentrated in cold-water fish, such as salmon and sardines. One important note: So far, it’s not clear that taking fish oil pills has the same benefits5. So this month, try to eat fish at least twice a week (shellfish has DHA, too). There are a million great seafood recipes out there…here are a few you might want to try.  

What about mercury?

Some fish have high mercury content that makes them less healthy for your brain. In general, the higher up the food chain, the more mercury a fish contains…so limit intake of larger predators like shark, swordfish, marlin, and certain tunas. Choose smaller fish instead.

And what about overfishing or environmental damage?

If you worry about how your choice of fish affects fish populations and the environment, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a great site where you can enter any seafood and learn how it’s caught or farmed.

4Dangour AD, Elbourne EA, et al. Fish consumption and cognitive function among older people in the UK: Baseline data from the OPAL study. J. Nutri, Health, Aging. 2009 Mar;13(3):198-202.
4Morris MC, Evans DA, et al. Fish comsumption and cognitive decline with age in a large community study. Arch. Neurol. 2005 Dec;62:
5
Chew EY, Clemes TE, et al. Effect of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Lutein/Zeaxanthin, or Other Nutrient Supplementation on Cognitive Function: The AREDS2 Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2015 Aug 25:314(8);791-801.1849-1853.

Energize Your Brain: Get Out the Gardening Gloves

Several studies suggest that low-impact gardening can be great for your gray matter.

For instance, one large study from Australia showed that regular gardeners were 36% less likely to develop dementia over time than non-gardeners. Another study from researchers in the Netherlands had people do a stressful task for a half hour, then switch to outdoor gardening or reading indoors for another half hour. At the end of the experiment, the gardeners had lower levels of cortisol—which is a hormone associated with stress—than the readers did. They also reported a positive mood after gardening, while the readers did not.

Here are some ideas for incorporating gardening into your life this month—even if you don’t have a space of your own.

  • Start Small
    If you have a garden that could use some work, get out there! Start with a smallish space that you can successfully take care of, rather than an overwhelmingly large space. You can work your way up. If you don’t have any available gardening space, you might start with a few window boxes with herbs or decorative plants.
  • Join a Community Garden
    If you don’t have gardening space, or would like to garden in a more social setting, many places around the world have community gardens. Oftentimes, you can join a community garden that already exists—or, you can start a new one in your community. The American Community Gardening Association is a good place for information if you’re in the U.S. or Canada, or the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network in Australia. Other nations have similar projects and organizations.
  • Build Your Knowledge
    Want to step up your gardening game? There are plenty of free online tips and videos, as well as some paid online classes through organizations such as My Garden School. Depending on where you live, there may also be local classes to attend to learn more about topics such as organic gardening, drought-resistant planting, bird-friendly gardens, and much more. Pick a subject that’s interesting to you to learn more about, then try your hand at it in your gardening space.
  • Garden for Yourself and Others
    Do good for your brain while doing good for others! There are many, many volunteer opportunities for gardeners on school campuses, at local parks, and for other organizations. You can find opportunities in your area online. If you don’t find anything, why not spearhead a project? For example, you might start a gardening club at a local school to beautify the grounds.    

1 McCallum J, Simons LA, Simons J, and Friedlander Y. Delaying dementia and nursing home placement. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 2007. 1114:121-129.
2 Van Den Berg AE, Custers MH. Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. J Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;16(1):3-11.

Recharge Your Brain: Meditation for Brain Health

Multiple studies have looked at meditation and how it relates to cognitive function, stress, and more. Several of these suggest that while meditation is not a cure-all, certain types of meditation can have positive benefits for sleep, anxiety and depression1, stress2, attention3, and other cognitive functions4. The right kind of meditation may even change connectivity in the brain5. So this month, try to make meditation a daily part of your life and see how it works for you! Here are some ideas for the beginning meditator:

  • There are many different meditation techniques. Start by reading up – which meditation style is most appealing to you? Many websites, such as Mindful Minutes, have some basic info.
  • If you want to start small, download an app or follow along with a video. There are many different apps available for both Android and iOS devices, and many online videos. Try a few to see what appeals to you.
  • As with any new skill, it’s often best to take a class to learn from an expert. Find a meditation center or any place that offers meditation classes near you and sign up. If you’re feeling really serious about it, you can even try a multi-day silent retreat!  
1Goyal M, Singh S et al. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;174(3):357-368.
2Grossman P, Niemann L, et.al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. J. Psychosomatic Res. 2004 Jul;57)1_:35-43.
3Chiesa A, Calati R, and Serretti A. Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clin. Psychol. Rev. s011 Apr;31(3):449-464.
4Zeidan F, Johnson SK, et al. Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition. 2010 Jun;19(2):597-605.
5Creswell JD, Taren AA, et al. Alterations in resting state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biol. Psychiatry. 2016 Jan 29; in press. Available online.

Sharpen Your Brain: Breadth or Depth on BrainHQ?

As you train in BrainHQ, you may wonder: What’s better, to do as many different exercises and levels in BrainHQ as I can, or to keep doing one level over and over until I feel like I can’t improve any more?

The answer is: Both. It’s a little like going to a gym for physical fitness. You need to repeat the same exercise over and over to gradually build that muscle. Just doing an exercise once isn’t as effective as doing it every day, with a little added challenge each time. But if you only do one exercise, you’ll miss out on other muscles. Doing multiple types of exercises gives you the best overall workout. That’s true for brain fitness, too.

BrainHQ’s personal trainer is designed to give you a combination of this breadth (many different levels) and depth (repeating one level multiple times). If you aren’t using the personal trainer, we recommend you repeat a level until you feel you aren’t making progress (or get a little bored or distracted), then move on. You can always go back to the level later and see if you can up your performance even more. What’s most important is that you keep focused and keep doing your brain training!