Contributing Factors to Cognitive Decline, and How to Counteract it

With age, brain researchers have found that there’s an increase in “chatter” in your brain. Dr. Merzenich explains:

“Your brain becomes less precise in how it’s resolving information as you’re operating and listening in language, as you’re operating in vision, or as you’re operating in controlling your actions. And we actually see these other noise processes through the brain as you age. In fact, we can correlate those changes quite directly with the slowing down of your processing.

You know, every older person is slower in their actions, slower in their decisions, and less fluent in their operations than when they’re younger. They’re slower because the brain basically is dealing with information in a fuzzier and degraded form.”

What research into brain plasticity shows us is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulus, you can counteract this degeneration. A key factor or ingredient necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting — it must hold your attention. Rote memorization of nonsensical or unimportant items will not stimulate your brain to create new neurons.

Dr. Merzenich has been instrumental in the development of a kind of environment — a computer-based brain training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more. The program is called Brain HQ1.

“There are some very useful exercises in there that are for free, and you can actually drive improvements, for example, in brain speed, in the accuracy, with which the brain represents information in detail,” he says.

“Basically, what you’re doing is reducing the chatter, the noisiness of the process of your brain. That impacts your capacity, for example, to record that information; to remember it. Because when the information is in its degraded form, when it’s fuzzy, when it’s imprecise, all of the uses of it – like your brain makes basically – are degraded.”

We know that you have to be engaged attentively, and in a sense that the more attentively focused you are, the more positively enabling machine the brain is when turned on.

“When it matters to you, you are going to drive changes in your brain,” he explains. “That’s something always to keep in mind. If what you’re doing seems senseless, meaningless, if it does not matter to you, then you’re gaining less from it.”

Look for and take note of surprises in your environment. “If you walk across the landscape and are paying attention, you cannot take a walk for 15, 20, or 30 minutes without being surprised,” he says. “And the brain loves surprises, because surprises mean that they must be engaged to interpret what they mean.”

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