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Growing old is just a fact of life. But does that mean our brain has to get old too? Reporter David Schechter is taking a viewer on the road to find out if brain training works. They’ll visit with an expert on brain training, learn new techniques and explore the connection between brain health and things like sleep, exercise, diet and supplements.
Pat and I are starting our journey at The Center for Brain Health, in Dallas. Stacy Vernon is checking our brain function by giving us a series of tests. She’s a clinician here with experience in neuropsychological and psychological assessment.
The first thing we’re learning is not to get hung up on the word “memory.” She’s saying what can be trained, that’s more helpful for you than memory, is brain function.
“Think of the brain working much better as a processor of information than a storage unit of information,” Vernon said.
The Center for Brain Health uses a training strategy called SMART: Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training. They teach it to adults, kids, CEOs, veterans and more.
And here’s the idea behind it:
Unlike multi-tasking, where your brain is bouncing between several unrelated things, Vernon says you exercise your brain by eliminating distractions and identifying just one thing to work on.
Now that you’re focused on your one thing, go deep into observation mode. What does this thing look like? Feel like? Sound like?
Once you’re seeing the thing in a deeper way, try connecting it with other ideas, concepts and theories you know about.
Finally, by re-assembling the thing together with outside concepts, the brain can make something new.
DESPITE WHAT YOU MAY HAVE READ, ONE SIZE, ONE SOLUTION, AND ONE RESEARCH STUDY DOES NOT FIT ALL.
At Corgan, we’ve been engaged in a year-long conversation about this issue with The Brain Performance Institute, an offshoot of the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health, focused on unlocking the potential of our brains. The science tells us that most of us need quiet to focus on tasks that require deep thinking. The science also says that 45 minutes is the maximum amount of time our brains can do this type of thinking at its highest level. It also says, we lose focus in meetings after 20 minutes! Tasks that are more rote or require less focus may benefit from being done with more stimulus. Ultimately, our brains need time to recover and reset between bouts of deep thinking—the kind of thinking that leads to innovation and new ideas.
Jennifer Zientz, head of clinical services for the institute explains: “While the science is helping us to understand environmental conditions for optimal performance, the truth is that we are currently working with the brain we’ve built. It may be surprising, but much of the way we function in the modern workplace is toxic to our brain health, and this translates to a cost on our performance.” Having a choice of space dependent on type of task may help to mitigate negative effects.
Think about your typical work day. You have email to answer, a spreadsheet to enter some data into, you grab coffee, work on a complex project, attend a few meetings (longer than 20 minutes, I feel sure), eat some salmon (brain healthy), look at Instagram (admit it), take a quick walk, and finally, more email. Should you do it all in one place, and if you did, would it optimize your performance?
Mnemonic tricks can be helpful, but more importantly, good lifestyle habits as well as strategies for processing new information can improve how your memory works. It’s not just about rote memorization—it’s about how info “sticks” in the brain to use later on. “Memorizing ‘stuff’ should not be the goal,” says Jennifer Zientz, MS, head of clinical services with the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “Using what you remember—combining memories with other knowledge to form new ideas and to make choices—is a more healthy way to use your brain, and will enhance your life more than worrying about your ability to remember ‘stuff.’” Read on for some tips on expanding your brain’s potential.
In order to free up your brain to remember new and important information, don’t waste energy trying to recall where you put your keys: It really is easier to find things if you always put them in the same place. “Having a routine can be very helpful for memory,” Zientz says. “Routines help us attain efficiency so we don’t have to expend a lot of brain power on predictable elements of our day. Efficiency in everyday activities frees up time and brain power for more meaningful things in our lives.” Try these genius brain boosters you can do before you leave for work.
Use your senses
If you have to put something in an unfamiliar place, say what you are doing out loud: “I am putting my sunglasses on the table by the door.” Or when you meet someone new, repeat their name out loud. This is one of those memory exercises proven to keep your brain sharp. “Most of us learn better when we can take information in through more than one sense because it puts the information in a greater context,” says Zientz. By letting your ears register the information, research shows you enhance your focus on it, increasing your chances of remembering it later.
It’s no surprise we can’t remember things when our attention is divided. “Today, we have access to an unprecedented amount of information,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. “It may seem counter-intuitive to slow down, but research has shown that the more people consume at once the shallower their thinking becomes. By taking in less information, you are better able to get meaning, develop knowledge, and actually build brain networks.” Filtering out these distractions improves the focus that leads to better memory, Zientz says. “The first thing we all have to do is put our cell phones away and stop multitasking,” she says.
One way to laser-focus your attention to boost memory is to start meditating. Chapman says the first step to enhancing brain function is to “prime your brain” by quieting it—and research has found meditation helps you avoid distracting, anxious, and stressful thoughts, which improves focus. One study showed students who took a mindfulness class and meditated for ten minutes a day did better on the GRE exam than students who didn’t. Research has also shown that meditation may actually change the structure of your brain by thickening areas associated with attention.
Free up your working memory by using external aids to organize information. Set up reminders of what you need to do each day on your cell phone calendar, or employ these 11 ways to use technology to stay organized. Better yet, studies have shown the simple act of writing things down can reinforce information in your memory. So keep Post-Its in every room and leave handwritten reminders where you’ll see them, and write a list before you go to the store so you don’t forget anything. Jot down these notes when they’re fresh in your mind—planning ahead helps your working memory actually perform current tasks instead of thinking about what needs to be done later.
Go out in nature
This simple activity can boost memory by 20 percent. Similar to meditating, walking in nature may calm anxious and distracting thoughts that mess with memory, as well as give the brain a break from multitasking to improve its performance later on. In one study, participants who took a walk in nature did better on memory tasks than those who walked in an urban setting. “Nature—even getting a mere glimpse of it—helps the brain calm itself and reset,” Chapman says
LAST YEAR’S THINK AHEAD GROUP’S 8TH ANNUAL KENTUCKY DERBY PARTY AT THE DALLAS ARBORETUM WAS SUCH A FIRST-CLASS FINISH THAT THEY’RE RETURNING SATURDAY, MAY 4.
While some guests took in the sunshine and played jenga on the grounds of The Camp House, others were inside singing as one of their own played Billy Joel tunes.
And while the Kentucky types may think they’re the end-alls, the BrainHealth Center’s TAG-guests will win by a nose with pretties in adorable sundresses and natty gems in seersucker suits and bowties sip icy drinks overlooking White Rock Lake.
If you’re not so horsey or racy, not to worry. There’ll be plenty of non-racing activities to amuse from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. 2019 TAG Co-Presidents Kristen Carter and Kendal Kramer have arranged for the 9th Annul Kentucky Derby Party to have a silent auction, lawn games galore, an open bar, southern snacks, a DJ and, of course, a photo booth.
But two things are a “must” — get your tickets now and bring your self-phones to share with the world your winning look.
BTW, if Mother Nature dumps on North Texas, who cares? The Camp house will be the perfect setting with a huge screen for the Run for the Roses.
THE 5TH ANNUAL DALLAS FESTIVAL OF BOOKS IDEAS PROMISES A LOT OF MOVING PARTS, INVOLVING DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE ELDERLY, CULTURAL AND RACIAL DIVERSITY AND DALLAS AS A BEACON OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.
But that’s not all. This year’s festival also promises a candid look at Dallas’ present and future as a literary city.
The 2019 version, which opens May 28 and runs through June 1, looms as a first for the festival, which is now a partnership, shared with The Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, the Dallas Public Library, Friends of the Dallas Public Library and the Dallas Museum of Art.
Here’s a look at the topics the festival will cover:
1) “The Physical City” will consider the elderly and how Dallas can address “its elders’ needs and benefit from the wisdom and experience.”
Its keynote speaker will be professor Emi Kiyota, an environmental gerontologist who directs the nonprofit Ibasho, whose motto is: “Creating socially integrated and sustainable communities that value their elders.”
Sandra Bond Chapman, director at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, is part of the panel, which will be moderated by Mark Lamster, architecture critic of The News.
That discussion will take place from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on May 28, at the Brain Performance Institute of UTD, 2200 Mockingbird Lane in Dallas.
A SIGHT THAT STOOD OUT TO JUDSON BREWER DURING HIS FIRST TRIP TO PARIS WITH HIS WIFE A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO: THE TOURISTS.
Brewer, a psychiatrist who studies behavioral change, noticed visitors snapping photographs, posting on social media, and then spending the rest of their time checking their phones for likes and comments instead of enjoying the Louvre Museum.
So, what’s going on there?
It turns out that talking about ourselves is rewarding – much like eating a cupcake makes us happy or smoking a cigarette helps us destress.
This cyclical pattern of reward-based habit is about as primitive as it gets for humans, explained Brewer, who was in Dallas recently to speak during the Center for BrainHealth’s annual lecture series.
For example, let’s talk about those cupcakes. We see food that looks good, and our brain says, ‘Calories! Survival!’ So, we eat the food, and our brain remembers how good it made us feel and uses the same process to deal with emotions like being bored or sad.
See food. Eat food. Feel good. Repeat.
“Mindfulness is about changing relationships with thoughts, not freeing the mind of thinking.” -Judson Brewer
THE INSTITUTE—AND PERHAPS DON DRAPER—CAN TEACH US SOMETHING ABOUT A HEALTHY WORK LIFE.
Sanjiv Das’ day used to include 10 to 12 meetings a day. The Caliber Home Loans CEO would sit through presentations while checking email, making decisions, and guiding the business in its day-to-day operations. Caliber is one of the largest mortgage companies in the country and is consistently rated in the top five nationwide. But amidst all of the success, Das decided to turn his schedule upside down. He slashed his number of meetings in half, shortened presentations, and took more breaks. Was he sabotaging his career and the business along with it? Or did he know what he was doing?
Das says he was always in hyperactivity mode before he changed his ways, running Caliber’s sales force of over 1,800 employees across more than 340 locations nationwide and a portfolio of more than $90 billion. Over the past few years, the company had grown rapidly, acquiring other loan companies like First Priority Financial and Banc Home Loans along the way. He needed to be on top of his game at all times, which led him to an interest in cognitive training and behavioral economics.
Knowing how much Das prioritized maximizing efficiency, Ross Perot Jr. introduced him to UT Dallas’ Center for BrainHealth, an organization that works to understand how to protect, restore, and maximize the brain’s power.
“When I saw what was going on, I was kind of blown away by the quality of the people that were there and the amount of work that was there,” Das says. “I felt that there was a big opportunity in the commercial world to be able to leverage that.”
DEFINING BRAIN HEALTH
For generations, physical fitness has been a health priority–an assumed piece of what it takes to be healthy. But brain health hasn’t received the same treatment. People don’t give as much attention to their brain health as they do to their hearts, but the CBH wants to change that.
The CBH’s Brain Performance Institute has a number of programs and training sessions to help everyone from students and CEOs to veterans. Its Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) is based on research performed at the center about what makes our brains function best. Das went through the training after taking a brain health assessment to better understand his strengths and weaknesses.
According to Jennifer Zientz, head of clinical services at the Brain Performance Institute, up to 50 percent of what we do every day can be toxic to our brains. Although advice like eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and drinking water make sense from a general health standpoint, there are other habits we think are making us more efficient that could be backfiring.
Many professionals wear their ability to multitask like a badge of honor, but the training teaches otherwise. Many people feel they aren’t being efficient if they aren’t checking their email during a conference call or meeting, but CBH research pushes back against being constantly busy and overstimulated.
“These pervasive behaviors make meetings inefficient and ineffective, and the cost of that is significant,” Zientz says.
Overcoming preconceived notions about what makes one most efficient is part of the battle, but another is helping participants in the SMART program understand what they are getting and not getting. Many people expect to learn tips and tricks to help them have better memory, but the training is more about strengthening the executive functions and problem-solving of the brain.
For CEOs like Das, the training helps leaders take in massive amounts of information and know where to focus. “If I get 50 things every day, I am able to know which ones need my attention,” Zientz says.
In the “Indian Summer” episode on the first season of Mad Men, Don Draper is giving an up-and-coming Peggy Olson some advice about how he comes up with his best ideas. “Peggy, just think about it deeply,” he says. “Then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.”
Don Draper understood something that the folks at the institute have been trying to communicate to professionals from around the world. Working harder, stressing over decisions, and spending more time on work can be counter-productive.
After his initial assessment, Das received a detailed report that helped him understand how his brain worked, where his strengths and weaknesses were, and specific recommendations about what he could do to improve. He needed more breaks between intense concentration, and fewer meetings. He needed to give his mind time to process an`d recuperate after working hard.
“We recommend that you take breaks away from your phone five times a day,” says Leanne Young, executive director of the Brain Performance Institute. “It sounds super trivial, but it is hard to implement.”
AMAZING THINGS ARE HAPPENING ALL OVER DALLAS, BUT FEW PEOPLE ARE AWARE OF THEM. MANY TAKE PLACE BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, HIDDEN DEEP WITHIN UNIVERSITY CAMPUSES AND MEDICAL BUILDINGS.
Many years ago, I worked near a research hospital in New York City that hung a giant red billboard off its skybridge. “Amazing Things Are Happening Here,” it said. The statement was presumptuous but effective. No longer would I wander past that aging structure without thinking of daring surgeries and experimental treatments.
As I drive around Dallas interviewing physicians and researchers, I think back to that sign and imagine it at local hospitals and universities.
Over the next five Saturdays, Dallas Morning News readers and members of the general public will have the chance to explore these important advances firsthand. Southern Methodist University, UT Southwestern Medical Center, the University of Texas at Dallas, UTDs’ Center for BrainHealth, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and the nonprofit talkSTEM have partnered with The Dallas Morning News to connect the Dallas-Fort Worth community with researchers working at the frontiers of their fields. Those who register in advance will be able to visit research labs free of charge and take part in hands-on experiences created just for them.
HOW WE CAN USE BRAIN MAPPING AND VIDEO TO SOLVE PUZZLES — AND EVEN SPOT A LIAR
Many of us think that we can spot a liar by seeing classic “tells” — signs like shifty eyes, fidgety movements or smiling too much. But in lab settings, we’re often not much better than 50-50 at distinguishing liars from truth-tellers. Linda Ngyuen, a graduate student at UTD’s Center for BrainHealth, wants to understand if we’re better at spotting liars by reasoning it out or going with our gut.
To find out, she had subjects watch videos of people, some of whom are lying and others who are not. There were two groups: One was asked to reason out whether the speaker was lying, and the other group was distracted with an unrelated task before being asked to quickly make a decision about whether the speaker was lying or not. Preliminary results indicate the latter group, which had to make a gut-level decision because of the added task, were better at spotting deception than those who thought it through. Nguyen also wants to use neuroimaging to peer into the brains of the subjects to see if we process deception differently.
Nguyen’s fellow graduate student, Michael Lundie, also wants to suss out how the brain processes situations differently. He focuses on understanding how our brains generate creative solutions to problems. Are eureka moments ethereal events that just come to us by chance? Or can we train our brains to make them more likely?
Lundie draws on research that imaged the brains of people thinking through puzzles that required out-of-the-box thinking. When the subject had the eureka moment, an area in the left prefrontal cortex lit up. Lundie is investigating whether certain training exercises designed to boost creativity might activate this same area, and potentially make those eureka moments a little more common. — Jonathan Lambert
The Center for BrainHealth will host an open house on March 23 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet the scientists and explore how the brain works and ways to enhance the way you think, learn, work and live. Admission is free with advance registration. Ages 10 and up.
IS OFFERING A PACKED PROGRAM SCHEDULE YOUR BEST WAY TO DEMONSTRATE ROI FOR YOUR ATTENDEES?
Is offering a packed program schedule — tracks upon tracks, multiple sessions held at the same time, and with one on top of the next so there’s little time for breaks — your best way to demonstrate roi for your attendees?
You may think that you are giving participants the widest possible choice in terms of what they want to learn, but two Convening Leaders 2019 session speakers shared why that kind of program actually detracts from the learning experience.
Overscheduling drains your brain, said Dee O’Neill, MS, LPC, BCN, head of executive and corporate programs at the Brain Performance Institute at the Center for BrainHealth, under the umbrella of The University of Texas at Dallas. At her session, “Using Neuroscience to Enrich Storytelling,” O’Neill discussed what neuroscience researchers have learned about the brain’s executive or frontal lobe, which oversees our complex problem solving, innovative thinking, emotional intelligence, mental flexibility, judgment, and decision-making functions.
Those are the cognitive functions we want to spark at our conferences. “It is our brain’s CEO, or ‘Cognitive Executive Officer,’” O’Neill said. Once you understand the brain’s chemistry, you can learn what drives and drains it, she said.
The other three things that drain your brain? Feeling unproductive, deep-thought deprived, and cruising on autopilot. “The culprit is information overload and there are strategies to combat each,” she said.
SCIENCE IS ALL OVER THE NEWS THESE DAYS. WE HEAR ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE AND AUTOMATED CARS AND THE MYSTERIES OF THE BRAIN.
A lot of what happens with science takes place behind closed doors, hidden on the leafy campuses of universities or in quiet corners of medical office buildings.
But the good news for people who live in North Texas, and their families, is that The Dallas Morning News and its partners want to help you peer inside research labs while meeting some of the most important scientists in the country.
This year, “Science in the City” will unfold over a series of Saturdays from March 16 to April 13. Visitors will learn about groundbreaking brain research, self-driving cars, artificial limbs, prehistoric animals, earthquakes and nuclear explosions.
In addition to all that, interactive experience is also part of the lure.
“What’s different this year is that it’s bigger,” says Anna Kuchment, who wrote about science for Newsweek and Scientific American before joining The News in 2013.
Last year, the program had three partners, Southern Methodist University, UT Southwestern Medical Center and walkSTEM, an initiative of the talkSTEM organization, which provides unique ways of thinking about mathematics and science in natural and built environments.
Those three are back again this year, along with the University of Texas at Dallas, the Center for BrainHealth and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. So, yes, the program has doubled its size.
THE EVENTS ARE SCHEDULED AS FOLLOWS:
March 16, 9 a.m. The kickoff event will happen at the Perot Museum, where visitors can obtain a discounted ticket for $10 each. All other events are free; March 23, 9:30 a.m., the Center for BrainHealth; March 30, 9 a.m., UT Dallas; April 6, 10 a.m., UT Southwestern; April 13, 9 a.m., SMU. Registration is required; sign up and get more location details at scienceinthecity.splashthat.com.