How ‘Virtual Gym’ eStragy is Using CogniFit to Help eSports Players Level Up!

Video games have come a long way over the past decades. What was once little more than a fun distraction has grown into an industry that affects so much of what we do, from the movies we watch and the theme parks we visit to the way we learn, communicate, and interact with the world.

Giant companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon are battling for a piece of the action through projects such as YouTube, Twitch, and Oculus, while veteran companies like Microsoft and Sony are investing heavily in maintaining their market share. All the while, young gamers are trying to make a name for themselves as ‘Streamers’ or in the fast-growing world of eSports.

As interest continues to grow, and importantly, as companies continue to invest heavily in the video game industry, players from around the world are beginning to see being a ‘Gamer’ as a viable—and potentially lucrative—alternative to more traditional choices such as being an athlete or musician.

But just as a dedicated athlete knows they must invest time in the gym as well as the practice field if they want to continue to improve, Young Gamers hoping to reach the top of their abilities must work to strengthen their most important muscle: their brain.

eStragy Aims to Help ‘Gamers’ Reach Their Full Potential

eStragy is a brand new ‘virtual gym’ designed specifically for gamers. Built around one of the most popular competitive, online multiplayer games, League of Legends, eStragy has taken some of the most popular and effective ideas from the world of physical fitness and adapted them to the needs of Gamers.

The eSports training platform evaluates data taken directly from the game as the gamer plays—much in the same way that a fitness tracker tracks a person’s steps and sleep—and builds a complete profile of the gamer’s strengths, weaknesses, and growth over time.

The eStragy Dashboard

By analyzing the player’s performance in the game over time, the eStragy platform can determine which cognitive skills the player can train to improve their overall performance in the game—skills such as hand-eye coordination, focus, processing speed, and more.

eStragy Chose CogniFit Brain Training Activities to Boost Player Performance

Once eStragy has created the profile of the player’s performance and cognitive skills, players are able to create customized training plans based on the cognitive abilities they wish to improve and the training schedule that best fits their life.

Personalized Brain Training in the eStragy Platform.

These personalized training schedules allow players to focus on the specific areas that will significantly improve their play. CogniFit’s trusted brain training activities help these gamers increase the neural connections related to some of the most significant cognitive abilities used when playing video games or throughout our daily lives.

For gamers looking for a little extra training, eStragy also allows users to select individual training activities, which have been divided into six categories: Technique, Speed, Focus, Vision, Memory, and Strategy.

Engaging and Effective Brain Training Activities in the eStragy Platform.

What’s Next for eStragy and CogniFit?

This exciting collaboration between eStragy and CogniFit is scheduled to enter the closed Beta phase at the end of May, with a public Beta set for September of this year.

Product Launch Roadmap for eStragy Virtual Gym.

We are eager to see how users respond to the training during these Beta phases and are excited to continue refining and updating the brain training activities in preparation for the scheduled public release in January 2022.

Professionals Can Add Multiple Users at Once with the New Bulk Upload Feature

CogniFit has been dedicated to creating powerful cognitive testing and training tools for both individual and professional users, and we are constantly reviewing feedback from our users to continually make our solutions more user-friendly.

While it might not be the flashiest new feature, we are excited to announce the release of one of our most-requested features for the professional platforms: Bulk Upload!

What is Bulk Upload?

CogniFit’s platforms for professionals now offer bulk upload for adding multiple users.

For users of our professional platforms for educators, clinicians, and researchers, adding new students, patients, or research participants to their account has been a manual process that could become quite time-consuming for professionals needing to add multiple users.

With this new time-saving update, these professional users can add all of their students, patients, or research participants to their professional accounts in only a few clicks by uploading a simple CSV spreadsheet to the platform.

Simply upload an easy-to-use CSV document and CogniFit does the rest!

Now, professionals looking to add an entire classroom of students, dozens of research participants, or their full list of patients, simply need to upload a CSV with users’ name, surname, and email, and CogniFit will do the rest!

Learn More About CogniFit’s Tools for Professionals and Individuals

For more information on our platforms for professionals, check out our pages for the platform for Health Professionals, Schools and Teachers, and Researchers.

But even if you aren’t a professional user, CogniFit still has plenty to offer in the form of complete cognitive assessments and fun brain training games like the brand-new Penguin Explorer!

Penguin Explorer: CogniFit’s Exciting New Brain Training Game

Keeping up with our mission to continually release fun and challenging new content for our users, we are excited to announce the release of a brand-new brain game: Penguin Explorer.

With the hot summer months just around the corner for most of us, this exciting puzzle game is the perfect way to keep your mind off the heat while stimulating spatial perception ability.

Penguin Explorer is a fun new puzzle game.

About the game

Penguin Explorer is a great way to exercise and challenge your brain while helping the fun little penguin clear the snow while avoiding obstacles.

The aim of the game is to help the penguin remove snow from all of the tiles on the map as quickly as possible by sliding along the ice. But be careful to not run into any obstacles along the way!

As the game progresses, the maps get bigger, more complex, and you have to keep your quick wits if you want to clear the board before time runs out. Try to plan each move as quickly as possible to clear the snow from the whole map.

The science behind the game

This exciting puzzle game is based on popular maze-like puzzles with a long history dating back over 50 years.

CogniFit’s team of designers developed Penguin Explorer as a fun twist on this genre of games and created a game that challenges not only the user’s special perception like typical maze games, but also inhibition and planning cognitive abilities.

Let’s take a look at these important cognitive abilities that Penguin Explorer helps stimulate:

Spatial Perception

Spatial perception is the ability to be aware of your relationships with the environment around you (exteroceptive processes) and with yourself (interoceptive processes).

Spatial awareness is made up of two processes, the exteroceptive, which creates representations about our space through feelings, and interoceptive processes, which create representations about our body, like its position or orientation. Space is what surrounds us: objects, elements, people, etc. Space also makes up part of our thinking, as it is where we join all of our experiences. In order to get proper information about the characteristics of our surroundings, we use two systems.

Inhibition

Inhibition is one of our most used cognitive functions. It is how the brain corrects behavior. Inhibition is what makes it possible for us to stay quiet when you want to say something, but know that you shouldn’t, it’s what helps you stay quiet and seated when you’re in class, it’s what helps you stay safe when someone merges into your lane without using their blinker, and it’s what helps you study or work, even when you get bored or want to get up.

Inhibition allows you to react to unforeseen or risky situations safely and quickly. Well-developed inhibition or inhibitory control can help improve behavior and make it possible to perform better academically, at work, on the road, and with friends.

Planning

Planning is a fundamental cognitive skill that forms part of our executive functions. Planning can be defined as ability to “think about the future” or mentally anticipate the right way to carry-out a task or reach a specific goal. Planning is the mental process that allows us to choose the necessary actions to reach a goal, decide the right order, assign each task to the proper cognitive resources, and establish a plan of action.

How to play the game

Penguin Explorer is a deceptively simple puzzle game. Move the penguin up, down, left, or right along the paths, clearing snow from each tile the penguin crosses.

But even penguins, who live in the ice and snow, have trouble stopping on the ice. Each time you move, the penguin will travel along the ice until they run into a wall, so be careful to not slide the penguin into one of the many obstacles on the board!

Try to clear the board as quickly as possible and collect treasures along the way for bonus points!

Conclusion

Playing games like CogniFit’s Penguin Explorer stimulates a specific neural activation pattern. Repeatedly playing and consistently training this pattern helps neural circuits reorganize and recover weakened or damaged cognitive functions.

Now seems like a perfect time to play this fun and exciting puzzle game—and train some of the most important cognitive abilities at the same time!

The Cognitive Research Platform: Introducing CogniFit for Researchers

CogniFit has been a trusted brain-training tool for over 20 years, helping millions of users strengthen the neural pathways that allow us to use some of our most important cognitive abilities; abilities such as memory, attention, focus, and more.

As CogniFit continues to grow, we are always exploring new ways to leverage our powerful technologies to help people—at home, in the classroom, in the clinician’s office, and beyond.

All of CogniFit’s products—both our selection of engaging brain games and training tasks, as well as our selection of cognitive assessments—have been developed through a collaboration between clinicians, psychologists, cognitive scientists, medical researchers, educators, and software engineers. And it is this foundation in scientific best practices which has allowed us to develop one of our most exciting new offerings: the Cognitive Research Platform.

A powerful Cognitive Research Platform for Scientific Investigation

Based on the same core cognitive training and assessment technology already being used and trusted by clinicians, teachers, and families across the globe, the new Cognitive Research Platform has been developed with the specific needs of research teams undertaking clinical, scientific, experimental studies in the areas of cognitive health and well-being in mind.

The platform offers all of the features that have made our other professional platforms, such as the Platform for Health Professionals and the Platform for Educators, so popular; features such as the ability to quickly and easily manage and track multiple users, create groups to organize interventions, and the ability to communicate with users—redesigned with the specific needs of researchers in mind. In addition to these features common across all of our professional tools, the Cognitive Research Platform also includes unique features designed specifically for researchers, such as the ability to assign participants to experimental and control groups with multiple cognitive training intervention options—participants can be assigned personalized training with algorithmically-adjusted difficulty, non-personalized “placebo” training set to the lowest difficulty each session, providing researchers the ability to study the effects of personalized cognitive training versus generic brain games—as well as easy to use methods for collecting and exporting data for analysis including indexed data related to each variable in the study and reference data for calculating fundamental information such as the Z-score.

Adding Participants to Groups in the Cognitive Research Platform.

Another unique aspect of the research platform is the ability for researchers to design investigations focused on specific brain conditions and pathologies (such as Depression, Parkinson’s, and ADHD) in addition to the general cognitive abilities available in the other professional and consumer platforms (such as Memory, Coordination, and Mental Arithmetic).

The Research Platform Opens Exciting New Doors for CogniFit

Though the Cognitive Research Platform is a relatively new venture for CogniFit, we are already seeing interest and, importantly, adoption of the platform in the research community.

Several studies are already underway, using the Cognitive Research Platform to investigate critical cognitive health issues such as how cognitive decline associated with aging can affect the workplace and how cognitive training can improve the productivity of age-diverse teams and how cognitive training can alleviate some of the most common secondary symptoms of Epilepsy such as changes in mood, difficulty sleeping, and cognitive and learning difficulties.

As we continue to build valuable partnerships with research teams across the globe, we are greatly increasing our ability to explore the role that cognitive training—not only for general cognitive abilities, but importantly, for specific brain conditions and pathologies—has in improving our cognitive health and well-being.

Developing this deeper understanding of the real-world impacts of specific cognitive abilities and brain conditions, and the effects that cognitive training can have, will allow us to continue to develop our core technologies, improve the efficacy of our current training and assessment tools, and create the next generation of CogniFit products for new segments of the cognitive health market.

Conclusion

We are fortunate to live in a world where the average person lives longer than ever before, where many of the physical ailments affecting humanity have effective remedies, and where nutritional food is readily available to so many of us.

And though we, as humans, still have plenty of work to do in these areas of physical health, the progress we have already made means that we are now able to focus more attention on the mental-health needs of a global population which is dealing more than ever with the effects of cognitive decline due to aging demographics, increased stress- and attention-related cognitive issues due to an always-on, always-connected culture in both our professional and personal lives, and more.

Our goal at CogniFit is to be a leader in this paradigm shift towards providing support and solutions for the increasingly important mental and cognitive health needs of the global community, and we believe that the Cognitive Research Platform is a key piece of this ongoing journey.

The DINNOS Project: How researchers are using CogniFit to study the effects of age diversity in the workplace

As workers move throughout their career, they learn new skills, obtain valuable experience, and become knowledgeable in the important details of their role and their industry. However, this experience doesn’t come without a trade-off. As these veteran employees grow older, they can lose some of the cognitive flexibility and sharpness they had as younger workers just entering the workforce.

And, though it may seem like building teams with members of the same or similar ages would create more fluent and effective communication and less emotional and cultural conflicts, when businesses can successfully take advantage of the unique value team members from across the age spectrum are able to provide, there is potential for the development of new ideas and innovations as these varied experiences and backgrounds mix.

But how can businesses ensure these diverse teams members come together to form a cohesive unit and that employees are able to bring the most value in their roles throughout their career.

Understanding How Businesses Can Create Successful Age-Diverse Teams

The research team behind The DINNOS Project has taken up this exact question in an attempt to address the challenges businesses face when building groups with ‘age heterogeneous team composition’.

This project, which will be evaluating hundreds of small- and medium-sized businesses across the United Kingdom and Germany will focus on two distinct factors which affect the creation of successful age-diverse teams: How managers build and lead teams, and how the cognitive state of older employees affects the success of the teams.

For the first aspect, the researchers will be looking at the effects of leadership training for managers, and for the second, they will be studying the effect of cognitive training for older employees.

Using CogniFit’s Cognitive Training to Improve Workplace Outcomes?

For any employee to be successful, regardless of age, they need to have the appropriate Cognitive Ability—defined in this study as “a general mental capability involving reasoning, problem-solving, planning, abstract thinking, complex idea comprehension, and learning from experience”—required by the role.

The DINNOS Project has partnered with CogniFit to measure and train the cognitive abilities of older employees in areas such as Memory Processes (e.g., Short-term Memory), Executive Functions (e.g., Inhibition and Attention), Processing Speed (e.g., Response Time), and Logical Reasoning (e.g., Planning).

By understanding how the cognitive state of these employees affects the performance of age-diverse teams—and importantly, the role that cognitive training plays in mitigating the negative effects of the aging brain—the researchers hope to be able to develop systems to help businesses create thriving, successful age-diverse teams.

Conclusion

We look forward to posting a follow-up with some of the important insights the research team learns once the results have been collected and analyzed.

For more information on the DINNOS Project, visit their website at https://dinnos-h2020.com/.

Digits: A Challenging New Mathematical Puzzle

CogniFit has been working hard this year to continue providing our users with the highest quality games and activities. Our newest addition is a fun and challenging mathematical game called Digits. 

About the game

CogniFit’s new math game Digits

Digits is a mathematical puzzle game that tests the user’s ability to quickly organize numbers according to the indicated rules. 

While the game starts out simple enough—with only a handful of numbers and a single rule— user’s should keep their focus, because the game can quickly present a challenge for even the sharpest minds. As the game progresses, not only does the quantity of numbers increase, but also the complexity of the rules, and users will have to keep up a fast pace if they want to finish each level before the timer runs out! 

The science behind the game

Digits has been developed with the key cognitive abilities in mind: Processing speed, Working Memory, & Visual Scanning

While playing Digits, users are stimulating specific neural activation patterns related to these cognitive abilities. Repeating and training these patterns consistently can help create new synapses, and help neural circuits reorganize and regain weakened or damaged cognitive functions.

Let’s take a look at these core cognitive abilities, how they help us with tasks, both simple and complex, in our everyday lives, and what makes them so important to everything we do:

Processing Speed

Processing speed is one of the main cognitive abilities we rely on every day, and is a core aspect of learning, academic performance, intellectual development, reasoning, and experience.

Processing speed is a cognitive ability defined as the time it takes a person to process a situation or stimulus and develop a response. It is related to the speed at which a person can understand and react to the information they receive, whether it be visual (letters and numbers), auditory (language), or movement. In other words, processing speed is the time between receiving a stimulus and responding to it.

Poor processing speed does not mean that a person is unintelligent, but rather that some determined tasks may require more time to perform, like reading, doing math, listening and taking notes, or holding conversations. It may also interfere with executive functions, as a person with slow processing speed will have a harder time planning, setting goals, making decisions, starting tasks, or paying attention.

Some examples of how we slow processing speed might affect our daily lives:

  • Does it take you an hour to do an assignment that takes others only 30 minutes?
  • Do you have a hard time following instructions or planning a specific activity, especially when you don’t have a lot of time to finish it?
  • Do you do poorly on exams, even when you know the material?

Working Memory

Working memory, or operative memory, can be defined as the set of processes that allow us to store and manipulate temporary information and carry-out complex cognitive tasks like language comprehension, reading, learning, or reasoning. Working memory is a type of short-term memory.

Working memory, according to Baddley and Hitch, is made up of a few systems, which include components for information storage and processing.

  • The Central Executive System: Works like an attention supervision system that decides what we pay attention to and how to organize a sequence of operations that we will need to do to do an action.
  • The Phonological Loop: This allows us to manage and retain spoken and written material in our memory.
  • The Visual-spatial Agenda: This allows us to manage and retain visual information.
  • The Episodic Buffer: integrates information from the phonological loop, visuospatial sketchpad, long-term memory, and the perceptive entrance into a coherent sequence.

Working memory refers to the ability that allows us to retain the elements that we need in our brain while we carry-out a certain task. Thanks to working or operative memory, we are able to:

  • Integrate two or more things that took place close together. For example, remembering and responding to the information that was said during a conversation.
  • Associate a new concept with previous ideas. It allows us to learn
  • Retain information while we pay attention to something else. For example, we are able to prepare the ingredients that we need for a recipe while we talk on the phone.

We use our working or operative memory on a daily basis for a number of tasks. When we try to remember a telephone number before writing it down or when we are immersed in conversation: we need to remember what was just said, process it, and respond to it by giving our own opinion. When we take notes at school: we need to remember what the teacher said so that we can write it down in our own words. When we do mental math in the supermarket to see if we have enough money to pay.

Visual Scanning

Visual scanning is the ability to efficiently, quickly, and actively look for information relevant to your environment. It is what makes it possible to find what you’re looking for using just your vision. Visual scanning is an important skill for daily life and makes it possible to efficiently carry out a number of different tasks.

Visual scanning is a function of visual perception that is aimed at detecting and recognizing visual stimuli. When you want to find something in your around you, your brain will automatically go through a series of interrelated processes:

  • Selective and Focused Attention: You need to be aware and focused on a stimulus in order to find it. Focused attention refers to the ability to focus your attention on a stimulus. Selective attention, however, is the ability to pay attention to a single stimulus when there are distracting stimuli present.
  • Visual Perception: Makes it possible to distinguish, identify, and interpret shapes, colors, and lights. This is when you make sense of the information that you receive from your eyes.
  • Recognition: Comparing the visual information you receive to determine whether or not you have prior experience with said information.
  • Visual Scanning: Looking through all or part of your field of view to try to compare what you’re seeing to what you’re looking for. You will stop looking as soon as you recognize the information that you’re looking for.

If any of these processes are altered, it would be impossible to locate a target object, either because you can’t find it (poor attention), because you can’t distinguish the object from its surroundings (poor perception), because you don’t recognize the stimulus (poor recognition), or because you don’t properly scan the area (poor visual scanning).

  • There are a number of jobs that require visual scanning. Police officers or members of the military have to be able to quickly and precisely detect objects that may be dangerous. Store employees have to use visual scanning to keep an eye out for products that may be misplaced or clients that need help. Almost any job has some level of a visual component that requires good visual scanning.
  • Students are constantly using visual scanning at school, whether it’s to pay attention to the board, read a book, or understand a presentation. It would difficult to study new material if the student is unable to find the word or idea in their notes or textbooks when they are trying to review the information before a test.
  • Driving requires you to constantly be on the lookout for other cars, accidents, potential hazards, traffic signs, pedestrians, and a number of other objects or situations. Poor visual scanning may inhibit your ability to successfully scan the environment for potential problems, decreasing your driving ability.
  • Visual scanning is an essential part of playing sports. Most sports require you to easily and quickly scan the space for relevant stimuli, which may be teammates, rivals, a ball, a goal, or any other vital component of the game. If you are playing football and want to pass the ball to a teammate, you have to visually scan the field to find him or her and then pass the ball to them.

How to play the game

The objective of Digits is to organize the various numbers in an ascending and/or descending order, based on the rules indicated at each moment. As the level increases, the quantity of numbers to order will also increase. Users need to stay focused and order the numbers as quickly as possible—trying to avoid mistakes which can cause them to lose points—before the time runs out.

Conclusion

One of the fundamental parts of mathematics is the numerical value— that is, if one figure is greater than, equal to, or less than another. Although this is something that we learn in childhood, and most of us understand this concept very easily, it can be challenging to apply it in the real world when under pressure.

CogniFit’s newest game Digits presents an engaging and fun way to train the cognitive skills that can help us to keep a sharp mind and boost our abilities related to numerical value.

CogniFit Incorporates AWS Technology Simplify, Streamline, & Supercharge Our Data

From the very beginning, CogniFit has been keenly aware of the importance of using good data. Our tools for cognitive assessment and stimulation are conceptualized, planned, and developed with accurate, scientific data in mind, which has allowed our platform to grow into a tool used not only by individuals around the world who want to give themselves or their loved ones a brain boost, but also education and healthcare professionals who need a powerful platform for assessing, tracking, and training the cognitive abilities of their students and clients.

But that isn’t the only way CogniFit creates value through data. The massive amount of data generated by our platform can be used by scientific researchers as well, providing a unique source of information on cognitive abilities and how these abilities play an integral role in everything we do. CogniFit has chosen to use Amazon Web Service platform to create a valuable data ecosystem, allowing us to simplify our data storage processes, streamline the way we use and interact with our data, and supercharge our ability to create value from data for our customers and our research partners.

How CogniFit uses Amazon Web Services To Bring Even More Value to Our Cognitive Data

We chose to use Amazon’s AWS platform as a key part of our data infrastructure because of the power and relative simplicity of their platform. Here are a few examples of how we use AWS:

Simplifying Data Storage

CogniFit’s physical data is split between two main databases which keep separate personal information used for applications such as registering on our website and making payments from the data created by our applications which include information which might indicate, for example, a user’s physical or mental health status.

While there are multiple reasons for the way our physical data storage is organized, the personal privacy of our users is paramount among these. However, there may be times when we need to compare data which might reside on one database, such as a user’s ability to visually focus on a single stimulus, with data from another, such as age.

By using the AWS Database Migration Service to create data buckets in the Simple Storage Service, we are able to create a simple and safe data ‘sandbox’ where we can manipulate our data without putting our user’s information at risk.

In addition, we use Amazon’s RDS (Relational Database Service) to help us simplify the way we manage our databases. Using the AWS EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) to host our Front-End servers, we are able to take advantage of powerful load-balancing and autoscaling features to adapt our system to the variable traffic demands throughout the day, meaning we can seamlessly provide our users with peak performance during the high traffic periods without wasting server resources during low traffic periods.

Not only does AWS provide us with fantastic tools to create a powerful, efficient, and flexible data storage plan, through Amazon’s WAF (Web Application Firewall), we are able to ensure our web apps are safe and secure from online threats.

Streamlining Data Processing

With the data tools such as AWS Glue, we are able to refine, filter, and process data in new and powerful ways, allowing us to turn raw data into organized, valuable information.

The creation of virtual databases using tools such as the AWS Glue Crawler and the AWS Glue ETL Jobs allows us to build simple yet powerful sources of data for a variety of internal and external applications.

In this way, we can build individualized databases, specifically designed to meet the requirements of each data application.  

Supercharging Data Analysis

Of course, data—even perfectly organized data—isn’t worth anything if we aren’t able to understand it and see the stories it is trying to tell. That’s where AWS tools such as SageMaker, Athena, and QuickSight come in.

If the tools in the toolchest of AWS Glue helped us turn data into information, these tools help us turn information into insights.

SageMaker is giving our data science department and software development teams the ability to create hyper-personalized recommendations and adjust complexity and difficulty of cognitive tasks on the fly to give our users the best possible experience and outcomes.

In addition, the business insights coming from QuickSight help us to understand our business like never before, shining new light on our user’s behaviors and needs.

But gathering and processing data is only one part of how we create incredible value for our partners and customers. Our priority is to deliver powerful solutions based on our unique cognitive data.

Amazon’s Cloudfront CDN allows us to deliver data, applications, and APIs to our researcher and developer partners globally with low latency and high transfer speeds, as well as to deliver engaging and challenging cognitive training and assessment tools to our customers safely, effectively, and quickly.

Conclusion

Amazon Web Services has allowed us to push our data even further than before. The integration of tools such as Simple Storage Service, AWS Glue Crawler, and SageMaker into our data infrastructure has unlocked new potential for our data.

CogniFit Collaborates With Research Universities on Epilepsy Study

Epilepsy is a unique neurological condition characterized by unpredictable seizures and other health problems. But even though it is the 4th most common neurological condition and affects more than 65 million people worldwide, there are often misconceptions and lack of general understanding of what Epilepsy is.

While many people have heard of the disorder, many have an incorrect understanding of what Epilepsy is, assuming the someone with this disorder will instantly go into seizure at the sight of flashing lights.

The truth of the matter is much more complex, and the effects of Epilepsy, including seizures, are much more nuanced. As a neurological condition affecting the brain, Epilepsy can lead to changes in mood, difficulty sleeping, and even cognitive and learning difficulties, depending on the areas of the brain affected.

These less visible effects of Epilepsy drew the attention of researchers from Impulso Cognitivo and the University of Antonio de Nebrija in Spain, who have developed a study using CogniFit’s Platform for Researchers to investigate the influence that cognitive training for executive functions has on the cognitive abilities of adults with Epilepsy, and whether it can potentially mitigate these secondary cognitive effects.

The “EpiCog” Project from Impulso Cognitivo and the University of Antonio de Nebrija

CogniFit Epilepsy Study

Research scientists, lead by Jon Andoni Duñabeitia Landaburu and Maria Calvo recently began their investigation, working with 80 patients with Epilepsy between the ages of 18 and 60 years old, and will continue to work with the participants over a period of months.

At the beginning of the study, each participant was given the CogniFit General Assessment Battery to determine a baseline score for several cognitive abilities. After this initial measurement, participants were randomly assigned to groups. The control group were tasked with playing CogniFit games without the active training algorithm to adjust difficulty and present participants with a challenging cognitive exercise. The second group were tasked with completing CogniFit games using the unique training algorithm, providing a more challenging cognitive training regimen.

The Epilepsy Training contains 19 Stimulation Games (to strengthen cognitive abilities), 8 Assessment Tasks (to measure progress) and focuses on measuring 4 Cognitive Skills: Inhibition, Monitoring, Working memory and Cognitive flexibility.

When to Expect Analysis and Results

This unique research project will take place over the next months, after which point the research team will compile and analyze the collected data, with results expected to be ready in the summer of 2021.

CogniFit Estimation Score as a Predictor of Group Automotive Accident Risk

Our world has been greatly affected by the presence of the automobile; from the way we design our metropolitan and national infrastructures, to the way we relax and vacation, to the way we run our errands and get to work. 

The automobile has made our lives easier in many ways and has given millions of people around the world freedom of movement that would have seemed impossible only a few hundred years ago. 

As the automobile became more and more intertwined into our societies, so to have the inherent dangers of operating these machines. Signs, signals, and safety features were added to the roads, and seat belts, air bags, and—more recently—Advanced Driver Assistance Systems such as automatic breaking and lane departure warnings were added to vehicles to help prevent these risks. But even with the addition of these safety systems, there is still an inherent risk any time a driver gets behind the wheel.

Researchers used data gathered through the CogniFit platform to investigate the cognitive and psychomotor risk factors associated with automobile accidents and has developed a unique estimation index that can help predict the risk of being involved in an automobile accident.

CogniFit as an Investigative Tool for Predicting Vehicle Accident Risk

CogniFit’s tasks for measuring estimation capacity (included in the driving test) has been used by the Center for Cognitive Science of the Nebrija University of Madrid in collaboration with The Arctic University of Norway to investigate cognitive and psychomotor risk factors associated with traffic accidents, as well as to develop a unique estimation index that can help predict the risk of suffering a traffic accident.

The main objective of this research was to show if older drivers have more accidents and if these tend to be more serious. To do this, they have carried out a comparative study where they have looked to see if there really is a relationship between the score obtained in the estimation tasks of the CogniFit driving test and the number of total accidents.

Subsequently, it has been reviewed whether, in addition, the CogniFit scores provide an additional benefit for the prediction of any type of car accident.

How was the CogniFit Estimation score developed?

The researchers analyzed data collected through the CogniFit platform on the cognitive skills related to estimation ability of 20,231 participants (10,627 female, 9,606 males) across 123 countries. The data, measuring participants’ ability to estimate the duration, speed, and distance of stimuli, as well as their understanding of how the speed and distance of an object affected its movement, were compiled into a composite index measuring each participant’s estimation abilities. 

Subsequently, the mean percentages of precision for both men and women on the CogniFit tasks were compared to raw data from male and female drivers involved in 1) fatal crashes, 2) injury crashes, and 3) crashes with material damage.

Finally, an analysis was carried out where the data of the different types of accidents were related by type and sex of the total, and the age of the drivers, their gender, and their CogniFit score as predictors.

The results showed a predictive power of age, and gender, showing that older drivers were involved in fewer fatal accidents than young people and that women had fewer fatal accidents than men. The CogniFit score also showed a direct relationship between a person’s estimation skills and the number of fatal accidents.

How can the CogniFit Estimation score help?

Based on the findings of the analysis of data and the robust relationship between CogniFit’s Estimation score and various types of traffic accidents, we can see that the CogniFit Estimation score can predict the group probability of being involved in a fatal car accident (accounting for 98.3% of the variance), of being involved in an accident with injuries (explaining 96.2% of the variance), and of being involved in accidents with material damage (explaining 95.8% of the variance).

Understanding how age, gender, and the cognitive skills related website to estimation affect the risk index of drivers serves not only to know which drivers are most at risk of suffering fatal vehicle accidents, but can also serve as the basis for future research into whether training these core cognitive skills can reduce the risk of accidents in the future. 

CogniFit’s Driving Cognitive Assessment

How can CogniFit help you understand your driving risk?

CogniFit offers a unique cognitive assessment for drivers, the Online Cognitive Assessment Battery for Driving (DAB), which uses digital neuropsychological tasks to assess a user’s cognitive capacity and attitude to drive efficiently and safely.

The results provided by this neuropsychological assessment include relevant information that can help predict the quality of vehicle handling and identify the risk index or accident tendency of a driver.

This digital driving test is performed online and lasts approximately 30-40 minutes. At the end of the evaluation, users receive a complete report of results with useful and comprehensible information about driving ability, performance, and cognitive skills. 

Whether you or a loved one have been driving for decades or are preparing to take the driver’s license exam for the first time, the Driving Cognitive Assessment from CogniFit can help you feel confident you understand your driving risk.

A Healthy Brain: 4 Ways Brain Plasticity Helps Our Brain Stay Healthy

Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to grow and change with age, be it for better or worse. It does so by organizing neurons and synaptic connections. As per neuroscientists, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to make and reorganize synaptic connections in response to learning experiences and injuries. This flexible growth of the brain plays an incredible role in its development and shapes distinct human personalities.

The brain has a very complex composition and set up. It has a gray matter that can either thicken or shrink, it has sensory and motor signals working in parallel, its neural connections can refine or weaken, etc. However, all these physical changes in the brain are very important for the individual abilities of a person.

Every time you learn something new, it reflects a physical change in your brain. The brain makes new neural pathways that tell your body to carry out what you’ve learned. Moreover, every time you forget something, it too is a reflection of a physical brain change; your neural wires and pathways may have degraded or severed. This exceptional ability of the brain to modify its existing neural connections and wire-and-rewire itself is what is called brain plasticity. Without it, no brain can develop from childhood to adulthood and recover from injuries or traumas. 

How does brain plasticity help your brain grow and heal?

The basic brain structure is defined by your genes before birth. However, the continuous development of the brain heavily relies on developmental plasticity. It is characterized by the developmental processes that change the synaptic connections and neurons in the brain.

When your brain is immature, neuroplasticity aids its growth by;

  1. Making or losing synapses
  2. Migration of neurons throughout the brain
  3. Sprouting and rerouting of neurons

As the brain grows, neurons mature. They send out carious branches like axons and dendrites from transmitting and receiving information. Also, they increase the number of synaptic contacts. With age, when you learn new languages, activities, and skills, neuroplasticity helps the brain to devise neural connections that help you to remember the stuff in the long-run. It promotes structural and biochemical changes at the synaptic level which eventually helps the brain to grow strong with memory.

In the mature brain, there are few parts where neurons are formed e.g. the dentate gyrus in the hippocampus which controls emotions, and the sub-ventricular zone in the lateral ventricle. Neurons generate here and migrate through the olfactory bulb which processes the sense of smell. The information stored in the nascent neurons contributes to the brain to recover from damage. As we grow old, our brain starts losing cells and neural connections leading to mental decline. Neuroplasticity helps the damaged area of the brain to recover by forming new neural connections and encouraging sensory and motor stimulations.

Can brain plasticity cause our brain to shrink or become weaker?

Until now must have been considering neuroplasticity as a hero but neural changes are not good always. When neuroplasticity affects your brain negatively, it is called negative brain plasticity. The effects of negative plasticity can lead to destructive addictions, undesirable habits, and negative self-talk which are potentially hard to change. For example, improper synaptic changes and connections due to negative plasticity cause learning and behavioral disorders.

In the case of negative plasticity, synapses grow weak and the small spine structures supporting them grow small. This leads to a breakdown of the structure and function of the brain. It might cause your brain to shrink. One such example of negative plasticity causing a shrink in the brain size is the domestication of animals. A domesticated animal reportedly has a smaller brain as compared to the wild ones. For example, when it comes to hunting food, why are wild wolves considered smarter than domesticated dogs even when the dog is trained enough to read humans?

This is because domesticated dogs have lost their brainpower required for hunting and their brains have grown smaller. If your neural connections aren’t formed properly or if you are not using your certain neural powers, you will start losing your brain chunk by chunk.      

How can we use brain plasticity to our advantage?

Brain plasticity can widely be used for a variety of advantages. There are many ways in which brain plasticity benefits your physical and mental wellbeing. Some of the most important benefits, brain plasticity can be used for, are listed below.

Recovery from strokes

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off. It deprives the brain cells of oxygen and nutrients and if prolonged it can cause the cells to die, seizing the brain function. Neuroplasticity can help the brain to recover the damage due to stroke. It works around the dead cells and helps to construct new neural pathways triggering the rehabilitation process.

Recovery from mental illnesses

Mental illnesses occur due to affected neural networks. They hamper the signaling of the brain and deteriorate its neural connections. Neuroplasticity helps to repair these neural networks resuming proper signaling and restoring healthy synaptic connections. In this way, it potentially helps with the recovery from mental illnesses.  

Strengthened senses

Neuroplasticity has the incredible benefit of strengthening senses. If a certain area of the brain controlling a particular sense is damaged, the brain can rewire the function and some other area might pick it up. Also, losing function in one area enhances the functions in the other areas. For instance, if you’ve lost a sense, neuroplasticity may heighten the others. This is the possible reason for why do blind people have exceptional hearing. They may not have the sense to see but have a high hearing ability.

Enhanced memory and learning

As mentioned above, whenever you learn or memorize something new, your brain undergoes physical changes to retain it. For example, if you’ve learned a new language, your brain will start making new pathways and trigger synaptic connections that will help your body know how to do it well. Every new lesson that you will learn will potentially connect new neurons and change the default mode of your brain’s operation. It is likely to enhance your memory and learning abilities. The healthier the neural connections, the greater will be your cognitive abilities enhancing memory, learning, and other mental abilities.   

Does brain plasticity decrease as we get older?

A simple answer to this is yes, it does. As an individual ages, the brain grows but the rate of neuroplastic changes declines. However, it is never likely to stop because neurons keep appearing in different parts of the brain until death. 

The younger brains i.e. from birth to two or three years display maximum brain plasticity. There is a huge increase in the number of neurons and synaptic Stromectol online connections in this age. This is because, the child is learning the basic functions and skills of life like eating, walking, talking, etc. Toddlers are expected to have twice the synapses of an adult. Later, the number of synaptic connections is likely to reduce by half till adolescence. During youth and adulthood, the human brain undergoes pruning which is the reduction of neurons and synapses formed during an early age. This reduction is mainly influenced by the life experiences of an individual.     

Brain plasticity might decrease with age but never halts. It continues in adulthood or older age because people keep learning and experiencing new stuff which causes the brain to elevate the synaptic count. Healthcare experts recommend certain tips that can help to augment brain plasticity. A few of them are as follow;

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Practice brain-stimulating exercises
  3. Continue learning new things to challenge your brain
  4. Read as much as you can and enhance your vocabulary
  5. Play challenging games that demand brainwork  
Staying mentally and physically active can promote healthy brain plasticity. Photo by Gabby K from Pexels

Conclusion

Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is an exceptional phenomenon where your brain organizes neural connections for enhanced working. It happens as a result of two situations; either you are learning something new or your brain has encountered an injury or trauma. In both the cases, the brain works to wire and re-wire its neural pathways by potential synaptic connections.

This ability of the brain to form new connections is necessary for its healthy growth and development. As it enhances the cognitive abilities of an individual and eases mental and emotional unrest. Most importantly, it offers greater healing effects against injuries like stroke and various mental disorders. There are chances that the brain might fall short of its neuroplastic abilities but the situation can be improved by simple self-help techniques mentioned above. Considering the wide effects of brain plasticity, people are recommended that they should help their brain continue with this super power by adopting a healthy lifestyle and keeping their brain active.     

Early Childhood Development: 3 Important Stages And How To Tell If Your Child Is On Track

Early childhood development refers to the physical, psychological, and emotional growth of the child. This period of development can last from the time an individual is born until they reach adolescence or the beginning of adulthood. During the developmental process, the child learns the basic skills of life, develops and navigates complex emotions, and learns to relate with peers by participating in social interactions. The whole process can be thought of as the child progresses from stages of dependence to an independent life.

Early Childhood Development: What You Need To Know

Early childhood development can affect an individual throughout their life. Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

Early childhood development is significantly influenced by genetic factors, prenatal experiences, and the environment of early childhood. By environment, we mean the type of surroundings in which the child is growing, what events they are experiencing, the behavior of the parents and caregivers, etc.

Normally, early childhood development reflects the full scope of skills that a child learns during his developmental stages of life. However, the five key areas of early childhood development include;

  • Cognition: The ability of an individual to think, learn, and solve problems
  • Social and emotional interactions: The development of social links and emotional attachments
  • Speech and language skills: The ability of a child to learn a language, read, and communicate with others.
  • Physical/Motor skills: The ability to control the body through both fine and gross motor skills.  
  • Sensory awareness: The ability to perceive and process sensory information for future use    

Understanding the stages of Early childhood development is important because it can help parents understand if their child is on the right track or not. The stages are not hard-and-fast rules that each child must meet at the same age, but rather serve as checkpoints, letting parents know about how well their child is growing physically and psychologically. Children with poor early childhood development are often left behind in their academic careers which hampers their personal and social life as well.

If your child isn’t developing as per the normal standards, there are plenty of ways to help promote healthy development, and it may be beneficial to take them to a trusted pediatrician who can help you with tips to nurture your child’s development. But how would you know that if your child is on the right track? Well, we are here to help you with it. So, keep reading.

How Can A Parent Know If Their Child’sDevelopment Is On Track?

Parents should be aware of what to expect in early childhood development. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There is no tracking device or alarm system that can notify you of your child’s early developmental progress. It is you who have to keep an eye on certain milestones that will help you know about the growth and development of your child. Just the way you keep tracking his height and weight, it is important to keep tracking cognitive and psychological development as well. For example, in the first few months after your child’s birth, you will clearly notice the signs of motor and language skills.

Your child will start moving their fingers, looking here and there. They will try to answer you with a smile or facial expressions. He or she might not be able to produce proper words but will try to make sounds, etc. If this isn’t happening to your child, it may be a sign they are facing a developmental delay and that you may need to consider consulting an expert. 

For your ease, we have summed up some major milestones that a child might achieve by a certain age based on typical developmental progress. Consult the list and see if your child is doing what the majority of his age group’s children do.

Developmental Milestones: Birth to 1 Year

It is the most crucial year of growth as every month will offer something new!

In the first 2 months, your child may begin smiling when hearing your voice and follow you with their eyes when moving here and there.

By 3 months, when they lie on their stomach, they should be able to raise their head and chest and start smiling at other familiar people who are always around.

By 4 months, they may begin to imitate sounds, hold their head steady, laugh, and babble.

By 6 months they may begin moving little objects with hands.

By 7 they may respond to their name.

By 9 months they may begin crawling, sitting with support, and saying words like mama, papa, etc.

Finally, by 12 months, your child may start walking with support and respond to people around and imitate people.

Developmental Milestones: 2 Years

Between 1-2 years, the child may begin walking independently, holding objects like cups, start a little running and jumping, speaking short sentences, following instructions, etc.

Developmental Milestones: 3 Years

By 3 years, the child may have started climbing, speaking multiple words and sentences, and sorting objects by colors and shapes.

Developmental Milestones: 4 Years

By 4 years children may start getting along with people who are outside the family e.g. neighbors, parent’s friends, or the non-family people they meet every day. They may have developed gross motor skills for activities such as riding a tricycle, as well as fine motor skills for drawing circles, squares, and other simple shapes.

Developmental Milestones: 5 Years

By 5 years, many children have developed the cognitive skills required to remember important complex information such as their home address, as well as complex motor skills for activities such as skipping and jumping or get dressed. They should also be able to count objects, etc.

Now considering your child’s age, compare what they are doing compared to the previous generic milestones. If there is a huge gap, it may be a sign of developmental delay. There is no need to panic, everyone has a different cognitive setup. Try to consult a doctor and work on helping your child.

What Are The Key Stages Of Early Childhood Development?

Proper early childhood development can help ensure a health and happy life. Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

The developmental milestones listed above cover a wide range of behaviors and transformations that take part in shaping the brain and personality of a child. Most of the behaviors are learned in the first few years of life rendering them the crucial stage of early childhood development. However, this isn’t where the process ends. Childhood development continues in middle and late childhood or adolescence as well.

Broadly, there are three key stages of early childhood development i.e.

  • Early childhood
  • Middle childhood
  • Late childhood or adolescence

The first one refers to the time from birth to eight years. These are the years of the most obvious growth and development. During these years, a baby who is totally dependent on his parents transforms into a walking, talking, and independent individual. It is the time when the child’s life functioning, personality, and relationships are shaped. He/she develops emotional attachment with people around them and their behavior affects the child the most. He starts learning words and language for communication along with basic life skills like walking, talking, eating, reading, writing, etc. It is also a crucial time for physical growth as well.

Middle childhood refers roughly to eight to twelve years of age. The child starts understanding some abstract concepts like money and time. Moreover, they start developing interpersonal relationships and cognitive skills.

Adolescence or late childhood starts at twelve and ends at the teenage years. It is the time when an individual experiences major changes in their physical, emotional, and mental growth. Your child is likely to encounter psychological disorders, hormonal changes, fluctuations in behaviors, etc. He/she might struggle with their emotions causing mental unrest.

Is It OK If My Child Isn’t At The ‘Right’ Stage?

Delays in early childhood development may cause many difficulties for children at various stages of life. Poor development in early childhood can continue to affect the individual throughout their life into adulthood. For instance, poor physical growth can hamper his abilities to participate well in extracurricular activities like sports at the school.

Also, poor psychological web page development may cause poor cognitive abilities which are likely to affect the academics of the child. Poor mental and emotional development may cause your child to suffer from various mental disorders. Thus if you sense that your child isn’t at the right stage, consult a pediatrician as soon as possible. Note, this is nothing to worry about, you can fix the situation with simple everyday techniques as follow.    

How To Help Nurture A Child’s Psychological Development?

Here are some tips for nurturing your child’s psychological development.

  • Practice mentally challenging activities such as puzzles or learning games
  • Read stories and participate in creative games
  • Help your child to recognize and accept his feelings
  • Empathize with him/her to build trust
  • Spend time with your children and do what they love to do
  • Model good behavior because children imitate what they see
  • Appreciate their little efforts
  • Help them build resilience
  • Seek medical advice

All these tips will help you to elevate and nurture your child’s psychological development. 

Conclusion

Early childhood development is a developmental process that shapes the personality of your child. It is a crucial process that needs special attention because it depends greatly on the prenatal behaviors and the environment around the child. Parents must keep a check on what is their child seeing and observing. They must ensure that their child is safe from any kind of negativity that can hamper his growth in any way. Most importantly, the parents should model good behavior before their children so that they imitate them in their lives.

Color Bee: An Exciting New Cognitive Stimulation Game For Coordination

For us at CogniFit, like for so many others, 2020 was a year of great changes. For us, it was a year for focusing internally on modernizing and streamlining how our platform and tools work, improving the user experience through increased interaction with the community and a renewed focus on UX design, at the same time we saw tremendous growth in the community of CogniFit users as people searched for ways strengthen their mental and cognitive health in response to a global pandemic.

While we are pleased to welcome so many new users to the CogniFit community, we are well aware that much of the growth was, at least in part, due to the global COVID-19 pandemic and the very real effect it has had on the mental health of so many. Because of this, we have taken great care and pride in our efforts to build not only great products and services that have a real and lasting benefit to our users but also in our efforts to build a thriving, supportive community for our users.

Our New Year’s Resolution: A New Launch Each Month

We want to continue growing and building the best possible CogniFit and continue to provide the highest quality of services to those who have placed their trust in our platform to strengthen their cognitive abilities through our scientific cognitive evaluation and brain training tools.

In 2021, building on the behind-the-scenes milestones of the previous year, we have chosen to introduce a new highly-visible challenge for ourselves: To publish a new brain training game each month for our users to enjoy.

Like all CogniFit games, these new games will offer unique, engaging experiences designed to stimulate the vital cognitive abilities we use each and every day, and like all CogniFit games, they are created by experts in neuroscience, and designed with a scientific and academic focus.As

As we always say: At CogniFit, we don’t make games, we make unique experiences!

Carlos Rodrigues – CTO CogniFit

We’re Proud to Announce the First of Many New Games: Color Bee

And we are overjoyed to be able to announce today the first of many brain training games for 2021, Color Bee!

If you are anything like me and often feel a bit like your coordination isn’t as strong as it once was, that your mind used to be quick as a whip but that it now takes a fraction (or more) of a second longer for your brain to respond, or you find that you simply aren’t as agile as you once were and need to keep an eye out for pesky doors and table corners to avoid bumping into them, then Color Bee might just be the perfect brain game for you.

Color Bee is an exciting, challenging 3D puzzle game that tests your Spacial Perception, Hand-eye Coordination, and Response Time as you help the fast-paced bee avoid obstacles and clear the leaves away.

Our newest game from CogniFit: Color Bee

The Science Behind Color Bee

This deceptively simple, exciting game is more than just a fun way to pass the time; It has been designed purposefully to train specific cognitive abilities in a simple and exciting way.

Color Bee has been developed with three key cognitive abilities in mind: Spatial Perception, Hand-Eye Coordination, and Response Time. By challenging users to quickly navigate a complex visual scene while staying alert to dangers, obstacles, and changing goals, Color Bee is a fantastic way to put these critical cognitive skills to the test and to push yourself to new heights as you progress to higher levels and more complex challenges.

Let’s take a look at these core cognitive abilities, how they help us with tasks, both simple and complex, in our everyday lives, and what makes them so important to everything we do:

Spacial Perception

Spatial perception is the ability to be aware of our relationship to both the environment around us (exteroceptive processes) and with our own physical self (interoceptive processes). While this may all sound quite complex, it really comes down to this: Spatial Perception is what allows us to understand our environment and where we are within it. 

Spatial awareness is made up of two processes, the exteroceptive processes, which create representations about our space through feelings, and interoceptive processes, which create representations about our body, such as its position or orientation. 

If you have ever tried parking your car and when you saw a spot wondered “is that spot big enough for my car to fit?”, you were using the exteroceptive process to understand and evaluate your environment. 

If you have ever been walking along the sidewalk and effortlessly walked up a few stairs without really thinking about it, you were using the interoceptive process to understand the position of your feet and raise them at the correct moment. 

If you have ever walked into your kitchen and smashed your little toe on the kitchen table, then you have experienced what it is like when your exteroceptive and interoceptive processes don’t work as well as they should. 

Spatial Perception is what allows us to complete complex tasks such as drawing, driving, or playing sports without going outside of the lines.

Hand-Eye Coordination

Hand-eye coordination is the ability to coordinate activities that require the simultaneous use of our hands and eyes

Activities that require us to use the information our eyes perceive (visual-spatial perception) to guide our hands to carry out a movement rely on Hand-Eye Coordination. 

When we reach to grab an object, we use the information gathered through our eyes regarding the shape, size, distance, and even speed of the object to inform our hands how to manipulate the object. 

We use Hand-Eye coordination for an almost limitless amount of activities we perform every day, from driving to drinking a glass of water, even activities as deceptively simple as walking or waving our hand require the use of Hand-Eye Coordination.

Response Time

Response Time, sometimes called reaction time, refers to the amount of time that takes place between when we perceive something to when we respond to it. It is the ability to detect, process, and respond to a stimulus.

Response Time is one of the most important cognitive skills because nearly everything we do relies on our ability to process information and develop an appropriate response. 

You have likely noticed that when you are wide awake and full of energy you are able to quickly reply to questions, react to changes in your environment, or respond to perceived rustburgpharmacy dangers much more quickly than when you are completely exhausted the morning after a poor night’s sleep. This is a very obvious example of how changes in our bodies can affect Response Time, however there are more gradual, less noticeable changes that happen over time due to the effects of age, poor diet and exercise, or physical and mental illnesses. 

Maintaining an active and stimulated mind is one of the keys to promoting healthy Response Time so we can continue to safely enjoy the many activities that rely on this cognitive ability.

So whether you are looking for a way to specifically train Spacial Perception, Hand-eye Coordination, or Response Time, or you simply want a fun game with some great cognitive benefits, Color Bee is a fantastic choice for you and your loved ones!

How to Play Color Bee?

Players must stay focused so they can guide the bee towards the leaves of the designated color, avoiding leaves of other colors as well as obstacles. Sounds simple? Just wait. As the levels increase (and as you get more skilled) the difficulty rises.

Spin the bee around the plant to find the right leaves using the Left and Right Arrow keys and tell it when to dive down using the Down arrow key.

Conclusion

We hope you enjoy Color Bee as much as we do and are looking forward to hearing your stories about your cognitive improvement using Color Bee and all of the CogniFit games and tools.

Keep an eye out next month for another fun and exciting (and science-backed) game!

Early Childhood Mental Health: 7 Tips For Raising Happy, Healthy Kids

Traumatic events in early childhood have prolonged effects on the mental health of an individual. Brain, in early childhood, is the most vulnerable. Bad experiences negatively impact its development, increasing the risks of early life adversities. These adversities are a major risk factor for the development of various behavioral and psychological problems in later life. Research studies report that children who experience maltreatment have a higher rate of developing depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidality, and other mental health disorders.

Also, distressing early life events contribute to higher drug dependence in later life. This is the reason why healthcare experts urge parents to focus on the early childhood mental health of their children. Healthy early childhood mental health is very beneficial for the healthy psychological and behavioral development of an individual. The greater the start, the more pleasant will be life later on.

This article is presented exclusively for a comprehensive understanding of our readers regarding early childhood mental health, why is it important, and how can it be improved. So, let’s begin.

What is early childhood mental health?      

Early childhood mental health refers to the social, emotional, and psychological development of children in their early life. Early childhood mental health means the ability of a child to explore, learn, make relationships, communicate, or express their emotions, and finally respond to relationships and the care given to them.

The word early-childhood refers to the first 3-4 years (or maximum 5) of a child’s life. It is the time when he/she is learning to function both, socially and emotionally. Whatever the children see or experience is likely to stay with them for a lifetime. It is the time when their brain and especially mental health is developing. The treatment they get and the interactions they make will shape their brain and mental health. They are at the age of exploring and learning, they’ll perceive the world through the actions and treatment of the people around them.

Experts from the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University say that the early experiences of a child, whether negative or positive, affect his/her brain development. The first three years are the most crucial time because children are growing both physically and mentally. By three to four years, the child has made enough connections to draw a picture of the world. Therefore, it must be made sure that a child, at this age, has most of the positive and compassionate behavior so that his brain and mental health nurtures well.

What happens when a child has poor early childhood mental health?

Early childhood mental health is a key area in the overall health and happiness of a child. Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

As mentioned before, early life experiences shape the mental development of an individual. Pleasant experiences lay the foundation of sound mental health and unpleasant ones are likely to impair the mental capabilities of an individual. They are likely to have lifelong implications affecting the cognitive, learning, and memory-related abilities of a child. The child may not show up with mental health disorders at a younger age but clear characteristics of various mental health disorders can be seen in later life. Some of the disorders that commonly appear as a result of poor early childhood mental health are; 

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Depression
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Neurodevelopmental disabilities like autism (visible at an early age)

You must be wondering how early life events can promote such situations. Well, experiences leave a chemical signature on the genes. This “experience-gene expression” intervention affects childhood mental health. Genes carry instructions telling our bodies how to work. However, the chemical signature due to stressful experiences prevents the genes to carry out their functions successfully which lays an unstable groundwork for mental health. The common stressful events causing such conditions include poverty, recurrent abuse, chronic neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, parents’ mental health, parents’ unhappy relations, etc.

Since the damage caused by poor early childhood mental health is much severe, you must work on the healthy development of your child’s early mental health. To help you with this, we present some amazing tips to nurture early childhood mental health.  

Tips to nurture early childhood mental health

How can we promote early childhood mental health? Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

There is neither any prescribed medicine for improving the mental health of a child nor a super trick that can do this for you. It requires careful and sincere efforts to nurture your child’s brain and support their mental health. Most of the time, it is the everyday activities that can significantly help you with it. Always remember it is both a time-and-energy-consuming process but it will all be worth it in the end.

Here is what you need to do.

Teach your child to recognize his feelings  

The “language of feelings” is the first step of your child towards a healthy mental state. You have to make him/her identify what they are feeling. Teach them words for different emotions so that they can tell you. Most of the children cannot let their hearts out because they are confused about how they feel about a particular thing.

They don’t know whether it is actually a problem or it is just a mixed feeling. Many of them think that feelings other than happiness are bad and shameful but you’ve to tell them that it is normal not to be happy all the time and have different feelings. Tell them to express themselves, no matter how they feel. The more they’ll express, the lesser will be their stress.  

Empathize to build trust

Sympathies are never enough, you need to empathize with your children. You need to put yourself into their shoes, pause, and realize how your child is feeling. Getting angry at once and giving advices without listening to them won’t work.

Help your child to put their trust in you. For that, you have to listen to them openly so that they know somebody is there for them. Observe your child’s behavior, notice what upsets them, reach out to them, validate their feelings, know their viewpoint first, and then present yours. There are chances that your child may be overreacting to something but still, hear them out to reduce their defensive reaction.

Make your child do what he/she loves to do

Creativity is a natural way to express yourself. Similarly, children are likely to express themselves when they are doing something they really enjoy. It can be anything like playing games, sports, drawing, dancing, photography, role-playing, their favorite toy, etc. You need to find out what your child loves to do and then encourage them to do it often.

Try to do it with them. In this way, you can spend maximum time with your child. You can talk to him/her about their thoughts, what they want to be in the future, and how they feel. Most importantly, you’ll know what your child is up to. Most of the parents leave their children to TVs and Smartphones which is very bad for the development of their brain. So, try to encourage the creativity of your child and allow them to pursue it.  

Model good behavior

Children imitate what they see. If they’ll see violence around, they’re likely to practice it in life. If they see their parents or care-givers fighting and abusing each other, they’ll perceive it as normal behavior and will continue with it through life. Therefore, it is necessary that people who are raising a child model good behavior. They need to be polite and careful with each other and the child as well. Good and kind acts positively affect the brain and provoke the child to do good as well. Remember that you are your child’s best teacher. If you want your child to do something, do it yourself first.

Appreciate them for their little efforts

This is the simplest yet most effective technique to nurture your child’s mental health. Recognize their small efforts and appreciate them. It will encourage them to work even harder next time. Give them constructive feedback. Highlight the goods and then tell them how they can improve more. Your appreciation is going to build their self-esteem which raises their confidence and resilience.

Create stimulating, playful environments

Young children are full of curiosity, playfulness, and thirst for knowledge and understanding of their surroundings. They are constantly observing, probing, and testing gulfport pharmacy how their environment works and how the people around them interact with it and with each other.

Promoting learning and mental stimulation in this early phase of discovery is vital in promoting a lifelong love of learning. Ensuring that children have access to stimulating environments including colors, sounds, shapes, and interactive activities helps the brain to build connections and reinforces the child’s curiosity and inquisitive nature.

Interactive toys and stimulating games and activities serve as an integral part of this rich learning environment.

Consult a medical professional

Mental health is an important and sensitive part of overall human health. So, consulting a specialist is a must. For that, you should talk to a pediatrician or a psychiatrist. You should ask them about the mental health skills and behaviors appropriate for different ages and any emotional and behavioral changes that can be looked forward to as a child grows. If you notice anything unusual in your child’s behavior, report it to the doctor, look for a plausible cause, and ask for a solution. A medical professional can guide you the best in this regard.

Conclusion

Early life experiences affect the mental health of a child to a great extent. Poor early childhood mental health increases the risk of developing mental disorders in the long run. Therefore, parents should focus on the early mental health of their child as much as possible. They should do whatever it takes to help their child grow mentally strong. The above-mentioned help tips can potentially serve to promote healthy mental growth in children. All they require is your dedication and efforts!

Nutritional Psychology Answers Why Diet Impacts How We Think and Feel

The waitress of the fast food joint asks, “Would you like fries with that?” The customer quickly requests a super-sized meal, while the woman at the neighboring orders a grilled chicken salad. Whichever dietary choice resembles your own, nutrition has a vast impact on how we think, feel, and behave. Why? Nutritional psychology explains how nutrition determines cognitive skills, mood disorders, and intelligence.

Nutritional Psychology can help us understand how—and why—we eat the way we do

What is Nutritional Psychology?

Nutritional psychology is the study of nutrition and how it pertains to mood, behavior, and mental health. The foods we eat influence psychological, behavioral, cognitive, perceptual, sensory, and psychosocial patterns. This area of study has the goal to implement education and nutrition to connect diet with mental health.

Nutritional Psychology: The Enteric Nervous System

The nervous system is known to describe the brain and spinal cord; however, most are surprised to learn that a large portion of the nervous system is in our gastrointestinal tracts. From chewing food to absorption and even elimination, the gut is home to millions of nerve cells, hormones, and enzymes that perform a variety of functions. This is why it is commonly referred to as our second brain. Together, the gastrointestinal tract and all it entails is called the enteric nervous system.

Nutritional Psychology: Hormones

Gut bacteria line the stomach and intestines to facilitate digestion. These bacteria manufacture neurotransmitters not only to regulate digestion, but to control key cognitive processes like memory, mood, and learning. Serotonin is a particular prominent neurotransmitter in the gut. Bacteria create nearly 95 percent of the body’s serotonin—a neurotransmitter imperative to stabilize mood and trigger peristalsis (i.e. contractions of the stomach and intestines to digest food).

When serotonin is off, it can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and constipation. But serotonin is not the sole neurotransmitter, GABA and dopamine are also relevant. Studies have allowed experts to document observations like mood changes in the presence of functional gastrointestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. It was once thought that emotions and disorders like anxiety and depression result in bowel symptoms, but scholars at John Hopkins now believe that an unhealthy gastrointestinal tract leads to anxiety and depression.

Nutritional Psychology: Food and Brain Structure

The food we consume literally has the power to alter brain structure. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reveals an increased volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex shown on brain imagine in patients who made food choices based on whether a food item is healthy rather than on taste or indulgence. Judging grey matter volume in these areas is a helpful predictor of various eating disorders including obesity and anorexia nervosa.

Neurons, nerve cells in the brain, are also affected by food. Diets with a high fat and sugar content have fewer synapses in the brain’s hippocampus—the connections that transmit signals to other cells in the body. The brain is less efficient at neuroplasticity. It cannot adapt as quickly. Instead, the hippocampus becomes inflamed as the cells respond to harm.

Nutritional Psychology: Obesity

The term obesity is described as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. There are more than 400 million obese adults worldwide. Being overweight has a vast impact on the body. Although someone who is obese is prone to developing heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, the brain is particularly effected. Scientists have attributed multiple cases of cognitive impairment with obesity.   

The brain of obese individuals is vulnerable to cerebral atrophy. The brain literally shrinks. As the brain volume decreases in size, the likelihood of memory impairment increases with age. A lack of brain volume makes it difficult to refrain from excessive eating, which fuels the cycle.

Nutritional Psychology: Caloric Intake

The first line of defense against the obesity epidemic is to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle. Diet and exercise are key to shedding the extra pounds because it burns more calories than one expends. However, restricting caloric intake is potentially detrimental to psychological health.

Studies show that caloric restriction is linked to depression—a mental health disorder characterized by feeling unexplained sadness, anxiety, loss of interest, low motivation, and interrupted sleeping and eating patterns for more than 2-weeks. Male subjects went from consuming 3,200 calories to 1,600 calories of foods such as potatoes, turnips macaroni, milk, bread, chicken, and rutabagas. These men reported a multitude of symptoms: dizziness, cold intolerance, fatigue, muscle aches, edema, reduced sex drive, low attention spans, poor concentration, and psychological distress. Some were even sent to a psychiatric hospital for self-mutualization and suicide attempts.

Contrarily, other studies conclude that the risk for dementia and cognitive decline is lessened by a lower caloric intake. The combination of studies supports that the quality of food choices are important. For our brains to thrive, we require a range of foods from all food groups to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Nutritional Psychology: Carbohydrates and Cognition

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. As carbs are consumed, the body breaks the carbohydrates down into glucose. The nerve cells utilize the glucose in the bloodstream for energy. Restricting carbohydrates, like so many of modern day dieters do, is depriving the body of its main source of fuel. Thus, cognitive skills are affected. Researchers at Tufts University tested this hypothesis. Women were placed into groups based on “low-carb” and “low calorie” diets. Their cognitive skills were tested before the study, during, and after. Those on low carbohydrate diets presented with poor memory performance within a week of their diet.

In the average Western diet, the type of carbohydrates has an impact too. Refined, processed carbohydrates result in repeated spikes in blood glucose levels which triggers the rapid release of stress hormones that increase anxiety and mood disorders.

Nutritional Psychology: Fatty Acids and Cognition

70 percent of the human brain is comprised of fat. Fats are critical for brain development. When the body does not have sufficient carbohydrates available, it uses fat to perform necessary functions. Psychiatrists at Harvard University discovered that the amount of fat an individual consumes has little impact on brain function; however, the form of fat does.

Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial dietary fats. They are found in fish, walnuts, and chia seeds. Other fats, like saturated fats, are good in moderation and come from meat, coconut, and dairy products. Hydrogenated fats (i.e. trans fats) are best avoided in foods that are processed or deep-fried.

Nutritional Psychology: Vitamins and Minerals and Cognition

Vitamins and minerals are also related to brain function. The body is exposed to free radicals. Free radicals are unstable cells that damage healthy cells. The result is disease, aging, and illness. Vitamins and minerals contain radical fighting substances known as antioxidants.

The following vitamins and minerals are essential:

  • Iron—Adults and children who are anemic score lower on cognitive tests.
  • B Vitamins—B vitamins for the brain include B12, B6, and B9 (folate). When B vitamins are lacking, the body cannot convert homocysteine into protein. As homocysteine accumulates, cognitive performance suffers.  
  • Vitamin C—Vitamin C aids in iron absorption, but it does affect the brain directly. It is responsible for building the myelin sheath that allows the nerves to communicate. Vitamin C partakes in manufacturing neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin.
  • Vitamin D—Vitamin D is absorbed from both dietary sources and sunlight. Similar to vitamin C, vitamin D facilitates nerve growth. Experts claim vitamin D activates certain enzymes to produce neurotransmitters and reduce inflammation.
  • Vitamin E—Vitamin E is the main vitamin that combats neurodegeneration in the brain by reducing oxidative stress. When compounded with other vitamins, it improves memory and cognitive thinking processes.
  • Zinc—Deficiencies in zinc reflect issues with language and numbers. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have a zinc deficiency, which provides evidence that zinc aids in cognitive function.
  • Magnesium—Unrefined grains (i.e. buckwheat), green leafy vegetables, and nuts (i.e. almonds, cashews) are sources of magnesium. This deficiency is common in third-world countries and vegetarians.

Dietary Psychology: Can Your Diet Lower Your Risk of Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for neurodegenerative illnesses that cause impaired cognitive skills. Those with dementia experience memory loss, confusion, difficulties with language, and problem-solving abilities that inhibit normal daily functioning. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.

Published in April 2020’s edition of American Academy of Neurology, people who primarily eat snack foods (i.e. cookies, cakes), processed meats, and starchy foods such as potatoes have a higher risk of dementia than individuals who consume foods from a diverse range of food groups. Additionally, previous studies confirm that greater caloric intake is associated with Alzheimer’s.  

Abiding by dietary guidelines proposed by the Alzheimer’s Association is actually a treatment for the condition. Patients have an increase in memory and an overall reduction in the progression of the disease. Two diets are recommended to fight dementia:

  • DASH Diet—DASH stands for The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. It promotes a diet to lower blood pressure, which reduces stress on the nervous system. Someone following the DASH diet is encouraged to reduce their intake of excessive amounts of sodium, fats, red meats, full-fat dairy products, sweets, sugary beverages and to consume lean meats (i.e. poultry, fish), whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.
  • The Mediterranean Diet—The Mediterranean diet limits red meat, replaces butter with healthy alternatives and focuses on a diet of fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Fish and poultry are eaten twice weekly and spices replace salt.

Nutritional Psychology: Foods That Are Harmful To Your Brain

Much like a diet of fruits, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and seeds are healthy for the brain, there are many foods that have the opposite effect. The chemicals in the foods we eat are stored throughout the body, including the brain and nervous system.

Soft Drinks

Sugary soft drinks include high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose. The inflammatory substance incorporated into our favorite beverages is known to impair memory. For example, high fructose corn syrup affects brain function because of it leads to insulin resistance. When the body is unable to bring blood glucose levels to normal ranges, the increase levels are damaging to the brain.

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates are processed grains like white flour. They have a high glycemic index in which the body responds with a spike in blood sugar levels. Studies of the elderly population proved that the risk of dementia and mild cognitive impairment is nearly doubled in the population who received over half of their dietary caloric intake from unhealthy carbohydrates. Whole, unrefined grains, fruits, and vegetables are healthier alternatives.

Trans Fats

While naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products are not dangerous in controlled amounts, hydrogenated vegetable oil, margarine, pre-packaged desserts, frosting, and shortening are foods hiding the brain’s silent killer. Synthetic trans fats are harmful to cognitive function, as well as cardiac health. It advances inflammation.

Artificial Sweeteners

“Sugar free” is not always the healthier option. Aspartame and artificial sweeteners are in sugar free products. Aspartame is made from the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine. If aspartame is consumed, the body breaks it down into methanol which is toxic in large amounts.

Studies show artificial sweeteners provoke behavioral changes, depression, and learning difficulties. Participants consumed 11 mg of aspartame for every pound of body weight. After eight days, they scored lower on cognitive tests, were irritable, and had increased rates of depression in comparison to control subjects.

Alcohol

Alcohol impairs the way in which the brain communicates and decreases brain volume. Those who frequently consume alcohol typically develop a B vitamin deficiency, which is connected to poor cognitive transparent pharmacy functioning. While the majority of detrimental effects stem from episodes of binge drinking, it is recommended that young people avid alcohol because it interferes with brain development. Teenagers who drink are susceptible to risky behaviors and alcohol dependence into adulthood.

Nutritional Psychology: Which Diet Is Best For Your Brain?

So, what diet is best for your brain? Low carb, high carb, high fat, low fat, calorie restriction? Optimal eating habits are not any single diet. It is learning to be intuitive with your body’s nutritional needs, consuming a diet as colorful as the rainbow, and incorporating a variety of foods from all food groups. It is about establishing a balance that allows your body and brain to thrive.

References

American Academy of Neurology. (2020, April 22). Which foods do you eat together? How you combine them may raise dementia risk: Study finds ‘food networks’ centered on processed meats, starches may raise risk. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 22, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200422214038.htm

Harvard University. Protect your brain with “good fat.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-with-good-fat

The Definitive Guide to the Human Brain

THE ANATOMY OF THE HUMAN BRAIN

The brain is a powerful and vital organ that is essential to being alive. With that said, it would not hurt to have knowledge of the main parts of the brain and their functions. Basically, the brain has 3 parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Each of these parts provides different functions for the brain, and we cannot survive without them.

The anatomy of the brain

The Cerebrum:

Also known as the cortex, the Cerebrum is by far the largest portion of the brain and weighs about two pounds. For the record, the entire brain weighs three pounds. The cerebrum is home to billions and billions of neurons. These neurons control virtually everything we do. It controls our movements, thoughts and even our senses. Since the cerebrum has so many functions, if it’s damaged, there are many different consequences.

The cerebrum consists of four different lobes that control all of our movements. The four lobes include: the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and the occipital lobe.

The Frontal Lobe

The biggest lobe in the cortex. It is located in the front, right behind the forehead. It extends from the anterior to the central sulcus. It is the control center of your brain. The frontal lobe is involved in planning, reasoning, problem solving, judgement, and impulse control, as well as in the regulation of emotions, like empathy, generosity, and behavior. It is linked to executive functions.

The Parietal Lobe

It’s located between the central sulcus and the parietal-occipital sulcus. This part of the brain helps to process pain and tactile sensation. It is also involved in cognition.

The Temporal Lobe

It is separated from the frontal and parietal lobe by the lateral sulcus and the limits of the Occipital lobe. It is used in auditory and language processing and is also used in memory functions and managing emotions.

The Occipital Lobe

It is delimited by the posterior limits of the parietal and temporal lobes. It is involved in visual sensation and processing. It processes and interprets everything that we see. The Occipital lobe analyzes aspects like shape, color, and movement to interpret and make conclusions about visual images.

Finally, the cerebrum consists of two layers: the cerebral cortex, which controls our coordination and personality, and the white matter of the brain, which allows the brain to communicate.

The Cerebral Cortex

A thin layer of gray matter that grooves around itself, forming a type of protuberance, called convolutions, that give the characteristic wrinkled look to the brain. The convolutions are delimited by grooves or cerebral sulci and those that are especially are deep are called fissures.

The cortex is divided into two hemispheres, right and left, and they are separated by the interhemispheric fissure and joined by a structure called the corpus callosum which allows transmission between the two. Each hemisphere controls a side of the body, but this control is inversed: the left hemisphere controls the right side, and the right hemisphere controls the left side. This phenomenon is called brain lateralization.

White Matter

White matter is the subway of the brain. It connects the different parts of gray matter in the cerebrum to another. Like a subway/metro, this type of matter remains underneath it all (the surface in life, gray matter in the brain) and this underneath part is filled with different passages, links, and paths to take- each one with a different destination and purpose.

It’s known to be white because this type of matter is myelin rich. Myelin is a fatty-rich substance that causes the matter to appear white. In reality, the matter is a pinkish-white. In adults, the matter is about 1.7-3.6% blood and takes up about 60% of the brain!

The Limbic System:

Your limbic system functions range from regulating your emotions to storing your memories to even helping you to learn new information. Your limbic system is one of the most essential parts of the brain that help you live your daily life. The primary structures that work together in your limbic system are the amygdala, the hippocampus, the thalamus and hypothalamus, the cingulate gyrus, and the basal ganglia. All these parts help you to be active in society, engage in social relationships, and be a well-rounded person. To learn more about the interesting ways your limbic system impacts your life, sit back and get in-tuned with all of its hard-working employees!

The Amygdala

Shaped like a small almond, the amygdala is located in each of the left and right temporal lobes. It’s known as  “the emotional center of the brain,” because it is involved in evaluating the emotional intake of different situations or emotional intelligence (for example, when you feel happy because you received an awesome grade on your math exam or when you might be frustrated because the heavy traffic is making you late for work).

The amygdala is what makes the brain recognize potential threats (like if you are hiking in the lone woods and suddenly you hear the loud footsteps of a bear coming toward you). It helps your body prepare for fight-or-flight reactions by increasing your heart and breathing rate. The amygdala is also responsible for understanding rewards or punishments, a psychological concept known as reinforcement coined by the classical and operant conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov.

The Hippocampus

The Hippocampus is a small subcortical seahorse shaped structure that plays an especially important role in the formation of memory, both in classification and long-term memory. Among its main functions are the mental processes related to memory consolidation and the learning process. As well as processes associated with the regulation and production of emotional states and spatial perception.

The Thalamus

It is similar to the re-transmission station of the brain: it transmits the majority of perceived sensory information (auditory, visual, and tactile), and allows them to be processed in other parts of the brain. It is also used in motor control.

The Hypothalamus

It is a gland located in the center area of the base of the brain that has an especially important role in the regulation of emotions and many other corporal functions like appetite, thirst, and sleep. The functions of the Hypothalamus are essential to our daily life. It is responsible for maintaining the body’s systems, including body temperature, body weight, sleep, mating, levels of aggression and even emotional regulation. Most of these functions are regulated by a chain of hormones that inhibit or release between themselves.

The Cingulate Gyrus

This part is located in the middle of your brain next to the corpus callosum. Not much is known about the cingulate gyrus, but researchers suggest that this is the area that links smell and sight with pleasurable memories of previous experiences and emotions because it provides a pathway from the thalamus to the hippocampus. This area is involved with your emotional reaction to pain and how well you regulate aggressive behavior.

The Basal Ganglia

This area is an entire system within itself located deep in the frontal lobes. It organizes motor behavior by controlling your physical movements and inhibiting your potential movements until it gets the instructions to carry them out, based on the circumstances that you are in. The basal ganglia also participate in rule-based habit learning; choosing from a list of potential actions; stopping yourself from undesired movements and permitting acceptable ones; sequencing; motor planning; prediction of future movements; working memory; and attention. It is made up of a few structures, such as:

The Caudate Nucleus

The caudate nucleus sends messages to your frontal lobe, specifically to your orbital cortex (just above the eyes) which alerts you that something is not quite right with the physical situation you are in (usually during tense or anxious moments), so you should take action to fix your uneasiness.

The Putamen

The putamen lies directly underneath the caudate and controls your coordinated automatic behaviors, like riding a bike, driving a car, working on an assembly line, and any other task that doesn’t really involve upper-level thinking.

The Nucleus Accumbens

The nucleus accumbens is a brain part involved in functions such as motivation, reward, or positive behavioral reinforcement. The role of nucleus accumbens is to integrate motivation along with the motor action. Its function is to transfer relevant motivational information to the motor cells in order to obtain a certain reward or satisfaction. An imbalance is related to many psychiatric and neurological disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disorder, obesity and drug abuse.

The Cerebellum:

From Latin, meaning “little brain,” the cerebellum is a two-hemisphere structure located just below the rear part of the cerebrum, right behind the brain stem. Representing about 11 percent of the brain’s weight, it is a deeply folded and highly organized structure containing more neurons than all of the rest of the brain put together. The surface area of the entire cerebellum is about the same as that of one of the cerebral hemispheres.

The cerebellum is the second largest part of the brain, and it plays a significant role for our motor skills. It is located at the base of the brain, and damage to it can lead to decline in your motor skills. Besides motor control, the cerebellum has other different functions. One function that it has is to maintain our balance and posture. Another major function of the cerebellum is that it helps control the timing and force of various muscles.

Motor learning is another function of the cerebellum, and it has the biggest impact on skills that require trial and error. Even though it is mostly associated with motor control, the cerebellum has some control of our cognitive functions, such as language.

The Brain Stem:

Even though the brainstem is small, it controls many important functions in our bodies. Some functions of the brainstem include breathing, arousal, awareness, blood pressure, heart rate and digestion. It also controls our sleep patterns, body temperature, heart rhythms and even our hunger and thirst. In addition, it regulates the central nervous system.

The brain stem is the oldest and deepest area of the brain. It is often referred to as the reptilian brain because it resembles the entire brain of a reptile. The brainstem is also the smallest part of the brain and sits beneath your cerebrum in front of your cerebellum—and it connects the cerebrum to the spinal cord. Parts of the brainstem include: the midbrain, medulla oblongata and the pons.

The Midbrain

It is the structure that joins the posterior and anterior brain, driving motor and sensory impulses. Its proper functioning is a pre-requisite for the conscious experience. Damages to this part of the brain are responsible for some movement problems, like tremors, stiffness, strange movements, etc.

The Medulla Oblongata

It helps control our automatic functions, like breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, etc.

The Pons

The Pons, also known as the Annular Protuberance, is the portion of the base of the encephalon that is located between the medulla oblongata and midbrain. It connects the spinal cord and the medulla oblongata to the superior structures in the hemispheres of the cerebral cortex and/or the cerebellum. It is used in controlling the brain’s automatic functions and it has an important role in the awake-state levels and consciousness and sleep regulation.

The Spinal Cord:

The Spinal Cord is a long, whitish cord that is located in the vertebral canal and connects the encephalon to the rest of the body. It acts as a type of information highway between the encephalon and the body, transmitting all of the information provided by the brain to the rest of the body.

Learn more about the anatomy of our brain:

THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: NERVES, NEURONS, & NEUROTRANSMITTERS

Have you ever stopped to think about how the Nervous System works? How is your body organized? How does it really work? What structures make up the Nervous System?  We are full of tracks that come and go loaded with data, electrical currents, chemicals, etc. at different rates and for different purposes.

The nervous system and the brain

Cranial Nerves:

12 pairs of cranial nerves enable us to perform our daily routine in a comfortable and efficient way, as they take part of the information of our senses to the brain and the brain to some of our muscles and viscera. Here is a small guide to know a little more about what are the cranial nerves, their anatomy, their classification, and their function.

As shown in the image above, the 12 pairs of cranial nerves have an associated Roman numeral. These numbers range from 1 to 12 corresponding in each case to the pair in question.

Each cranial nerve has a specific function. The next image shows how this person’s head is portrayed through numbers according to the cranial nerve functions.  Would you dare to say what function each cranial pair has according to its number in the drawing?

Before starting, it’s important to point out the order that this explanation will have will be according to the corresponding Roman number assigned to the cranial nerve.

The Olfactory Nerve (I)

It’s the first of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It’s a sensory nerve, in charge of transmitting olfactory stimuli from the nose to the brain. Its actual origin is given by the cells of the olfactory bulb. It is the shortest cranial pair of all.

The Optic Nerve (II)

This cranial pair is the second of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves and it is responsible for conducting visual stimuli from the eye to the brain. It is made of axons from the ganglion cells of the retina, that take the information of the photoreceptors to the brain, where later it will be integrated and interpreted. It emerges in the diencephalon.

The Oculomotor Nerve (III)

This cranial nerve is also known as the common ocular motor nerve. It is the third of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It controls eye movement and is also responsible for pupil size. It originates in the midbrain.

The Trochlear Nerve (IV)

This nerve has a motor and somatic functions that are connected to the superior oblique muscle of the eye, being able to make the eyeballs move and rotate. Its nucleus also originates in the mesencephalon as well as the oculomotor nerve. It is the fourth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Trigeminal Nerve (V)

It is a mixed cranial nerve (sensitive, sensory and motor), being the largest of all cranial nerves, it is the fifth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. Its function is to carry sensitive information to the face, to convey information for the chewing process. The sensory fibers convey sensations of touch, pain, and temperature from the front of the head including the mouth and also from the meninges.

The Abducent Nerve (VI)

It is also known as the external ocular motor cranial nerve and it is the sixth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves. It is a cranial motor pair, responsible for transmitting the motor stimuli to the external rectus muscle of the eye and therefore allowing the eye to move to the opposite side from where we have the nose.

The Facial or Intermediate Nerves (VII)

This is another mixed cranial pair since it consists of several nerve fibers that perform different functions, like ordering the muscles of the face to create facial expressions and also send signals to the salivary and lacrimal glands. On the other hand, it collects taste information through the tongue. It is the seventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vestibulo-Cochlear Nerve (VIII)

It is a sensory cranial nerve. It is also known as the auditory and vestibular nerve, thus forming vestibulocochlear. He is responsible for balance and orientation in space and auditory function. It is the eighth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Glossopharyngeal Nerve (IX)

It is a nerve whose influence lies in the tongue and pharynx. It collects information from the taste buds (tongue) and sensory information from the pharynx. It leads orders to the salivary gland and various neck muscles that help with swallowing. It also monitors blood pressure. It is the ninth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Vagus Nerve  (X)

This nerve is also known as pneumogastric. It emerges from the medulla oblongata and supplies nerves to the pharynx, esophagus, larynx, trachea, bronchi, heart, stomach and liver. Like the previous nerve, it influences the action of swallowing but also in sending and transmitting signals to our autonomous system, to help the regulate activation and control stress levels or send signals directly to our sympathetic system. It is the tenth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Accessory Nerve (XI)

This cranial pair is named the spinal nerve. It is a motor nerve and could be understood as one of the “purest”. It governs movements of the head and shoulders by supplying the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles in the (anterior and posterior) regions of the neck.  The spinal nerve also allows us to throw our heads back. Thus, we would say that it intervenes in the movements of the head and the shoulders. It is the eleventh of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

The Hypoglossal Nerve (XII)

It is a motor nerve which, like the vagus and glossopharyngeal, is involved in tongue muscles, swallowing and speech. It is the twelfth of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves.

What are Nerves Made From:

Neurons are the building blocks of the central nervous system. A neuron’s primary role is to communicate information. It communicates via electrical impulses or using specific chemicals such as neurotransmitters (what are the different types of neurotransmitters?). The neuron has 3 distinct parts. The dendrites, the cell body and the axon. Each structure plays a specific role in ensuring neurons are able to send and receive signals and connect with other neurons.

The dendrites are connected to the cell body. They conduct messages from axon of other neurons and pass the message onto the cell body. The cell body sits between the dendrites and the axon. It determines the strength of the message it receives from the dendrites. If it is strong enough, it will send the message down the axon. The axon is connected to the cell body. It conducts the message from the cell body and passes it on to other neurons.

The Dendrites

Dendrites are branch-like structures structures surrounding the cell body. They receive electrical and chemical messages from other neurons, which are collected in the cell body. These messages are either inhibitory or excitatory in nature. If the message is inhibitory, the cell body will not transmit the message to the axon. However, if the message is excitatory in nature, then the cell body will send the message down the axon and pass it to other neurons.

The Soma (or Cell Body)

Also known as the soma, the cell body is a ball-like structure. It contains the control center of the neuron, also known as the nucleus. Together, the cell body and the nucleus control the functions of the nerve cell. To be able to do this, the cell body contains organelles or really tiny organs in the nucleus.

Each organelle has a unique job. First and foremost, the most important organelle, the nucleus, regulates all cell functions. It also contains the cell’s DNA, which is essentially the neuron’s blueprint. The nucleus is another organelle that serves a vital purpose to the functioning of the neuron. It nucleolus produces ribosomes, which are essential to protein production. The cell body is also home to the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and mitochondria. The mitochondria is the neuron’s fuel source, it produces all the energy needed for the nerve cell to function properly.

The endoplasmic reticulum and the Golgi apparatus, work together, with the rest of the organelles in the nucleus to produce and transport protein. The protein produced by the cell body, are the key ingredients, to build new dendrites. Building new dendrites enable the neuron to make new connections with other neurons. As well as making proteins, the cell body is also responsible for making chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, which neurons use as signals. Neurotransmitters can serve and inhibitory or excitatory function to the neuron.

The Axon

The axon is long and slender, and it projects electrical impulses away from the cell body. The axon communicates with other neurons. When the electrical or chemical message reaches the axon terminal (end of the axon), The axon terminal release neurotransmitters into the synapse (small junction between two neurons). The neuron uses the synapse to communicate and send messages to other nerve cells.

How Nerves Communicate:

How does the brain communicate?

A synapse is the space between two neurons which allows for neural communication, or synaptic transmission. Synapses are found throughout the body, not just located in the brain. They project onto muscles to allow muscle contraction, as well as enable a multitude of other functions that the nervous system covers.

As a synapse is the gap in between two neurons, we need to establish which neuron sends out the signals and which neuron receives those signals.

The Presynaptic Neuron

The presynaptic neuron is the neuron that initiates the signal. At many synapses in the body, presynaptic neurons are vesicles filled with neurotransmitters. When the presynaptic neuron is excited by an action potential, the electrical signal propagates along its axon towards the axon terminal. This excitation signals the vesicles in the presynaptic neuron, filled with neurotransmitters, to fuse with the membrane of the axon terminal. This fusion allows for the neurotransmitters to be dumped into the synaptic cleft.

The Postsynaptic Neuron

The postsynaptic neuron is the neuron that receives the signal. These signals are received by the neuron’s dendrites. When there are neurotransmitters present in the synapse, they travel across the gap in order to bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor on the postsynaptic neuron’s dendrite, it can trigger an action potential. That action potential can then be propagated and influence further communication.

In the nervous system there are two main types of synapses: chemical synapses and electrical synapses. Thus far, for simplicity and understanding the basics of how a synapse functions only chemical synapses have been discussed. This poses the question: why does the nervous system need two types of synapses?

Chemical Synapses

Chemical synapses are any type of synapse that uses neurotransmitters in order to conduct an impulse over the small gap in between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. These types of synapses are not in physical contact with each other. Since the transmission of a signal depends on the release of chemicals, a signal can only flow in one direction. This direction is downward from presynaptic to the postsynaptic neuron.

As previously stated, these types of neurons are widely spread throughout the body. The chemicals released in these types of synapses ways excite the following neuron. The neurotransmitters can bind to the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron and have an inhibitory effect as well. When inhibition occurs, signal propagation is prevented from traveling to other neurons.

Chemical synapses are the most abundant type of synapse in the body. This is because various neurotransmitters and receptors are able to interpret signals in a large combination. For instance, a neurotransmitter and receptor combination may inhibit a signal on one postsynaptic neuron but excite a large amount of other postsynaptic neurons.

Chemical synapses allow for flexibility of signaling that makes it possible for humans to engage in high-level tasks. However, this flexibility comes at a cost. Chemical synapses have a delay due to the need for the neurotransmitter to diffuse across the synapse and bind to the postsynaptic neuron. This delay is very small but still is an important point when comparing the two types of synapses.

Electrical Synapses

Electrical synapses are types of synapses that use electricity to conduct impulses from one neuron to the other. These synapses are in direct contact with each other through gap junctions. Gap junctions are low resistance bridges that make it possible for the continuation of an action potential to travel from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron. Due to their physical contact, electrical synapses are able to send signals in both directions, unlike chemical synapses. Their physical contact and the use of sole electricity make it possible for electrical synapses to work extremely fast.

Transmission is also simple and efficient at electrical synapses because the signal does not need to be converted. Another key difference between chemical and electrical synapses is that electrical synapses can only be excitatory. Being excitatory means that an electrical synapse can only increase a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. As opposed to being inhibitory, which means that it decreases a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. This can only be done by neurotransmitters. Despite being extremely fast, these types of excitatory signals cannot be carried over great lengths.

Electrical synapses are mainly concentrated in specialized brain areas where there is a need for very fast action. The best example of this is the large amount of electrical synapses in the retina, the part of the eye that receives light. Vision and visual perception are our dominant senses, and our eyes are constantly receiving visual sensory information. This information also runs on a feedback loop when we interact with our environment, which means that we receive information from our surroundings and immediately create an appropriate response to it. This is why it makes sense that electrical synapses are seen in a large concentration here. The fast action, multiple directions, and efficiently all allow for prime functionality.

How Nerves Communicate – Neurotransmitters:

You’ve probably heard of how dopamine plays a role in feelings of pleasure, or how serotonin levels influence depression. But neurotransmitters do so much more than make us feel happy or sad. Not only do they influence our mood, but they also influence how our hearts beat, how our lungs breathe, and how our stomachs digest the food we eat.

Neurotransmitters interact with receptors on the dendrites of the neuron, much like how a lock and key work. The neurotransmitters have specific shapes that fit into a receptor that can accommodate that shape. Once the neurotransmitter and the receptor are connected, the neurotransmitter sends information to the next neuron to either fire an action potential, or to inhibit firing. If the neuron gets the signal to fire, then the whole process starts over again along the chain of neurons.

Here are some of the most important neurotransmitters:

Dopamine

Dopamine plays many different roles in the brain, depending on the location. In the frontal cortex, dopamine acts as a traffic officer by controlling the flow of information to other areas of the brain. It also plays a role in attention, problem-solving, and memory. And you’ve probably heard how dopamine plays a role in things that give us pleasure. So, if you were to eat a piece of chocolate, dopamine would be released in some areas of the brain, allowing you to feel enjoyment, motivating you to eat more chocolate.

Serotonin

Serotonin is known as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning that it doesn’t give the next neuron the signal to fire. Serotonin is involved with mood, as well as your sleep cycle, pain control, and digestion. In fact, the majority of serotonin in the body can be found in the gastrointestinal tract, and only about 10% is located in the brain. Aside from aiding in digestion, serotonin can also help with forming blood clots and increasing sex drive.

Acetylcholine

Acetylcholine (ACh) plays a major role in the formation of memories, verbal and logical reasoning, and concentration. ACh has also shown to help with synaptogenesis or the production of new and healthy synapses throughout the brain. Acetylcholine comes from the chemical known as choline, which can be found in foods such as eggs, seafood, and nuts.

Acetylcholine also plays a significant role in movement. A nerve cell can release ACh into a neuromuscular junction, which is a synaptic connection between a muscle fiber and a nerve cell. When ACh is released, it causes a series of mechanical and chemical reactions that result in the contraction of muscles. When there is a lack of ACh in the neuromuscular junction, the reactions stop, and the muscle relaxes.

GABA

GABA is also an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to balance any neurons that might be over-firing. This inhibitory ability becomes especially helpful when it comes to anxiety or fear because the release of GABA helps to calm you down. In fact, caffeine actually works to inhibit GABA from being released, so that there is more stimulation in the brain.

GABA also plays a role in vision and motor control. Some drugs work to increase the levels of GABA in the brain. This increase helps with epilepsy and helps to treat the trembling found in patients with Huntington’s disease.

Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)

These might sound like two big and confusing words because you’ve probably heard about adrenaline (epinephrine) before. Before we go any further, let’s define these terms. Another name for adrenaline is epinephrine. Epinephrine is a hormone that is secreted by the adrenal gland, which is a gland that rests on top of the kidneys. Hormones are molecules that are released into the bloodstream. Noradrenaline is also known as norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter, meaning that it is used for interactions between neurons. Noradrenaline is an excitatory neurotransmitter that helps to activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your “fight or flight” response to a stressor. Norepinephrine also plays a role in attention, emotion, sleeping and dreaming, and learning. When it is released into the bloodstreams, it helps to increase heart rate, release glucose energy stores, and increase blood flow to the muscles.

Learn more about our nerves, neurons, and neurotransmitters:

BRAIN SCANS & RESEARCH

The human brain is an incredibly complex feat of nature. Capable of creating complex social structures, languages, culture, art, and science. Our brains allow us to explore and understand the universe better than any other animal on the planet ever has. But even with all of this knowledge, we are only just beginning to understand the human brain itself.

Brain scans can tell us a lot about how our brains work

Types of Brain Scans & Imaging Tools:

Today we still do not have a clear-cut picture of the whole brain in itself. Not every network has been mapped, but we have moved forward a substantial amount. The development of non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging methods and their use for research and medical purposes was a definite breakthrough.

We have methods that can view the cortical areas of the brain. Other techniques look at cortical columns and different layers. We have methods that can record a single cell by itself. Going even further, we can look at the soma of the neuron, the dendrite and, separately the axons. We can even look at the synaptic connections between the two neurons.

Here are some of the most common types of brain imaging tools:

PET Scan

Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are used to show which parts of the brain are active at a given moment. By injecting a tracer substance into the brain and detecting radioactive isotopes in the tracer, we can see what parts of the brain are actively using glucose, a sign of brain activity. As a specific brain region becomes active, it fills with blood, which delivers oxygen and glucose, providing fuel for that region.

These areas become visible in the PET scan, thanks to the tracer substance, and allow us to create images of which areas of the brain are active during a given activity. The PET scan can only locate generalized brain areas, not specific clusters of neurons. In addition, PET scans are considered invasive and costly to perform.

CT Scan

Computed tomography (CT) scans are used to create images of the brain by recording the levels of X-ray absorption. Subjects lay on a flat table, which is connected to a large cylindrical tube-shaped apparatus. Inside the tube is a ring that holds an X-ray emitter. As the X-ray emitter moves along the tube, sensors on the opposite side of the ring detect the amount of X-rays that pass through. Since different materials–such as skin, bone, water, or air–absorb X-rays at different rates, the CT scan can create a rough map of the features of the brain.

MRI Scan

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans are imaging tools used widely in the field of psychology. Using a strong magnetic field, MRIs create alignment within the nuclei of atoms within the tissues of the body and brain. By measuring the changes as the nuclei return to their base states, the MRI is able to create a picture of the brain’s structure.

As a non-invasive procedure, with little risk to health, MRI scans can be performed on a broad range of subjects, including infants, the elderly, or pregnant mothers. Because of this, they can also be used multiple times on a single individual to map changes over time. The main difference between MRI and fMRI is that while basic MRI scans are used to image the structure of the brain, fMRI are used to map our the activity within the brain structures.

fMRI Scan

An upgrade from the MRI – Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging detects the blood-oxygen-level dependent contrast imaging (BOLD) levels in the brain which are the changes in the blood flow and it not only gives the anatomical structures but the functions as well. Various colors will change depending on which part of the brain is active.

The big drawback with this technique is the fact that it does not directly measure brain activity, but BOLD signal so we cannot for sure say that the activity that we find via fMRI studies is fully accurate and is produced by neurons.

DTI Scan

Diffusion Tensor Imaging, a technique based on MRI and it measures the way the water can travel through the white matter in the brain. It can show the activity as the colored area on the image. It’s particularly good in detecting concussions so can be used in clinical applications which is a huge advantage. Again, it does not measure direct brain activity which is a huge disadvantage and sometimes it also distorts the images. DTI has a quite low spatial resolution.

EEG Scan

Electroencephalography (EEG) allows us to measure brain activity by placing electrodes on the scalp of a subject which sense electrical activity. EEG scans are non-invasive and allow researchers to record changes in brain activity down to the millisecond, making it one of the best options for understanding changes in the brain as they occur.

MEG Scan

Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is a method of imaging the electrical activity in the brain through the use of magnetic fields. Extremely sensitive devices known as SQUIDs capture the activity in the brain, allowing researchers, doctors, or other professionals to understand which areas of the brain are responsible for various brain functions, or to determine the location of a pathology.

NIRS Scan

Near-infrared spectroscopy is a brain imaging technique that uses infrared light to measure oxygen levels in the brain. By shooting infrared light through the skull and measuring the light on the other side, NIRS scans can detect brain activity in a non-invasive, though indirect, way.

TMS Scan

The electric field that TMS, or Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, is able to generate is able to interfere with the action potentials that are happening in the brain. It’s a highly invasive technique and is able to be used in research applications for the workings of many diseases and pathologies. What we do know is that repetitive TMS is able to produce seizures so, obviously, it has some sort of side effects and needs to be used with caution.

Learn more about how doctors and researchers see our brains:

BRAIN HEALTH & FUNCTION

Once upon a time, researchers and scientist theorized that the brain stops developing within the first few years of life. The connections the brain makes during the ‘critical period’ are fixed for life. However, there is mounting evidence, from human and animal studies, that this view underestimates the brain. The brain has a remarkable ability to continually make new connections throughout our life, it has an extraordinary ability to compensate for injury and disease by ‘rewiring’ itself. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, refers to this ability to form new connections, reorganize already established neural networks and compensate for injury and disease.

The brain is a complex organ that continues to change over time

Brain Plasticity:

There are many types of brain plasticity. Positive brain plasticity, which enhances healthy functioning of the brain. Negative brain plasticity, which promotes unhealthy functioning of the brain. Synaptic plasticity occurs between neurons, whereas non-synaptic plasticity occurs within the neuron. Developmental plasticity occurs during early life and is important for developing our ability to function. Injury induced plasticity is the brain’s way of adapting to trauma.

Positive Neuroplasticity

Positive brain plasticity involves changes to structures and functions of the brain, which results in beneficial outcomes. For example, improving the efficiency of neural networks responsible for higher cognitive functions such as attention, memory, mood.

There are many ways in which we can promote neuroplastic change. Positive brain plasticity is when the brain becomes more efficient and organized. For example, if we repeatedly practice our times tables, eventually, the connections between different parts of the brain become stronger. We make less errors and can recite them faster.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, meditation, and mindfulness can all promote brain plasticity. These practices improve neural function, strengthen connections between neurons.

Negative Brain Plasticity

Negative brain plasticity causes changes to the neural connections in the brain, which can be harmful to us. For example, negative thoughts can promote neural changes and connections associated with conditions such as depression, and anxiety. Also overuse of drugs and alcohol enhances negative plasticity by rewiring our reward system and memories.

Synaptic Plasticity

Synaptic plasticity is the basis for learning and memory. Furthermore, it also alters the number of receptors on each synapse (synapses are the connections between neurons that transmit chemical messages). When we learn new information and skills, these ‘connections’ get stronger. There are two types of synaptic plasticity, short-term and long-term. Both types can go in two different directions, enhancement/excitation, and depression. Enhancement strengthens the connection, whereas depression weakens it.

Short-term synaptic plasticity usually lasts tens of milliseconds. Short-term excitation is a result of an increased level of certain types of neurotransmitters available at the synapse. Whereas short-term depression is a result of a decreased level of neurotransmitters, long-term synaptic plasticity lasts for hours.

Long-term excitation strengthens synaptic connections, whereas long-term depression weakens these connections. As synaptic plasticity is responsible for our learning ability, information retention, forming and maintaining neural connections, when this process goes wrong, it can have negative consequences. For example, synaptic plasticity plays a key role in addiction. Drugs hi-jack the synaptic plasticity mechanisms by creating long-lasting memories of the drug experience.

Non-Synaptic Plasticity

This type of plasticity occurs away from the synapse. Non-synaptic plasticity makes changes to the way in which the structures in the axon and cell body carry out their functions. The mechanisms of this types of plasticity are not yet well understood.

Developmental Plasticity

In the first few years of life, our brains change rapidly. This is also known as developmental plasticity. Although it is most prominent during our formative years, it occurs throughout our lives. Developmental plasticity means our neural connections are constantly undergoing change in response to our childhood experiences and our environment. Our processing of sensory information informs the neural changes. Synaptogenesis, synaptic pruning, neural migration, and myelination are the main processes through which development plasticity occurs.

Synaptogenesis

Rapid expansion in formation of synapses so that the brain can successfully process the high volume of incoming sensory stimuli. This process is controlled by our genetics.

Synaptic Pruning

Reduction of synaptic connections to enable the brain to function more efficiently. Essentially, connections that aren’t used or aren’t efficient are ‘pruned’ or ‘disconnected’.

Neural Migration

this process occurs whilst we are still in the womb. Between 8 and 29 weeks of gestation, neurons ‘migrate’ to different parts of the brain.

Myelination

This process starts during fetal development and continues until adolescence. Myelination is when neurons are protected and insulated a myelin sheath. Myelination improves the transmission of messages down the neuron’s axon.

Injury-Induced Plasticity

Following injury, the brain has demonstrated the extraordinary ability to take over a given function that the damaged part of the brain was responsible for. This ability has been noted in many case studies of brain injury and brain abnormalities. Some stroke sufferers have displayed remarkable feats of recovering functions lost due to brain damage.

Neurogenesis:

You may have heard at some point in your life that you cannot grow new brain cells. You may have been taught that from the moment you are born to when you die you can only lose brain cells. It is believed that this is due to hits to the head, consuming alcohol and narcotics, and from lack of cognitive stimulation. Well do not despair because your brain is not in danger, you can in fact “grow” new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.

Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University‘s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI) have used a new combination of neural imaging methods to discover exactly how the human brain adapts to injury.

When one brain area loses functionality, a “back-up” team of secondary brain parts immediately activates, replacing not only the unavailable area but also its confederates (connected areas), the research shows.

The research found that as the brain function in the Wernicke area decreased following the application of rTMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), a “back-up” team of secondary brain areas immediately became activated and coordinated, allowing the individual’s thought process to continue with no decrease in comprehension performance.

The Brain-Body Connection:

The human brain is a marvel of evolution, capable of creating breathtaking works of art and music, developing complex systems of culture, language, and society, and uncovering mysteries of the universe through science, technology, and mathematics. But even a healthy brain couldn’t do any of these things without a healthy body to support it.

Anyone who has had to perform on stage or give a speech in front of a large group of people knows that the stress and anxiety, supposedly mental phenomenon, can manifest in physical discomforts such as “Butterflies” in our stomachs, sweaty palms, and increased heart rate.

Similarly, when we find ourselves receiving praise or affection, the feelings of happiness and euphoria we experience are readily apparent when our cheeks blush, our eyes dilate, and in extreme cases, we can even begin to cry from joy.

By taking care of our bodies, we can help to ensure our brains are functioning at their best. Although there is no single exercise or diet that is right for everyone – each person should speak to their nutrition or health professional to understand the best regimen for themselves – there are specific general rules of thumb for exercise and diet that can help just about anyone improve their brain health.

Learn more about brain health:

BRAIN VARIATIONS

Each person’s brain is unique

Every person thinks and acts a little differently than the other 7 billion on the planet. Scientists now say that variations in brain connections account for much of this individuality, and they’ve narrowed it down to a few specific regions of the brain. This might help us better understand the evolution of the human brain as well as its development in individuals.

Each human brain has a unique connectome – the network of neural pathways that tie all of its parts together. Like a fingerprint, every person’s connectome is unique. Researchers found very little variation in the areas of the participants’ brains responsible for basic senses and motor skills.

The real variety arose in the parts of the brain associated with personality, like the frontoparietal lobe. This multipurpose area in the brain curates sensory data into complex thoughts, feelings or actions and allows us to interpret the things we sense.

Brain Differences Based on Gender

There are some differences found in the brains of males and females, however it’s important to note that factors influencing brain development in both males and females include, not only biology, but also the environment. We must keep in mind that culture, and social constructions have an important role in how our brains develop.

In 1989,  the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) initiated a large-scale longitudinal study of typical brain development, which to date has acquired data regarding brain development and function from over 1000 children (including twins and siblings) scanned 1-7 times at approximately two-year intervals. This study has provided much of the information we know today about the differences between the developing male and female brain.

Studies utilizing this data have found that the peak brain size in females occurs around 10.5 years, while the peak occurs around 14.5 years in males. The other areas most frequently reported as being different are the hippocampus and amygdala, with the larger size or more rapid growth of the hippocampus is typically reported in females, and the amygdala is larger or grows more rapidly in males. The hippocampus controls emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system, and the amygdala is responsible for instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. Because of the larger hippocampus, girls and women tend to input or absorb more sensory and emotive information than males do.

Brain Differences Based on Handedness

The brain has two hemispheres, that each specialize to govern specific tasks. The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body and is associated with mainly spatial perception tasks, face recognition, and understanding music. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and is associated with more computational tasks such as math and logic. The specialization of each side of the brain is important because it allows for maximizing neural processing.

Handedness can correlate to what function each hemisphere specializes in, which allows the brain to be almost anatomically symmetrical, but functionally asymmetrical. Functional asymmetry, or lateralization, allows for each hemisphere to work in tandem when processing the world around us.

Brain Differences Based on Age

We often forget we were once teenagers ourselves. Their angst, impulsivity, and the crazy desire to live for fun makes them seem as if they are from another world. These characteristics are due to the teenage brain. The teenage brain undergoes a series of changes during cognitive development and is easily influenced by a number of factors. Physically, an adult and a teenager are near the same size.

But when it comes to the brain, there are vast differences. The teenage brain relies on the amygdala. The amygdala is reactive, stimulating a strong emotional response. When making decisions and problem solving, a teenager relies mainly on emotions. An adult’s cognitive processes are carried out using the developed prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that causes us to think prior to behaving. Thoughts and decisions of an adult are less reactive and more logical and rational.

Learn more about how the brain can vary between people:

BRAIN & DRUGS

Consuming drugs affects the brain’s limbic system. This brain structure is in charge of awarding the satisfaction of our vital needs with a pleasant sensation or pleasure (when we are hungry and we eat, we feel pleasure). When we consume drugs, we feel a similar sensation based off of artificial pleasure, which is what leads to the start of a drug addiction.

Drugs happen to be chemical substances and they are able to affect the brain in various ways. They usually do so by interfering with how neurons communicate with one another. They can either enhance or diminish the sending, receiving and processing information functions. In the normal functioning after the neuron sends the information onto the next neuron and the neurotransmitters or chemical messengers are not needed website anymore, they are re-uptaked back or ‘cleaned’ up. Some drugs will block this re-uptake, therefore, leaving an enormous amount of these neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft which causes the message to be enhanced and disrupts further communication. Amphetamine and cocaine do that.

Other drugs like heroin and marijuana are able to mimic a neurotransmitter by attaching themselves to the post-synaptic receptors. Therefore, they can activate other neurons but not in the same way as a neurotransmitter would. Because of that, they will send different messages along the pathways of the network, therefore, altering its normal functioning.

How Drugs Affect the Brain

When people use drugs continuously for a very long period of time their brain becomes used to this much amount of dopamine. The brain will start to compensate by naturally either making a smaller amount of dopamine and decreasing the receptors where dopamine binds in an attempt to regulate things back into homeostasis. Dopamine will therefore not be able to produce as much pleasure anymore, for any activities. That’s why it’s so difficult for a person who abuses drugs to get back into normal life – the pleasure they used to feel from regular activities diminishes.

How Cocaine Affects the Brain

Although there are many neurotransmitters, dopamine and GABA are the two altered from cocaine use. The neurotransmitter, dopamine, oversees the body’s pleasure and reward system. Cocaine acts on dopamine by signaling a sudden release of dopamine in the area between neurons (synapses) and tricking the brain’s pleasure response. The abundance of dopamine is why users feel euphoria upon exposure. Normally a second neurotransmitter known as GABA counteracts the raised dopamine levels. However, the process is unsuccessful because cocaine blocks its release. Continual use of cocaine overwhelms the nervous system. Eventually, neurons in the brain can no longer communicate when the drug induces a rush of dopamine. The dopamine receptors are damaged. 

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

The endocannabinoid system is a biological system to maintain homeostasis. For the body to function properly, its conditions require balance. The heart rate must be within normal limits, temperature cannot be too hot or cold, and more. Cells in the body naturally produce endocannabinoids, which communicate with the nervous system and perform this role. Endocannabinoids attach to cannabinoid receptors on the surface of cells and are eventually destroyed by metabolic enzymes.

Marijuana, however, interferes with the endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoids from marijuana like THC bind to cannabinoid receptors, overloading the system and preventing naturally produced endocannabinoids from their regular tasks. The reward system consists of a series of brain structures from the ventral tegmental area to the hypothalamus that mediates reward. Neurons in these brain areas release dopamine upon pleasurable behaviors such as food or sex. Marijuana acts on the brain’s reward system.

As the THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors, the reward system is activated, and the user no longer responds as strongly to other pleasurable experiences. This is evidence of the addictive nature of marijuana. Scientists have taken a recent interest in how marijuana interacts with the brain’s reward system. Published in the journal, Human Brain Mapping, long-term marijuana users had more activity in the reward system on magnetic resonance imaging when shown marijuana related objects than non-users, and they had a reduction of brain stimulation when given alternative cues like their favorite fruit.

How Prescription Stimulant Use Affects the Brain

Scientists have discovered college-aged individuals who occasionally use stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drugs such as Adderall, display brain changes that may put them at higher risk for developing a serious addiction later in life.

A study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that occasional users have slightly faster reaction times, suggesting a tendency toward impulsivity. The most striking difference, however, occurred during the “stop” trials. Here, the occasional users made more mistakes, and their performance worsened, relative to the control group, as the task became harder. The brain images of the occasional users showed consistent patterns of diminished neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning and updating anticipation based on past trials.

Learn more about the effect drugs can have on our brains:

BRAIN FACTS

The Human Brain is (relatively) BIG:

Relative to size, human brains are much bigger than other mammals. In fact, our brains are over three times bigger than mammal’s brains similar in size. As you can imagine, there is no correlations between the animals’ absolute brain sizes and cognitive abilities. Cows, for example, have larger brains than just about any species of monkey, but unless they are very, very good at hiding it, cows are almost certainly less cognitively capable than most, if not all, “lesser-brained” primates.

The Human Brain is Inverted:

The right side of the brain interacts with the left side of our bodies, and the left side of the braininteracts with the right side of our bodies. Both sides of the brain have specific functions, but sometimes the two sides of the brain interact and work together. The right brain focuses on the expression and reading of emotions, understanding metaphors, and reading faces while the left brain is far more logical, focusing on language skills, analytical time sequence processing and skilled movement.

Size Doesn’t Always Mean Power:

Having a bigger brain does not mean you are more intelligent. Clearly, there is more to intelligence than brain size, or Albert Einstein, one of the smartest people who ever lived, who had an average brain size, would have been out of luck! It is important to take into consideration how to actually define intelligence.

The Human Brain is Full of Fat:

The brain is composed nearly 60% by fat, because without it, we could not live. People who eat a diet low in omega 3 fatty acids are more likely to suffer accelerated wear and tear on the brain. The brain is regarded as the fattest organ in our entire bodies. It has the highest concentration of fat present in a single organ in a healthy human being.

The Electrical Activity Produced by The Brain Forms A Pattern of Brain Waves:

This electrical activity of the brain changes depending on the activity that is being done. For example, the brainwaves of a sleeping person are very different from the brainwaves of someone that is awake.

The Texture of The Brain Is Similar To Tofu:

Experts say our brain has a consistency similar to that of tofu or gelatin. Fatty tissues, blood vessels, and water found in the brain give it that same consistency.

The Brain Feels No Pain:

Since there are no pain receptors in the brain, it is incapable of feeling pain. This feature explains why neurosurgeons can operate on brain tissue without causing a patient discomfort, and, in some cases, can even perform surgery while the patient is awake, as we saw before.

Emotions Are Found in The Primitive Structure of Your Brain:

The limbic system is composed of a set of cerebral structures that are considered very primitive in evolutionary terms, being placed in the superior part of the brainstem, below the cortex. These structures are fundamentally involved in the development of many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those related to survival such as fear, anger, and emotions linked to sexual behavior.

Learn more facts about the brain:

Sleeping Well Improves Memory: Advantages of Being Well-Rested

Sleeping well improves memory? Who hasn’t had problems concentrating at work after a poor night’s sleep? In 2013, a study showed that this common complaint among those who slept poorly wasn’t subjective, but a true reality: People who don’t get the reparative sleep at night that they need and those who suffer from some type of insomnia show memory and concentration problems. So, is it true that sleeping well improves memory?

Illnesses that cause memory loss or memory problems like Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia tend to be accompanied by sleep disorders or insomnia. Scientists continue to argue about if sleep deprivation is related memory problems. What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Recovery sleep has turned into one of the main recommendations for maintaining and enjoying good memory. In the last few years, more and more people have begun to talk about the benefits that a good night’s sleep can offer us. Some of the conclusions of these studies have been:

1. Sleeping well improves concentration.

2. It can help you get better grades.

3. Sleeping well helps you be more creative.

4. It combats depression

5. It helps you maintain a healthy weight.

6. It facilitated the oxygenation of the cells because breathing slows down while we sleep.

7. It protects the heart.

8. Sleeping well strengthens the immune system

9. Increases life span.

How sleeping well improves memory

There’s no doubt that a good rest is important, but we still don’t know the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. A few days ago, a team of researchers at Bristol’s Center for Synaptic Plasticity at the University of Bristol have brought to light new evidence about the mechanisms that explain why sleeping well improves memory. The basic research study provides new keys to understanding how and why we are able to learn while we sleep.

In the investigation, the team lead by Dr. Mellor saw how some of the brain activity patterns that were produced during the day repeat themselves faster at night. This repetition takes place in the hippocampus (the brain structure related to memory), which strengthens neural connections between active nerve cells, which is essential for consolidating new memories and skills. The study also looked at the repeated diurnal patterns of brain activity during sleep depended on the emotional state that the subject had while they were learning.

According to the investigators, this is very important and may have practical implications for the design. For example, new teaching strategies that keep the student’s emotional state in mind to facilitate learning and memory.

Hopefully, this study brings to light why there is a relationship between sleep and memory. Now it’s our turn to make sure we get a good night’s sleep.

Tips For Sleeping Better and Improving Memory

1. Exercise. You don’t need to spend all day at the gym, but doing some type of exercise, like walking or jogging for 20-30 minutes a day. With a little bit of exercise, we’ll fall asleep quicker and sleep better.

2. Keep a routine. It’s important to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.

3. Don’t overdo caffeinated beverages during the day. Try to avoid coffee and soda in the afternoon. Try some decaffeinated tea.

4. Drink less alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t help us sleep well. Even though it helps us fall asleep by depressing our nervous system, it also makes us wake up more at night. Summary: We sleep poorly.

5. Only use the bed for sleeping (or sex). We should try to avoid doing anything else in our beds, like reading, watching movies, playing on our phones or tablets… All of these things disturb our sleep patterns.

References

Sharp-Wave Ripples Orchestrate the Induction of Synaptic Plasticity during Reactivation of Place Cell Firing Patterns in the Hippocampus” by Sadowski, JHLP, Jones, MW and Mellor, JR in Cell Reports. Published online January 19 2016 doi:10.1016/j.celrep.2016.01.061

Memory trace replay: the shaping of memory consolidation by neuromodulation by Atherton, LA, Dupret, D & Mellor, JR (2015) in Trends in Neuroscience. 38, 560-70.

Reading VS. Television: Why Books Are Better For The Brain

Would you prefer to watch TV or read a book? The vast majority would likely choose the first option as their preferred entertainment. However, my fellow Netflix watchers are about to be sorely disappointment. Binge watching your favorite series may not be as healthy for the brain. Documented research favors reading to watching television, as it encourages brain neuroplasticity, enhances cognitive skills, and even strengthens cardiac function which encourages blood flow to the brain.

Photo by Min An from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Brain Neuroplasticity

The human brain has over 80 billion brain cells called neurons. Neurons have dendrites, which are branches that leading to synapses that connect them to other neurons.  With these specialized brain cells, the brain is able to communicate signals to the body. The area of the brain dedicated to reading is the cortex.  As we learn new skills like reading, the connection between neurons become stronger. This is especially true for children. Brain imaging research shows exposure to reading and phonics encourage brain plasticity—growth and reorganization of vital neural networks in the brain.

Reading VS. Television:  Sensory Processing

Sensory skills are skills involving the receiving of information. For example, vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and proprioception are sensory processing skills. Both watching television and reading are sensory experiences but differ greatly. Reading does not overload visual processing like the flashing colors of a television screen. Along with strengthening brain connection, reading is important for the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for responding to sensory information such as movement and pain. Readers think about the events depicted in books. Thus, reading a book about riding a bike activates the same brain area as physically riding a bike. Books offer a multitude of experiences causing the reader to deeply contemplate and connect a story.

Reading VS. Television: Verbal Communication

There are many forms of communication: verbal, written, listening, visual, and non-verbal (i.e. gestures, signing, eye contact, etc.). Research correlates lower verbal test scores with increased hours spent watching television. The frontal lobes of individuals who watch television are thicker, which is associated with lower verbal reasoning.  

This is because reading provides all aspects of communication that are not included in books. Through words, readers are exposed to verbal dialogue, writing, interpreting character gestures, and more. Television does not portray as many details. Reading goes further into depth about what characters think, feel, and how they react. Readers must concentrate to think about the themes of the book and make inferences about the material.

Reading VS. Television: Vocabulary and Language

Although television is made of mostly dialogue, reading develops vocabulary. The words written in books are, on average, twice as complex than words spoken through television characters. Reading forces a person to look at unknown words and interpret their meaning through context clues. The increased vocabulary is not only helpful for writing, but for expression in everyday conversation. Books provide repeated exposure to known words, which tests knowledge and understanding.

Even listening to a book via audio or read aloud has better results on vocabulary than watching television. However, experts have found that the effect television has on vocabulary is neutral. As long as the time spent reading is not sacrificed for television watching, it does not reduce vocabulary.

Reading VS. Television: Attention Span

Whether a series or a lengthy movie, television condenses a story. The scenes are rapidly changing with shifts in camera angles. The plot is broken up for advertisement breaks. Most people are preoccupied with other tasks simultaneously such as doing homework, browsing the computer, sending text messages, or are engaged in a craft. The act of watching television does not involve equal levels of thinking in comparison to reading.

Reading requires constant attention. When reading, readers are often engrossed in the story and are not completing other tasks at the same time. They can process the material at their own pace instead of attempting to keep up with rapidly changing television scenes.

Reading VS. Television: Emotional Intelligence

The term emotional intelligence describes the awareness and the ability to control emotions. Expert psychologist’s at York University and Emory University found that literary fiction is related to a greater capacity for empathy, as readers imagine what it would be like if they were in the character’s shoes.

During the process of reading, we are uncovering the emotions of various characters and predicting their actions in response to those emotions. This translates to interactions in daily life. Readers are more apt to understand the actions and intentions of others because they are trained to do so from character perspectives. Readers observe interactions between characters and compare them to their lives. It is a key aspect of functional relationships.

 Reading VS. Television: Imagery

Can you recall a movie or television series that is better than the book in which it is based? Probably not. This is due to imagery. Reading is far superior to television as it pertains to imagery. Television provides complete visual and auditory images. There is little left to viewers to imagine. Reading, however, is up to the discretion of the individual. No two interpretation is identical. One reader’s vision may be entirely different than what another perceives.

Reading VS. Television: Memory

Memory, comprised of short-term, long-term, and working memory, is a cognitive process the brain relies on to store and retrieve information. The mind is a muscle and functions optimally with practice. Reading is an exercise for memory. It presents information that readers can go back and review as many times as necessary to form their conclusions, recall words and their meanings, and processing letters.  It leads to enhanced memory for situations outside of written language like the working memory involved in memorizing a phone number to call a friend.

Cognitive skills such as memory decline with age. Reading is known to prevent cognitive decline with age, as well as that associated with the development of dementia. Studies report that avid readers have lower levels of beta-amyloid—a protein deficient in Alzheimer’s patients.

Reading VS. Television: Behavior

Evidence that excessive TV watching impacts behavior is obvious through studies with child subjects. Children and adolescents are impressionable. They learn by modeling those in their environment. This includes the television and media they are exposed to like the presence of risky behaviors (i.e.  violence, sexual situations, etc.) depicted in their favorite television series. Studies prove the violent behavior persists into adulthood.

Similarly, reading also has an effect on behavior. Readers adopt characters’ experiences. For example, a study including 82 undergraduate college students reading stories about the 2008 presidential election had startling results! The students who read first-person stories were over twice as likely to vote simply because reading influenced their behavior.

Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels

Reading VS. Television: Stress Reduction

The hustle and bustle of life is stressful. Juggling work, school, health, and relationships can be overwhelming. When your brain is running one-hundred miles a minute, reading lessens stress by 68 percent. The act is a distraction from stressful events, allowing us to live in the world of characters. It is truly an escape from reality. The brain reroutes energy to concentrating on the story instead of fueling the harsh effects of stress on the body.

Reading VS. Television: Improves Cardiac Function

Just 6 minutes of reading has amazing benefits for physical functioning. As the body relaxes, the muscles are not as tense. In addition to relaxation, reading lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Cardiac function is connected to the brain. Poor heart health is frequently seen with higher cholesterol levels, which causes injury to the brain’s white matter. However, reading improves blood flow and circulation to the brain.

Does Genre Alter the Benefits? 

Similar to how watching an educational television series has an opposite effect on the brain as a drama, different genres of books do change the effect reading has on the brain. A wide variety of genres is optimal, as it broadens the experiences readers submerse themselves into and that strengthens the brain’s neurons. For example, biographies tend to evoke effects on emotions, whereas classic literary fiction focuses on vocabulary and thrillers are an exciting distraction to shift perspective and to reduce stress. To receive all of the benefits of reading, pick books you enjoy!

References

Ennemoser, M. & Schneider, W. (2007). Relations of television viewing and reading: Findings from a 4-year longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2):349-368. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0663.99.2.349

Goldman, C. (2012). This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

Psychologist of the Month: Why Elizabeth Loftus is Out to Change Your Mind About What You Remember

Elizabeth Loftus. Photo from Wikipedia

When we think about famous psychologists, we often think of older men from long ago who did experiments with pigeons or who talked about peoples’ relationships with their mothers. But, like any scientific discipline, psychology is a continually evolving field full of dedicated clinicians, researchers, and academics who are searching for new truths to uncover and new ways to prove or disprove the beliefs we have held for so long.

One of the most exciting areas of modern psychologic research is in the field of memory and recall, and there are few psychologists more important to this field than Elizabeth Loftus.

Early Work on Memory & Recall

Dr. Loftus, who currently holds the position of affiliate professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington, has been at the forefront of research on human memory and recall for nearly 50 years, studying how memories are formed and how recall of these memories can be affected over time.

Her research in this area has led to a number of awards and honors, as well as a place as the highest-ranked female on the list of 100 most influential psychological researchers of the 20th century from the Review of General Psychology.

After receiving her Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1970, Loftus went on to begin her first academic appointment at the New School for Social Research in New York City, studying the semantic information in long-term memory.

Dr. Loftus quickly realized that research in memory and recall could have a much more significant social impact in other areas, and in 1973 accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of Washington and began researching how memory affects real-world situations.

One of her earliest studies focused on understanding whether eyewitness memory can be altered after the fact by information supplied by outside sources. This study built on previous research which had established that memories were constructions created using past experiences and other external manipulations, and not entirely accurate representations of events. These early studies provided clues that the way in which questions are presented, including the wording of questions, can affect how a person recalls events.

Building on these findings, Elizabeth Loftus began looking at what other ways misinformation could be presented to a person, the effect this misinformation has on recall, and how this erroneous recall can have serious, real-world consequences. This research led to the development of the paradigm known as the Misinformation Effect.

The Misinformation Effect & Eyewitness Testimony

Through her research, Elizabeth Loftus has demonstrated the pliability of human memory and recall. She has shown how memories can be affected by exposure to incorrect information, leading questions, or any number of sources of false information.

The Misinformation Effect is an example of what is known as retroactive interference, a phenomenon where the information presented in the present or future can affect the ability of a person to retain previously learned information correctly. An example of retroactive interference is when you have a telephone number for a long time. When you switch to a new number, after memorizing the new number, it becomes much more difficult to remember the older number.

Her research, and that of her colleagues in the field of memory and recall, has changed our understanding of how memory works and how long-term memories are not fixed, unchanging ideas stored forever in a frozen state waiting to be remembered, but are, in fact, mental constructs based not only on what happened at the time, but what we have learned and experienced in the time since the event has passed.

Our memories are affected by what we learn from others who recount their versions, by the expectations of those who want to hear what we remember, and from our own mind filling in gaps in our memory with information we received after the fact.

How Elizabeth Loftus’ Work Continues to Impact the World

Elizabeth Loftus’ work has a huge effect on the legal field. Photo by Saúl Bucio on Unsplash

The Misinformation Effect has powerful and dangerous implications for many areas of society and has generated hundreds of additional studies exploring the phenomenon.

There is likely no area where memory and recall, and the ways in which the Misinformation Effect can alter those memories, play a more critical role than in the legal field in general, and in eyewitness testimony in particular.

Much of how our modern legal systems around the world function is based on the testimony of witnesses who experienced the events. The fact that trials and questioning can happen months or even years after the events occurred can leave witnesses open to significant alterations in how they recall the events. And the fact that there are multiple sides invested in specific outcomes, there is plenty of opportunity for incorrect or incomplete information to seep into the recollections of eyewitnesses, whether they intend to or not.

One way this misinformation can have an unintended effect is when the witness identifies a suspect. When presented with a series of photographs, or a lineup of individuals, an eyewitness may read body language and other subtle clues from the interviewer and select the response the questioner is hoping for. This is similar to Hanz, the horse that could do math. Though the horse could not actually do math, when asked to add two numbers, he would tap his hoof to count, stopping once he reached the correct answer. He did this by reacting to the expressions of the questioner, who would likely show signs of excitement as the horse got close to the correct answer.

In this same way, the eyewitness, who may only remember vague details such as the color of the clothes, the hairstyle, and other generic information, may look at the lineup of potential suspects and unconsciously select the person for whom they receive the strongest body-language reaction from the questioner.

Similarly, the way questions are presented in questioning can affect the recall of witnesses. For example, a neutrally-worded question such as “what was the person who robbed the store wearing that day?” will not get the same information as a leading question such as “Other witnesses have told us that the person robbing the store was wearing a red sweater and blue pants, is that what you remember?” The second of these questions is potentially providing incorrect information, which may lead the witness to misremember the events based on both the expectations of the questioner and the supposed recollections of other witnesses.

Conclusion

Dr. Elizabeth Loftus has spent her entire career studying the way memory and recall works and has been a crusader for ensuring the misinformation effect is understood within the legal community. Her research has changed what we know about memory and continues to play a role in understanding the complex systems humans use to understand and remember their world.

How Does Your Brain Tell Time (And Why Does It Seem to Go So Slow Sometimes)

How does our brain tell time? Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Time flies when you’re having fun…and seems to stand completely still while you’re waiting for your food to cook in the microwave. We know that (complex metaphysical theories aside) time always moves at the same speed. We can look at our watch and see that a minute lasts just as long when you’re out with your friends as it does when you’re sitting in a dull office meeting about the new rules for how to use the printer.

So why is it that our body clock tells time in wildly different ways depending on what we’re doing and how we are feeling?

How Does the Brain Keep Track of Time?

Our brains are actually managing not one, but two separate systems for measuring time.

We have one system which our body uses to track our temporal location throughout the day and night cycle. This clock, which is responsible for controlling our regular daily cycles for things like eating, sleeping, digestion, and even our immune system, is known as our circadian rhythm.

This system—though controlled internally through the continuous production and breaking-down of proteins in our cells in 24-hour-long cycles—is highly reliant on external stimuli such as the light and dark cycles due to the rotation of the earth (which is why looking at the bright screen on your phone right before bed makes it so hard to sleep, because the light is causing your brain to mistakenly think it is morning and time to stay awake). This is the same system that tells nocturnal animals to go out at night and that tells sunflowers to change position throughout the day.

In addition to this internal clock responsible for synchronizing our body’s many systems and functions, our brain also is able to track time in the moment, allowing us to keep track of how much time has passed in a specific moment and to create mental estimates of temporal durations. For example, this tracking clock is what allows us to perform activities in a normal amount of time, it allows us to know whether the amount of time we have been waiting for something to happen is appropriate, and it is what is responsible for allowing us to estimate how quickly to react to something such as when waiting to catching a ball.

This clock processes time in a much different way than our circadian system. Dean Buonomano, associate professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the university’s Brain Research Institute believes that whenever the brain processes sensory information “it triggers a cascade of reactions between brain cells and their connections. Each reaction leaves a signature that enables the brain-cell network to encode time.”

Our brain’s clock for tracking and estimating the passage is a complex system which requires not only that we measure the time as it passes, but also that we are constantly recording the amount of time that has passed.

Why Does it Feel Like Sometimes Time Flies and Others it Seems to Stand Still?

How do you tell time? Photo by Djim Loic on Unsplash

Recent research published in the Journal of Neuroscience may explain what causes the sensation that time sometimes seems to go faster, and other times seems to drag on, and on, and on…

The study found that neurons in a part of the brain called the supramarginal gyrus (SMG) fire at specific intervals in response to external stimuli. When we are exposed to repeated stimuli that cause these neurons to continually fire over long periods of time the supramarginal gyrus becomes fatigued and the firing of neurons begins to slow down slightly. Because the other systems in our brain continue to fire at their normal speed, the relative change between the system that measures time and the other systems makes us experience time as moving more slowly.

How Did Researchers Study Our Perception of Time?

The researchers, Hayashi and Ivry, studied the brain activity of healthy human subjects using fMRI. While the brain activity study participants was being measured, the researchers gave them tasks involving comparing time intervals.

To begin with, the participants we shown a fixed-duration visual stimulus (a grey circle) 30 times in a row. After the patients viewed the repeated stimulus, they were then shown a test stimulus and asked to estimate the duration of the test stimulus.

The researchers found that when the initial stimulus was short, participants tended to overestimate the length of the test stimulus, whereas when the initial stimulus was longer, participants underestimated the length of time.

When viewing the brain activity of the subjects, the researchers found a strong correlation between how accurately a subject perceived time and the activity in the SMG region, as SMG activity decreased participant’s estimates became less accurate.

How Does This Finding Affect Our Understanding of How We Tell Time?

In the past, one prevailing idea was that a region of the brain called the striatum was responsible for nearly all of our body’s inner timekeeping duties. This new study, combined with others showing the importance of the hippocampus in determining and remembering long periods of time, are showing that we may actually use much more of our brain to keep track of time than previously thought.

45+ Exciting Games For Seniors To Help Stimulate The Brain

Chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, Go fish—and once upon a time, I bet most of you were addicted to Candy Crush. Games are not solely a form of childhood amusement. In fact, even senior citizens reap the benefits of having fun. Games for seniors improve cognitive skills, stimulates the brain to prevent dementia, and provides socialization for healthy well-being.  

Games for seniors can help keep the mind young. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Aging Brain: Cognitive Skills During Senior Adulthood

The brain consists of two types of gray and white matter. White matter tissue is home to specialized cells called neurons and the nerve fibers known as axons. The axons are encapsulated with myelin—a fatty sheath that facilitates the exchange of chemical messages throughout the nervous system. Learning and various other brain functions are possible because white matter allows communication between different areas of the brain.

As an individual ages, overall brain volume decreases, especially the amount of white matter. This leaves the elderly prone to memory loss, as well as a decline in other cognitive skills like attention. These subtle changes in white matter are considered normal. However, a more pronounced loss or damage to white matter is associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Researchers (Liu, 2017) have found that an older brain is susceptible to lesions, cerebral bleeding, and disease.

The Benefits of Games For Seniors

The benefits of games for seniors are vast. With the sharp reduction in brain matter during the aging process, playing games strengthens neural connections in the brain. As the brain grows stronger, it can regenerate those damaged connections in the white matter. They are less likely to become affected by disease. The New England Journal of Medicine documents studies reflecting a decreased incidence of dementia in seniors who partake in board games and card games as leisure activities.

Games are also beneficial for mental health. Playing games that are enjoyable increases feelings of happiness. Additionally, games typically involve multiple players which foster the opportunity for socialization and forming friendships that boost mood.

Online Games For Seniors

Most seniors are not known for being computer savvy. Still, research proves that 38% of adults over the age of 50 play video games. Whether online through a laptop or desktop computer, a gaming console, or a smart phone application, virtual games are helpful for repetition of tasks focused on cognitive abilities.

  • Candy Crush—A match-three puzzle game with the goal of matching three or more pieces of candy of the same color by swapping candy pieces vertically or horizontally.
  • Words With Friends—The virtual version of Scrabble where players are given seven letter tiles that are each assigned a point value. Players must form words and strategically place them on the board to earn the most points.
  • Bejeweled—Similar to Candy Crush, players must swap gems to create vertical or horizontal chains of three or more gems of the same color.  
  • Tetris—Based on tetriminos, the aim of Tetris is to clear rows by horizontally arranging falling blocks of varying shapes and speeds without empty rows of space.
  • Elevate—A gaming app for games that improve vocabulary, grammar, and speaking and listening skills.  

Card games For Seniors

Card games are a classic! Cards are inexpensive, do not require extra tools or equipment, and they encourage socialization because they involve multiple people to play. For seniors, card games stimulate the brain by testing the player’s strategy and chance.

  • Uno—Players match card numbers, colors, or words until one card remains.
  • Phase 10—The object of Phase 10 is to be the first to complete all of the 10 phases using cards dealt at random.
  • Crazy Eights—Match cards to the card on top of the starter pile in suit or number until the winner discards all of their cards.
  • Go Fish—Try to get four suits of the same rank by requesting cards from other players.
  • Bridge—Bridge is played in partners or teams and the team who wins does so by making bids and tricks.
  • Rummy—Players rush to order all of their cards in the same rank or sequence.
  • Solitaire—In ascending order, organize cards by suit.
  • Poker—A betting game where players make bets on who has the better hand of cards that are of the highest value.  
  • SkipBo—Stack the cards in your hand in sequential order to use all of the cards in the stockpile.
  • Lowdown—By placing nine cards in rows of three, replace high scoring cards with low scaring cards to have the least number of points out of all players.

Number Games For Seniors

Paying bills, shopping, measuring ingredients while cooking—numbers are frequently applied to everyday tasks. Games that involve numbers refine math skills in ways more fun than calculating tedious equations.

  • Yahtzee—A dice game where players roll and decide which combinations of numbers to keep or which to roll again.
  • Farkle—Roll dice until the score equals 500.
  • Sudoku—A puzzle game with the goal of each column and row in the 9×9 grid contains all digits from 1 to 9.  
  • Count Backwards—Practice counting backward from various starting points, patterns, and sequences.
  • Color By Numbers—Coloring by numbers combines the ability to count with the art and creativity of coloring.  

Word Games For Seniors

Word games challenge vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and communication by testing logic and reasoning. The brain is fully engaged, as games involving words strengthen the connections in both the right and the left side of the brain.

  • Scrabble—Arrange tiles in a crossword-style on a grid to form words with the highest point score.
  • Scattergories—Roll a dice to choose a letter and then name as many objects as possible on a list using the same letter.
  • Boggle—16 letter cubes are contained in a domed grid. Shake the grid to mix up the letters. Players must form as many words as possible using connecting letters (i.e. adjacent letters).
  • Word Search—Hidden amongst a grid of miscellaneous letters, find specific words on a list. The words can be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, or backward. Word search puzzles are featured in newspapers and gamebooks.
  • Taboo—Guess the word on the player’s card using hints listed on the card.
  • Bananagrams—Each player is given a set of letter tiles contained in a banana pouch. The first to build a crossword grid with all of their tiles wins.
  • Upwords—Upwords is similar to Scrabble, but the letter tiles can be stacked on top of each other.
  • Rhyming Ball—The starting player throws a ball to another player while saying a word. The player with the ball has to come up with a new word that rhymes before throwing the ball to the next player.

Board Games For Seniors

Board games are a popular form of entertainment for seniors. The majority of board games can be played sitting down, which is optimal for those with mobility concerns, and the rules can be modified to accommodate physical challenges. Board games are versatile, as the object of the games differ to target a variety of cognitive abilities. Including at least two players, studies report evidence of board games reducing the occurrence of depression in the elderly population.

  • Chess—A two player strategy game where each person takes turns moving pieces of contrasting colors across files and ranks.
  • Monopoly—Taking turns rolling dice, players move around the board while securing properties, developing them, and trading them with other players until a player declares bankruptcy.
  • Cranium—Players are assigned a piece that moves around the board. They battle to complete activities before the timer runs out. Activities include drawing, answering trivia questions, filling in the blank, or acting out an activity written on the card.
  • Pictionary—One player chooses a card from a deck and draws the object written on that card. Other players try to guess the word.  
  • Checkers— Using a checkered board, players move their pieces diagonally to jump over and collect all of the opponent’s pieces.
  • Sequence—The object of Sequence is for players to create columns, rows, and diagonals on the board with spaces based on all of the cards in a standard 52-card deck.
  • Trouble—Players roll the dice to be the first to move all four of their pieces around the board.
  • Sorry—Much like Trouble, players roll a dice to move each of their pawns to their home base.
  • Backgammon—A two-player game where each player moves their checkers between 24 triangles according to the number on the dice.

Physical Activity Games For Seniors

Exercise is an important part of maintaining physical and mental health. Being that seniors are prone to medical complications, physical activity is crucial to their health routine. Lifting weights, walking, or doing repeated reps of body weight exercises is tedious for some. Instead, physical activity games allow seniors to reach their allotment of physical exercise that incorporates their hobbies or interests. Research even shows “physically active older adults showed greater increases in white matter volume” (Colcombe, 2006).

Common games involving physical activity that are appropriate for seniors providing they receive medical clearance from their physician. These include activities such as golf, dance, badminton, tennis, crochet, frisbee, horseshoes, shuffleboard, whiffle ball, and swimming.

Craft Games For Seniors

Seniors like an outlet to express their creativity. While card games, board games, and virtual games are enjoyable, they are limited in artistry. Crafting triggers the brain to release dopamine, which creates feelings of happiness and initiates the process of building new neurons in the brain to fight the effects of aging. Physicians who are published in the American Journal of Public Health have introduced crafting to patients with dementia and have had memory improvements of up to 70 percent!

Basic crafts like painting, sewing, knitting, are great. Consider unique crafts like constructing and decorating a birdhouse, jewelry making, designing greeting cards for friends or other loved ones, or scrapbooking to preserve cherished memories.

Group games for seniors. Photo by Şahin Sezer Dinçer from Pexels

Group Games For Seniors

Many board and card games are multiple players, which encourages group or team cooperation. However, there are games that are played in much larger groups than the usual game of cards. This socialization is needed to keep their minds sharp through intellectual conversations with peers. Seniors with consistent, active social lives are generally less anxious, are not as likely to develop depression, and a have higher self-esteem than seniors who remain isolated.

  • Bingo—The purpose of Bingo is to have 5 connecting spaces on the board called. Bingo is the most common game played in group homes because it accommodates large groups and is inexpensive. It stimulates the senses (i.e. hearing, sight, touch).
  • Twister—The traditional Twister is not senior-friendly, as most are not physically able to contort their bodies. However, bean bag Twister is played by tossing bean bags on the mat. Each color on the board is allotted a point system, and the number of points given depends on what color the beanbag lands on.
  • Game Show Games—Recreating favorite game show games like “The Price Is Right,” “Family Feud,” and “Wheel of Fortune” engages large groups.

Memory Games For Seniors

Out of all of the cognitive skills, memory is the skill most effected by aging. Playing games that focus on memory tasks specifically reducing the extent of memory loss. Seniors with dementia especially benefit from games targeting memory.

  • Memory Tray—Miscellaneous items are put on a tray. After players look at the tray, it is covered up. Later, they must try to remember the items on the tray.
  • Memory Match—An interactive memory game for seniors where cards are placed face down on a surface and players flip over two cards at a time in attempts to find a match. Once the cards are matched, they are remain flipped over upright.  
  • Simon—An electronic memory game where players have to remember and repeat color sequences on a device.  
  • Grocery List—Using memory recall, players memorize a shopping list and are required to place every item in a hypothetical shopping cart. The first to fill the cart correctly wins!
  • Trivia—Trivia games test the knowledge on subjects such as science, history, facts about musicians, or television shows. These games train memory, as players have to retrieve the answer from their memory.
  • Finish the Phrase—Players are supposed to finish the sentence of phrases.

Resources

Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Scalf, P. E., Kim, J. S., Prakash, R., McAuley, E., et al. (2006). Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J. Gerontol. A Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 61, 1166–1170. doi: 10.1093/gerona/61.11.1166

Liu, H., Yang, Y., Xia, Y., Zhu, W., Leak, R. K., Wei, Z., Wang, J., & Hu, X. (2017). Aging of cerebral white matter. Ageing research reviews34, 64–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2016.11.006

Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: a review of current literature. American journal of public health100(2), 254–263. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497

Emotional Connection to Human Lookalikes: What Is the Uncanny Valley and What Can It Tell Us About How We Connect To Each Other?

What is the Uncanny Valley? Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Pixar, the company behind some of the most successful animated films of all time, released its first film, Toy Story, all the way back in 1995. Toy Story was the first film in the history of cinema to be created entirely using computer-generated graphics. In the time since then, technology has inarguably advanced in leaps and bounds, our ability to develop digitally-animated feature films, Saturday morning cartoons, and even short films has grown exponentially—giving rise to some truly unique stories.

But have you ever wondered why even when these studios are able to create almost lifelike representations of plants and animals and even minute details such as beautifully curly hair, individual blades of grass, and nearly perfect recreations of the real world environments we interact with every day…why do they almost always create the characters as if they were traditional cartoon caricatures? And why when they try to create lifelike human characters, they just look so darn strange?

What is the Uncanny Valley?

The Uncanny Valley is a theory that came from Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist who worked in the fields of robotics and automation. When he came up with the idea in 1970, he had noticed that there is a positive correlation between the way humans develop a greater connection and affinity for artificial humans as they become more realistic, but that at a certain point, when these artificial humans become almost perfect, there is a steep drop in our affinity with them as we begin to see them a human but begin to notice slight differences that cause a disconnect between the realness of the artificial human and our expectation of a true human form.

The Uncanny Valley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

For example, when we look at an industrial robot that looks nothing like a human, we feel little to no connection to this robot. But when we interact with a cute child’s toy that looks like a humanoid robot, we may feel basic emotions and form shallow bonds with this humanlike toy.

If we were to interact with a robot like the famed C-3PO from the Star Wars films, we may even begin to build what could be described as a friendship with this robot due to its humanlike personality traits and humanlike form.

But if we were to see a robot that looked exactly like a human but who was unable to move their eyebrows or form familiar facial expressions when speaking, we would feel strange interacting with this robot because we would expect a ‘human’ to be able to do these things. When our expectations were not met, we feel a discomforting disconnect.

Examples of Human Lookalikes: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly…

There are plenty of examples of human lookalikes—from movies and television to robots that help provide services such as serving food or patrolling shopping centers alongside other law-enforcement agents—and each one evokes a slightly different reaction from the public.  

Here are some examples of human lookalikes from all across the spectrum, from feel-good friends to utterly cringeworthy.

The Good: Human Lookalikes that Make Us Feel an Emotional Connection

As mentioned above, Pixar has a special way of creating unique animated characters with just enough human traits to help us form strong emotional connections, but cartoony enough to keep them well away from falling into the Uncanny Valley.

One of my favorite examples of this is the animated film Up. The first five to ten minutes of this film create one of the most emotional experiences in all of modern cinema. But, how does Pixar create these characters in a way they makes them so easy to connect to?

Part of what makes them so relatable without becoming off-putting is the over-exaggeration of facial and body features such as large noses and eyes, overly squared or rounded facial structures, or head-to-body ratios that are cartoonishly inaccurate.

By creating these characters in this way, they allow us to view them as non-humans doing humanlike things, which we often find appealing, similar to how we often anthropomorphize animals or objects that look or act in ways we typically understand as ‘human.’

The Bad: Human Lookalikes that Tried Too Hard and Didn’t Quite Make it

But not all examples of human lookalikes are found in film and pop culture. There is a growing trend of trying to create humanlike robots that can be used in offices and other public spaces to interact with humans.

One example of this is the Actroid robot created by the Japanese firm Kokoro Company Ltd.

As you can see, this android is aiming to be humanlike, with typical body ratios, natural-looking facial structure, and clothing that would be appropriate for a human to be wearing in a similar situation.

And while this is obviously aiming to be as humanlike as possible, it is quite evident that it is a robot and doesn’t quite elicit the uncomfortable feelings we might experience from the Uncanny Valley.

The Ugly: Human Lookalikes that Made us Cringe

Actor Tom Hanks is no newbie when it comes to voicing animated characters in films, but not all of his animated films have received the same warm welcome from critics and fans.

One such film is the 2004 animated Christmas movie The Polar Express.

Though this movie was given high praise for its overall visual appeal and unique story, many who saw the film left with an uneasy feeling brought on by the strange, waxy emotions of the human characters.

This is a perfect example of how a human lookalike being too authentic-looking can cause us to feel uncomfortable.

Since we saw what looked like humans, we expected to see human actions and movements, especially those small micro-movements in the eyes and face. When we don’t see those, we feel a disconnect between what we expect and what we actually see.

Why Do We React So Strongly to Human Lookalikes?

When humans interact with each other, we don’t merely interact using spoken words. We also read each other’s body language and facial expressions for additional clues and context about what is being said.

For example, if someone says, “I am so excited,” this could mean several things based on the context. We could understand it as authentic excitement if the person says it with a slightly high-pitched tone and with raised eyebrows and a slight flush in the cheeks. But if the same person says the same thing with a deeper, slower tone, slight downward turn at the corners of the mouth, and a slight slouch in their spine, it might be a sign that what they are saying is sarcastic.

When we interact with human-lookalikes that are cartoonish, we can expect to skip the micro-movements and subtle clues and read into the more obvious things like tone. Still, when we interact with an almost lifelike human lookalike, and we don’t receive these same micro-clues we expect from a human, it seems strange.

Does Everyone Experience the Uncanny Valley Effect the Same?  

As demographics change across the globe and the average age of populations continues to increase, especially in industrialized nations, there is an increasing interest in using robots to provide services and act as caretakers to the older generation, freeing up more of the younger generation to enter into the workforce.

With this push comes interesting questions about how the Uncanny Valley affects people from different age groups.

At least one research project has found that while the Uncanny Valley Effect is prevalent among younger and middle-aged adults, adults in the older cohorts did not show the same negative reaction to humanlike robots—in fact, they actually preferred interacting with robots that appeared more human.

Conclusion

How does the Uncanny Valley Affect How We Connect to Human Lookalikes? Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

The idea of having robots to help us throughout our lives is not a new one. Cartoons such as The Jetsons, which aired for the first time in 1962, were already toying with the idea of robot helpers to do all manner of tasks around the house.

Today we are closer than ever to fulfilling this dream. We have digital assistants in the form of Siri and Alexa, we have cars that can drive themselves (at least under specific circumstances), and we even have robotic security guards.

But as these digital helpers become more advanced, we are starting to enter into the realm of the Uncanny Valley, and we must tread carefully if we want people to feel comfortable with these new additions to public life.

B. F. Skinner: 4 Interesting Experiments from the Father of Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner Sure Did Love His Pigeons Photo by sanjiv nayak on Unsplash

There are few names in psychology more well-known than B. F. Skinner. First-year psychology students scribble notes as their professors introduce him and his work to the class, and doctoral candidates cite his work in their dissertations as they test whether rat’s behavior can be used to predict behavior in humans.

Skinner is one of the most well-known psychologists of our time. Still, like many larger-than-life figures, for many, he has become little more than a meme of himself, reduced to the two-paragraphs of notes dedicated to him in the notebooks of those bright-eyed freshmen. “Oh, yes. The father of operant conditioning!” we say at dinner parties, hoping the topic changes before our limited knowledge becomes apparent.

But how did he become such a central figure of these Intro to Psych courses, and how did he develop the theories and methodologies cited by those sleep-deprived Ph.D. students?

B. F. Skinner’s Famous Works & Contributions to Psychology

Skinner, born in Pennsylvania in 1904, spent his life studying the way we behave and act, and how this behavior can be modified.

Viewing the classical model of behavioral conditioning championed by Ivan Pavlov, another mainstay of modern psychological study, as being too simplistic a solution to fully explain the complexities of human (and animal) behavior and learning, B. F. Skinner began looking for a better way to explain why we do what we do.

Basing his early work on Edward Thorndike’s 1989 Law of Effect, Skinner went on to expand on the idea that the prevalence of a given behavior is directly related to the consequences which follow said behavior. His expanded model of behavioral learning, known as operant conditioning, is centered around the concepts of behaviors, the actions an organism exhibits, and operants, the environmental response directly following the behavior.

These responses, often referred to as consequences—though this is somewhat misleading due in part to the fact that there need not be a causal relationship between the behavior and the operant—can either come in three forms. The first is reinforcers, which present the organism with a desirable stimulus and serve to increase the frequency of the behavior. On the other end of the spectrum are punishers or environmental responses that present an undesirable stimulus and serve to reduce the frequency of the behavior. Finally, there are neutral operants which, as the name suggests, present stimuli that neither increase nor decrease the prevalence of the behavior in question.

Throughout his long and storied career, Skinner performed a number of strange experiments trying to test the limits of how punishment and reinforcement affect behavior.

4 Interesting Experiments from B. F. Skinner

Though Skinner was a professional through and through, he was also quite a quirky person… and his unique ways of thinking are readily apparent in the strange and interesting experiments he performed while researching the properties of operant conditioning.

Here are four of the most famous experiments from throughout his career:

Experiment #1: The Operant Conditioning Chamber

The Operant Conditioning Chamber, better known as the Skinner Box, is a device that B.F. Skinner used in many of his experiments. At its most basic, the Skinner Box is a chamber where a test subject, such as a rat or a pigeon, can be placed and must ‘learn’ the desired behavior through trial and error.

B.F. Skinner used this device for several different experiments. One such experiment involves placing a hungry rat into a chamber with a lever and a slot where food is dispensed when the lever is pressed. Another variation involves placing a rat into an enclosure, which is wired with a slight electric current in the floor. When the current is turned on, the rat must turn a wheel in order to turn off the current.  

Though this is the most basic experiment in operant conditioning research, there is an infinite number of variations that can be created based on this simple idea.


Experiment #2: A Pigeon That Can Read

Building on the basic ideas from his work with the Operant Conditioning Chamber, B. F. Skinner eventually began designing more and more complex experiments.

One of these experiments involved teaching a pigeon to read words presented to it in order to receive food. Skinner began by teaching the pigeon a simple task, namely, pecking a colored disk, in order to receive a reward. He then began adding additional environmental cues (in this case, they were words), which were paired with a specific behavior that was required in order to receive the reward.

Through this evolving process, Skinner was able to teach the pigeon to ‘read’ and respond to several unique commands.

Though the pigeon can’t actually read English, the fact that he was able to teach a bird multiple behaviors, each one linked to a specific stimulus, by using operant conditioning shows us that this form of behavioral learning can be a powerful tool for teaching both animals and humans complex behaviors based on environmental cues.


Experiment #3: Pigeon Ping-Pong

But Skinner wasn’t only concerned with teaching pigeons how to read. It seems he also made sure they had time to play games as well. In one of his more whimsical experiments, B. F. Skinner taught a pair of common pigeons how to play a simplified version of table tennis.

The pigeons in this experiment were placed on either side of a box and were taught to peck the ball to the other bird’s side. If a pigeon was able to peck the ball across the table and past their opponent, they were rewarded with a small amount of food. This reward served to reinforce the behavior of pecking the ball past their opponent.

Though this may seem like a silly task to teach a bird, the ping-pong experiment shows that operant conditioning can be used not only for a specific, robot-like action but also to teach dynamic, goal-based behaviors.


Experiment #4: Pigeon-Guided Missiles

Thought pigeons playing ping-pong was as strange as things could get? Skinner pushed the envelope even further with his work on pigeon-guided missiles.

While this may sound like the crazy experiment of a deluded mad scientist, B. F. Skinner did actually do work to train pigeons to control the flight paths of missiles for the U.S. Army during the second world war.

Skinner began by training the pigeons to peck at shapes on a screen. Once the pigeons reliably tracked these shapes, Skinner was able to use sensors to track whether the pigeon’s beak was in the center of the screen, to one side or the other, or towards the top or bottom of the screen. Based on the relative location of the pigeon’s beak, the tracking system could direct the missile towards the target location.

Though the system was never used in the field due in part to advances in other scientific areas, it highlights the unique applications that can be created using operant training for animal behaviors.


How B. F. Skinner’s Work Continues to Impact Psychology and Beyond

B. F. Skinner is one of the most recognizable names in modern psychology, and with good reason. Though many of his experiments seem outlandish, the science behind them continues to impact us in ways we rarely think about.

The most prominent example is in the way we train animals for tasks such as search and rescue, companion services for the blind and disabled, and even how  we train our furry friends at home—but the benefits of his research go far beyond teaching Fido how to roll over.

Operant conditioning research has found its way into the way schools motivate and discipline students, how prisons rehabilitate inmates, and even in how governments handle geopolitical relationships.

Mathematics & Mental Health: How Are Our Children Coping with Returning to School in the Age of Coronavirus?

Students Return to School After Quarantine. Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

Sanitizer, medical masks, and…colored pencils? As the summer heat starts to wind down and schools begin to open up and air out the classrooms after an extended break from in-person lessons, parents and students alike are beginning to confront the topic of returning to the classroom after what has been a very strange, to say the least, academic year that ended this past Spring.

Even in a typical year, going back to school after the summer break can bring with it a mix of emotions for students: the joy of seeing their friends, the anxiety of whether they will like their teachers or classmates, a bit of sadness that they can no longer sleep in until noon every day… But this isn’t a typical year, and this won’t be a typical back to school.

On top of the usual emotional rollercoaster that comes every fall semester, this year, students are having to deal with the possibilities of becoming infected with COVID-19, including the fears of bringing the disease back home to their parents, siblings, and even grandparents.

How are students supposed to handle the complex emotions brought on by returning to school in the midst of a global pandemic, and what are schools doing to help them prepare?

Our Children Are Returning to School in A Very Uncertain Time

How is Back to School During COVID-19 Affecting Student Mental Health? Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

After nearly six months of online learning—and in some cases, even more—students all around the world are preparing to head back to the classroom to have in-person lessons with their teachers and classmates.  

In many instances, governments and school administrators still haven’t put in place plans for minimizing infections or for dealing with outbreaks when they inevitably do occur.

Teachers, many of whom have preexisting health conditions or who are in an age group that puts them at higher risk for Coronavirus, are concerned about returning to the classroom, but also understand the importance of in-person classes on the learning outcomes of their students, especially the youngest and most vulnerable.

Parents—who have been forced to work from home and take on dual duties of office worker and ad hoc math, science, and literature tutor, or who have been thrust onto the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, either as healthcare professionals or essential workers, who now have had to worry about not only putting in their time at work, but also how to care for their children when sending them to school was no longer an option—must now grapple with the impossible decision of whether to send their children back to school and return to some semblance of ‘normal,’ though with the ever-present specter of Coronavirus infection hanging over their heads, or keep their children safe at home and try to keep their heads above water as they navigate an increasingly stressful work-life balance.

Throughout all of this, students are looking on with confusion and uncertainty. They see parents, teachers, administrators, medical professionals, and even politicians discussing plans to open school or continue with distance-learning measure, or both, or neither…

How are our children, the future of the world, handling the prospect of returning to the classroom—whether on campus or online?

Student Mental Health Triple Threat: Quarantine, COVID, & Back to School

For students of all ages, this has been an exceptionally challenging year. The global spread of the novel Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, and the ensuing quarantines which shut down much of the economic and social activities in countries around the world, has presented unprecedented challenges for nearly everyone.

Still, it could be argued that it is the youth who will be most affected by this pandemic. The youth who are seeing their sports seasons, proms, and graduations moved online; The students who are now forced to attend school from home; The students who are now seeing what very well may be their primary source of healthy meals, psychological support, and a sense of community and belonging disappear almost overnight.

These students who have had to deal with the complete upheaval brought about by the virus are still reeling from the loss of stability so many of us took for granted, complained about, and even mocked in movies and television, yet which we relied on for so much of our success and understanding of who we are, are now being forced to confront returning to those same classrooms, starting a new school year knowing full well that the danger is far from over.

Now, as these students—still carrying the emotional weight of a year defined by uncertainty and fear—return to the classroom, they are being asked to act as Guinea pigs on the front lines of the pandemic, while at the same time being unsure whether the education they are receiving will be as effective as what came before.

This return to school is going to be difficult for even the youngest backpack-toting pupils, but for students old enough to understand the full magnitude of the pandemic, dealing with the ‘normal’ emotional turmoil which often accompanies the first days and weeks of class may simply be too much to handle.

How Can Parents & Teachers Support Mental Health When They Are Suffering, Too?

But the students aren’t the only ones affected by this transition back to the classroom, which has no equivalent in contemporary history.

We often hear the African proverb which posits that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ but what happens when the parents, teachers, and village elders we have always looked to for teaching our children how to navigate the complex relationships and emotions they deal with in the classroom and beyond are feeling just as lost and confused as the children they are meant to be raising?

Parents, who undoubtedly want what is best for their children and their children’s future, are confronted with impossible choices where what is best for their academic and professional future may also put them at risk of becoming infected with a deadly disease, calling their very future into question.

They are, at the same time, dealing with the emotional consequences of working from home or working a job where they are forced to venture out into the world every day into communities where the virus is still far from being under control.

The issue is even more acute for many teachers, especially those who work with the youngest cohort of bright-eyed students. For those who have dedicated their lives to a vocation who often value the hugs and thank-you cards they receive at the end of the year more so than the checks they receive at the end of each month, the thought of returning to the classroom brings with it its own set of emotional challenges.

Parents and teachers, as they always do, will try their best to give these students the support they need—a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand to pull them up, and a stern but loving push to get them to step out of their comfort zones and reach their full potential—but without additional resources, it simply may not be enough.

Schools Are Investing More in Mental Health, but Is It Enough?

Schools are Trying to Protect Students from Coronavirus. Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

School districts, universities, and local governments are already voicing concern about the mental health needs of students returning to campuses this fall. Regional and national governments around the world are providing frameworks and guidelines for returning safely to the classroom, some are even earmarking additional funds for students’ mental health for the coming academic year and beyond, but even with the increased focus on students’ wellbeing, schools, which have never truly had the resources to provide the full support their students need, are beginning to question how to meet the increased demands of returning to reading, writing, and arithmetic in the shadow of Coronavirus.

In some places, governments are launching programs aimed toward providing additional mental health training for teachers and educators—turning thousands of history, science, and art instructors into an army of counselors for their students. But can we really expect to rely on teachers, who were already pushed past their limits before the coronavirus upheaval, to bear the brunt of the responsibility for ensuring our children are capable of managing the complex emotions of returning to the classroom while at the same time ensuring they are capable of using the Pythagorean theorem correctly?

The issue isn’t merely that students are feeling anxious about starting the school year and they need a comforting word from a trusted adult. We aren’t just dealing with preteens who are feeling down because they think they aren’t going to be able to keep up their academic profile and may not get into a good university.

What is so problematic about the situation in which we now find ourselves is that we are facing all of these same issues we have struggled with for so long while simultaneously having to deal with the complete disintegration of the social structures upon which these children have typically relied. Children and adolescents, who often benefit significantly from the structure and predictability of the traditional school setting, are having their routines and interactions with their peers turned utterly upside down.

The real issue is that we still don’t understand the full extent of the mental-health damage that the Coronavirus outbreak has had on our children or how returning to school may exacerbate these and other mental health issues. Even though teachers, parents, politicians, and mental health professionals are doing the best they can with the resources at their disposal, the question remains: will it be enough?

Conclusion

While many talk about how children are incredibly resilient and capable of bouncing back from hardship, the truth is that even when they do bounce back, they often carry with them emotional scars that can affect them well into adulthood.

There may be no easy answers for how to open up our societies, economies, and schools after one of the worst disease outbreaks in living memory, but what is certain is that if we aren’t able to find a way to support the students, as well as the parents and teachers, as the school year kicks into full swing, we may be at risk of trading a medical crisis for a mental health one.

Decision Making: 7 Incredible Ways Our Brains Process Information To Make Better Choices

How many decisions have you made today? Not just the big ones, like what job you want or where you want to go to university… Not just the important daily ones, like what clothes to wear or what to eat for lunch… But all of them. Decision making is part of everything we do. How many times has your brain encountered a set of choices and had to decide which was the best of the possible outcomes?

We are constantly making decisions, as many as 2,000 per hour. Deciding whether to go to Jenny’s party or Billie’s.  Deciding whether we want the chicken or the fish. Deciding whether to check the notification we just received. Deciding whether we should scratch our nose. Deciding if we want to keep reading a blog.

We are constantly making decisions, large and small, and much of the time we don’t even realize it. So how do we handle so many choices without going crazy?

How our brains process information

Part of the reason we are able to make so many decisions is that our brains are incredibly efficient at absorbing and processing information. We gather details about our world from our eyes and ears and skin and a wide range of sensory organs and almost instantaneously process the information based on our entire life history. Almost without even noticing, we decide that we do want another sip of coffee after all.

Our brains use several cognitive abilities to make these split-second decisions, and we follow a similar process for more significant decisions as well.

Information Processing in the Brain

  • Starting with input from the sensory organs, we use our attention, perception, and short-term memory to access the information and pass it on to the part of our brain which processes the information.
  • Using our ability to focus our attention, we filter out irrelevant information and—using cognitive processes such as working memory and reasoning—we evaluate the information against past experiences held in long-term memory.
  • Once our brains have accessed, filtered, and evaluated the information, we rely on our executive functions to decide the best choice.

Our brains are incredibly efficient at evaluating and making decisions and have several tricks to make decisions faster and require less energy. Mental ‘shortcuts’ help us to avoid decision overload and allow us to reserve energy and processing power for more critical tasks. However, sometimes shortcuts can cause us a bit of trouble as well.

3 types of shortcuts for decision making

There are several shortcuts, known as heuristics that we use to make decisions which help us to make decisions more efficiently:

  • Availability – The availability heuristic is the brain’s way of using readily-available information to speed up a decision. The more examples of something in your memory, the more likely it is to be relevant. Imagine a hunter-gatherer going out to look for food when they come upon a fork in the road. They remember several times they saw a saber-toothed tiger when going down one of the paths and quickly decide to choose the alternate route.
  • Representative – We use the representativeness heuristic to make quick decisions based on a ‘representative’ mental model of the situation. If you go outside and see that it is cloudy, the sky is dark, and the wind has started to pick up, you may choose to grab an umbrella because—in your mental models, at least—when these things happen together, they are also accompanied by rain.
  • Affect – The third shortcut is known as the affect heuristic. This is our way of using the emotions we feel to speed up decision making. When we are feeling happy, we are more likely to take risks and try new things, whereas when we are feeling down, we may avoid these things, opting for more comfortable or familiar choices.

These heuristics are powerful ways that we speed up and automate the thousands of choices we are faced with each day. Still, it is important to understand the downside of mental shortcuts, as they can lead to unintended consequences and cause harm to ourselves and others.

4 biases that can affect decision making

How can something that speeds up decision making and makes our cognitive processes more efficient end up being a bad thing? The problem stems from the fact that we think we know the answer to something before we take the time to learn all the facts.

Some of the most common biases that affect decision making are:

  • Confirmation BiasConfirmation Bias happens when we are making a choice and find information that confirms our existing beliefs. We may take this information as proof that our initial thoughts we correct and stop looking for more details or ignore mountains of evidence to the contrary.
  • Anchoring – Anchoring, also known as ‘first impression’ bias, is the tendency to judge new information based on the first information received. An example of this is when you go to a restaurant, and they offer the first bottle of wine for $100 and a second for $15; the second sounds much more attractive than if the first bottle had been $2.
  • Conformity BiasConformity Bias is the tendency to agree with the group even if your own initial opinion was different. Sometimes called ‘herd mentality,’ this can stifle innovation and lead to group-think.
  • False Causality Bias – Attributing events in a series as being caused by the first is known as the false causality bias. Roosters always crow after the sun comes up, but that doesn’t mean the sun caused the roosters to crow.  Though this example is quite silly, false causality bias can have serious consequences. For example, someone might look at an immigrant neighborhood with high rates of crime and assume that the crime is due to the immigrants who live in the community. Had they taken the time to investigate further, they could have seen that, in reality, it could be due to any number of socioeconomic root causes and has nothing to do with where the residents come from.

There are many other ways our decision-making processes can be negatively affected by mental biases. So it is essential to stay mindful and always try to double-check whether your choices are the result of informed cognitive processes or biases.

How a healthy brain is better at making decisions

Staying healthy is one of the best ways to improve our decision-making capabilities. As anyone who has ever gone grocery shopping while they were hungry knows, things like hunger, stress, or how tired we are can have a significant effect on the decisions we make.

Just like someone who eats healthy food before heading to the grocery store is more likely to choose healthy foods, a person who has plenty of sleep, well-managed stress, and maintains a healthy exercise routine will be better equipped to make better decisions in all parts of their lives.

Conclusion

If you or someone you know are interested in learning about your brain health, check out our cognitive assessments and brain training here.

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