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Cultivating a "winner's brain"

MAY 2010

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Psychological strategies that people can use to improve mental performance.

Many people want to remain mentally (as well as physically) fit, so that they can perform well at school and at work. A controversial way to improve focus and mental functioning is to take a "smart pill" — the slang term for using prescription stimulants such as amphetamine (Adderall) or methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) to try to boost mental functioning rather than to treat a problem like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. One survey of U.S. college students found that 7% had used prescription stimulants in an effort to improve academic achievement, for example.

But there are nonpharmacological ways to boost mental performance. Jeff Brown, a cognitive behavioral psychologist at Harvard Medical School, and Mark Fenske, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, have described a set of strategies for remaining mentally sharp even under trying circumstances. In their book, The Winner's Brain: Eight Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success, Drs. Brown and Fenske outline an approach they derive from well-known psychotherapies and discoveries in neuroscience. The strategies they suggest can be applied in the clinic, the classroom, and the workplace.

The ever-changing brain

Once thought to be as hard-wired as a computer, the brain's neural circuitry is now understood as an ever-changing landscape. The ability of individual neurons to form new synaptic connections in response to novel experiences or environmental challenges is known as brain plasticity, and it underlies learning and memory. Although brain processing speed tends to slow down with age, the brain remains plastic throughout life. The challenge for people is to take advantage of this inborn gift.

Preliminary neuroimaging studies suggest that the way people use their minds may alter neural circuitry, and in some cases build brain tissue. It's important to remember, though, that the research usually involves only small numbers of participants. It also detects patterns and associations that are determined after taking images of multiple brains and then averaging the results. Individual brain activity might vary somewhat from a particular norm, just as height and weight do. For that reason, it is not currently possible in the clinic — nor is it likely to be for a long time — to take an individual "brain snapshot" and say with certainty what type of mental activity is going on. Even so, these patterns of brain activity provide the basis for clinical advice to challenge the brain constantly, so that it will continue to form new connections.

A sampler of strategies

Drs. Brown and Fenske review eight strategies that people can try in everyday life to challenge their brain, learn to focus, and think more productively. The strategies incorporate principles used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a mainstay of psychotherapy that helps patients to reframe situations and learn more productive ways of coping. Other elements come from positive psychology, a relatively new clinical slant that identifies and builds on people's strengths rather than trying to correct weaknesses.

A brief discussion of several "winner's" strategies will provide a flavor of the approach that Drs. Brown and Fenske advocate.

Motivation. Identifying a goal is usually the easy part; it's achieving it that's hard. Drs. Brown and Fenske offer several suggestions for ways to spark and maintain motivation. For example, when procrastination is a problem, the issue may be that the task at hand seems too big to accomplish. The authors suggest that people first envision or "map" the multiple steps necessary for reaching an ultimate goal, and then concentrate on achieving each step.

Although focusing on such mundane, incremental tasks may seem boring, neuroscience research suggests that commitment to mastering a craft can feel rewarding. Furthermore, this kind of immersion can help a person achieve a state of heightened concentration and pleasure that Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading thinker in the positive psychology field who is now at Claremont Graduate University, has described as "flow."

A small but intriguing study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, for example, involved professional jazz musicians. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain in action, the investigators found that when the musicians improvised, they displayed interesting patterns of brain activity.

During creative improvisations, the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in the integration of information to support complex goals and aspirations, became more active. Simultaneously, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is often involved in inhibiting behavior and monitoring thinking, became less active. Limbic areas associated with anxiety also quieted. This study may provide a glimpse of the brain "in flow," as the musicians used skills they'd already mastered — playing notes — in new and creative ways.

Focus. It's often difficult to get any work done while at work. Offices are full of distractions: colleagues who need help or just want to talk, phone calls, e-mails that need answering, meetings, and so on. The day, and people's attention, can become fragmented.

The typical response — multitasking — can take a toll on the brain. In a study of 14 participants who underwent fMRI, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that when people try to juggle two tasks at once, a bottleneck occurs in information processing. The posterior lateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in decision making, delayed one task until the other was complete.

Another study, by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, involved 14 participants (mean age 26) who were asked to learn a task under two conditions. They learned one task without any distractions. Then they learned another task while listening to, and trying to count, a series of beeps. Not surprisingly, their ability to recall how to do the task later on was much better when they learned it without distraction.

Preliminary research suggests that maintaining focus, on the other hand, might help build brain tissue. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted MRI studies of people who regularly practice meditation, and found that compared with controls, they had more gray matter (brain cells) in areas associated with attention and sensory processing.

Drs. Brown and Fenske offer practical tips for fostering focus, even in distracting environments. Some may seem obvious, yet few people remember to do them: turn off the cell phone or e-mail, for example. Other tips — such as taking a break or taking a walk — may seem counterintuitive, but do work; shifting from what they call a "hunt it down and kill it" intensity to a more relaxed approach can actually improve ability to focus.

Memory. Drs. Brown and Fenske encourage people to understand that memory can be used proactively, as a way to prepare for the future, not just remember the past. In fact, one of the evolutionary reasons for memory was to provide people with a way to apply lessons learned in the past to current problems or challenges.

In practical terms, Drs. Brown and Fenske suggest that people actively acquire the types of memory that will enable them to perform more efficiently or with more confidence. One example is that of an airline pilot, who drills repeatedly in simulated emergency situations in order to prepare for the possibility of a crash landing.

Several studies suggest that such repetitive practice at a particular task or skill might build brain tissue. One frequently cited study involved London cab drivers. Researchers from University College, London, used MRI scans to compare brains of the cab drivers with those of controls. They found that part of the hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for navigation and spatial relations) was larger in the cab drivers than in controls. The more experience a cab driver had (as indicated by how long he'd held the job), the larger the hippocampus. In another brain imaging study, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that the motor cortex in 32 professional musicians (including both pianists and string musicians) was larger than in 32 matched controls with no musical training.

Findings such as these suggest that there is some brain basis for the old adage, "practice makes perfect." The idea is to both practice something physically and use imagery repeatedly, thereby gaining skills and confidence that help to improve performance. This approach is one that can be applied in the classroom, the boardroom, or the courtroom.

Brain care

It's also important for people to remember to take care of their brains, even while finding new mental challenges every day. The basics of brain care consist of three things that are also good for the rest of the body: sleep, exercise, and nutrition.

Sleep. Neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night's sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.

Exercise. Evidence is growing that physical exercise — always known to be good for the body — also benefits the brain. Aerobic exercise in particular appears to improve several aspects of cognition and brain functioning, both in children and adults.

Nutrition. Several large epidemiological studies have suggested that particular diets — such as those emphasizing vegetables and heart-healthy oils — may also help people maintain cognitive ability. Although such studies do not prove cause and effect, and the research on nutrition is more preliminary than it is for exercise or sleep, the results do provide support for the idea that what people put in their mouths may affect what they do with their minds. If nothing else, a healthy diet is necessary for physical health — which in turn helps the brain function optimally.

Brown J, et al. The Winner's Brain: Eight Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success (Da Capo Press, 2010).

Dux PE, et al. "Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI," Neuron (Dec. 21, 2006): Vol. 52, No. 6, pp. 1109–20.

Hillman CH, et al. "Be Smart, Exercise Your Heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition," Nature Reviews of Neuroscience (Jan. 2008): Vol. 9, No. 1, pp. 58–65.

Lazar SW, et al. "Meditation Experience is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness," Neuroreport (Nov. 28, 2005): Vol. 16, No. 17, pp. 1893–97.

Maguire EA, et al. "Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers," Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (April 11, 2000): Vol. 97, No. 8, pp. 4398–403.

For more references, please see www.health.harvard.edu/mentalextra.