Category Archives: brain

I.Q. points for sale? Do brain training games work? #intelligence

In the Times’ Sunday Review, David Hambrick, a psychology researcher at Michigan State University, questions the raft of brain games that are coming to market claiming to sharpen one’s intelligence. From the research I’ve looked at, the problem is really more to do with outsized claims — not that brain training is useless. Hambrick points out an important fact that people frequently misunderstand about intelligence: ” intelligence can’t be measured with any single test; it reflects what tests of many cognitive abilities have in common.” As I’ve argued in my book and elsewhere, intelligence is not a single item, like a pound of beef that can be weighed on a scale but a collection of hundreds of abilities, some of which improve with age and some that decline. And as Hambrick notes, cognitive training to improve a reasoning skill, does improve that reasoning skill — even if it does not mean that they are “smarter.”

My interest is not in making you “smarter” — although that would of course be nice — but for people to keep their cognitive skills sharp as they age….and working your brain can do that.


As if There Weren’t Enough Reasons Already to Stop Smoking…

A study published online in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that middle-age men who smoke aged their brains by 10 years. Intriguingly, smoking did not seem to have the same cognitive effects on women.

As reported in Medpagetoday:

“Current smoking conferred the equivalent of 10 years of aging on global cognition and executive function among men, Séverine Sabia, PhD, of University College London, and colleagues reported online in the
This effect might be expected to lead to dementia later in life, they noted.
Although their analysis of the Whitehall II cohort study of British civil servants couldn’t address that risk, other evidence from studies in the elderly has increasingly linked smoking and dementia.
Because the process that leads to dementia appears to start decades before clinical diagnosis, smoking cessation efforts need to target individuals at all ages, Sabia’s group concluded.
Smoking didn’t appear to have the same impact on women’s brains, perhaps because the women studied in the Whitehall II cohort didn’t smoke as heavily as the men, the researchers suggested.”


Gina Kolata writes in the New York Times about two new fascinating studies that show Alzheimer’s disease spread like an infection from cell to cell in the brain. What’s surprising, she writes:

“Instead of viruses or bacteria, what is being spread is a distorted protein known as tau.
In Alzheimer’s, a Tangled Protein
  The surprising finding answers a longstanding question and has immediate implications for developing treatments, researchers said. And they suspect that other degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s may spread in a similar way.
Alzheimer’s researchers have long known that dying, tau-filled cells first emerge in a small area of the brain where memories are made and stored. The disease then slowly moves outward to larger areas that involve remembering and reasoning.
But for more than a quarter-century, researchers have been unable to decide between two explanations. One is that the spread may mean that the disease is transmitted from neuron to neuron, perhaps along the paths that nerve cells use to communicate with one another. Or it could simply mean that some brain areas are more resilient than others and resist the disease longer.
The new studies provide an answer. And they indicate it may be possible to bring Alzheimer’s disease to an abrupt halt early on by preventing cell-to-cell transmission, perhaps with an antibody that blocks tau. “


Gail Sheehy weighs in on my book in the New York Times:

 “Her book is a fascinating biography of the idea of middle age, “a story we tell about ourselves.” Today, more than ever, that story romanticizes the idea that the middle-aged wield enormous power while it also fetishizes the attributes of youth.

She contends that middle age is a “cultural fiction,” an elastic concept reinterpreted by every generation. Academics are already defining the years from 55 to 75 as a distinct category, with labels like “encore generation,” “third age,” or “midcourse.”

Given the vastly elongated life spans of healthy Americans, and the reproductive revolution, people today can afford to take longer to grow up and much longer to die. Ms. Cohen lets us know she could delay marriage until she was 39, choose pregnancy at 40, and still be thinking about what she wants to do when she grows up.

This is a rare personal reference in an otherwise solidly researched book that finds its wide-ranging examples in the work of the Romantic poets, Trollope and Arthur Miller, as well as Bernice Neugarten, a pioneer in the study of adult development.”

New review from the Winnipeg Free Press

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Reviewed by: Julie Carl

IN OUR PRIME “is truly a comprehensive look at middle age through the eyes of scientists, historians, psychologists, medical doctors, marketers and many more… That’s good and bad news. It could lead to the denial middle-agers are prone to (thinking 50 is the new 30 and other lies we tell ourselves). But it does reinforce a point Cohen’s data makes: each generation defines middle age differently.

So people born before American Frederick Winslow Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 not only attached no negative connotations to middle age, they generally attached no significance to age. If they thought of it at all, it was to consider age a positive, an acquisition of skills, knowledge and judgment.

For centuries before Taylor introduced scientific management to make industry more efficient, so little emphasis was put on age that many people weren’t sure how old they were. Celebrating birthdays, even recording age in the American census, are relatively new developments.

Taylor set the work world on a course to casting a critical eye at older workers. He timed production in factories, which stressed the point that with age we lose strength and speed. That was not good news for older workers, particularly men, who often found themselves on the scrap heap by age 40.

Adding to the injustice: some historians now say Taylor cooked his data to exaggerate his theory’s success. But at the time, Taylor’s ideas about efficiency and standardization revolutionized industry. Henry Ford embraced the ideas and between 1913 and 1914 was able to reduce the time it took workers to build a car to 1.5 hours from 12.5 hours. Thus, the assembly line was born.

From this new view of aging, sprang the promotion of hair dye and face-lifts and a frightening chapter in medical history when the implantation of monkey glands into men was widely hailed as the cure. The list of fixes for middle age grows ever longer: human growth hormones, estrogen therapy, Botox, Viagra.

Cohen’s work often heads off on interesting tangents, reminiscent of travel writer Bill Bryson’s style. Following a section on the effect movies had on attitudes to middle age, she describes how the invention of photography added to people’s awareness of their own awareness.

When portrait photography became popular around 1840, subjects often could not identify themselves in their photographs. Some picked out the wrong photo, mistaking someone else’s face for their own. Shown the right photo, they would reject it because they couldn’t possibly look like that.

On the heels of a new awareness of one’s appearance came the development of marketing and advertising, those industries of whippersnappers, which rely on portraying aging as a negative in order to sell their fountain-of-youth elixirs.

That’s one thing that’s refreshing about this work: its scholarly approach to middle age is not about finding a way to tighten skin, thicken hair or thin the waistline. Middle-aged readers may pick it up looking for that, but will find better relief in at least some of Cohen’s experts’ view that middle age is no worse, and maybe even better, than other ages.

If there is a message to carry away, it is that. In the last century and a half, middle age has become recognized as another stage of human development, even if each generation will define it differently, proving, as Cohen puts it, ‘just how malleable this cultural fiction can be.'”

Time Magazine — Advantages of the Middle-Aged Brain

Brain scanning technology is quickly approachi...

Image via Wikipedia

study in the British Medical Journal lit up the Internet last week with the conclusion that cognitive decline begins at age 45. While it’s true that some innate skills like memory and speed of reasoning fall off as we age, other aspects of intelligence related to learning and experience actually improve.