Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Reading Shakespeare Sparks Peak in Brain Activity

Thanks to the Science Blog for bringing this one to my attention. Researchers from the School of English and the MRI Analysis Center at the University of Liverpool collaborated to discover that when participants in their study read Shakespeare, their brains felt a little twinkle dust and magically peaked, indicating heavy-duty thinking. What caused this sparkle? Shakespeare used common words differently. He employed, linguistically speaking, functional shift, meaning he sometimes used a verb as a noun or a noun as an adjective or a verb as noun, all of which make our minds backtrack and rethink what's going on, to figure out the meaning of the word before we fit it into the meaning of the sentence or phrase. According to the researchers, the brain goes boom and we also begin to understand multiple meanings of a line or phrase, giving dramatic umph to the words. We also feel satisfaction and delight that we figured out the puzzle, making the whole event very entertaining. The researchers compared the mind's work in this situation to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If you see how it all fits immediately, it becomes boring. If you have to work on it, it's much more interesting, offering surprises and creating the need for bursts of activity. And our brains really like that. And we do, too, if we enjoy the surprise and/or successfully solve the puzzle.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

NIA Study: Cognitive Skills Training Keeps Our Brains Sharp

Great news today from the ACTIVE (the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) study, a large longitudinal study funded by the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute of Nursing Research, both parts of the NIH. People who actively train on specific cognitive skills (in this case, memory, processing speed, and reasoning) experience long-term benefits that generalize into everyday living. The group who trained were much more likely to succeed at everyday tasks like driving, managing money, and general problem-solving than their peers who did not participate in these mental exercises. In other words, they kept their mental edge. The conclusion: "use it or lose it" really does apply to the brain, too, and cognitive training can make a big difference.

Heretofore, one of the researchers--Timothy Salthouse--has been very negative about cognitive skills training and has been quoted widely. He has questioned whether there is any worthwhile effect--short or long-term--or if cognitive training can generalize to real-life situations.

Today we got a very different and much more positive view of this important research. Kudos to everyone involved and especially to lead author Sherry L. Willis, PhD of Pennsylvania State University and her co-authors at six other affiliated institutions.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Blog Tag Game--5 Things People May Not Know About Me

Hey, it's the holidays! And have happy ones. Jim McGee from McGee's Musings just tagged me in a blog tagging game to list five things people may not know about me. I've known Jim since we were section mates in business school--thanks for wanting to know, Jim. Here goes:

1. I was the youngest female (and maybe youngest male or female) licensed ham radio operator in the US at age nine.
2. I never knew (or was aware that I knew) a person with an MBA before I applied to business school. It just sounded like a great idea and fit for me.
3. My Master's thesis in Linguistics was a behavioral study on the differences between male and female language. I wasn't smart enough to make my findings into a best-selling book years before Deborah Tannen did with her series on the same subject.
4. When I arrived in Tunisia as a newly minted Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no idea how to cook or what to do with all the new (to me) ingredients. A few weeks later, 500 surplus books arrived as a gift from USAID. Amongst all the reading delights was a paperback Fannie Farmer Boston School of Cooking cookbook. I started on page one and went straight through the book to page 349 (I skipped canning and freezing). Catsup from scratch was a highlight. When I couldn't find ingredients, I just substituted what I thought was the closest thing. I had no oven. I used a "Jerusalem oven," which sits on top of the burner, is funnel-shaped with a top and a tray that fits inside the funnel so that the heat comes over the top to bake things. Everything I "baked" had a hole in the center.
5. I canoed the more than 200 miles of the Savannah River, before any reservoirs were built, from Augusta to Savannah, GA. My most vivid memories are of at least forty owls singing in a soulful chorus from the upper reaches of the piney woods for hours in the middle of the night along a river bank where we camped and, at the end point of the trip, attaching the canoe to a post at River Street in Savannah, hitting the bars in celebration, and coming back after the tide went out--the canoe was totally vertical, hanging several feet above the water. We had strapped in our gear.

These are the people I'll tag:

1. Tim Van Gelder
2. Lori Hyland-Cho
3. Chris Chatham
4. Sylvia Paull
5. Stephanie Rieger

Friday, December 15, 2006

Make Your Brain Sweat with Bikram Yoga

I have neglected this blog because I've been on the road on business. In New York City and in between appointments, I ran across the street to a Bikram Yoga studio to try this hot (and I really do mean hot--the room is heated to at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit), new type of yoga. I've heard friends rave about it in California but I've always thought it would be wildly uncomfortable and I like the more traditional yoga I already practice. But alas, I needed some stretching and the convenience factor was large. I plunked my $25 down for one and a half hours, a mat and two large towels and entered the sauna-like room. John, our instructor, greeted me enthusiastically. This was to be an advanced class. I explained that I regularly practice yoga and he assured me that most of the poses would be familiar to me. The large dance studio-like room filled to the brim with people who carefully unrolled their purple and orange mats and covered them with two regular length white terry towels, preparing for all that sweat. The room had mirrors from floor to ceiling the length of the room (unlike regular yoga, we are encouraged to look at ourselves) and windows to the 20 degree weather on E. 83rd St. on the short side. According to the brochure, "The Bikram Yoga Series is a challenging, 90-minute workout that improves physical strength, flexibility, and balance while enhancing mental clarity and focus. The practice is a sequence of 26 poses, including two breathing exercises performed in a heated environment."

John welcomed us all and explained that he would not be showing us the poses, as in regular yoga. He would be talking us through them. And wow, did he! A mile a minute, cajoling, encouraging, calling everyone in the room (all fifty of us) by name more than once. Even though the poses were familiar, the effort seemed more intense and more aerobic in part because the movements were faster and the heat facilitated the stretching and bending and holding of our muscles. Distracted by the sweat pouring off every part of my body, I had to really concentrate on each pose to make it happen. And I managed all but the most advanced. Water and a face towel--couldn't have done without them.

So how did I feel at the end of this endurance test? Absolutely great. Refreshed. Energized. Exercised. Ready for more.

In my younger days, I zoomed down rivers in canoes and kayaks, winding my way through complex technical whitewater. I hiked above the treeline and in gorges. Today, I'm trying Bikram Yoga. The same rush of discovery is definitely there. I like it. I'll be finding a Bikram Yoga studio I like in my own neighborhood soon.