Brain power: use it or lose it

Senior Consultant Neurologist Dr. J. B. Peiris offers some advice on how to improve your brain’s

A friend of mine asked me how best to remember names. Having faced the problem myself (possibly, a familial trait) I could not think of a suitable answer immediately. His brother had suggested using endearing terms like ‘machan’, ‘dear’, ‘darling’, ‘sweetie’ to get over the problem.

This however, was going round the hurdle and not even attempting to clear it. So, I did some thinking, reading and surfing. Here are some interesting facts, myths and food for thought. Let's first look at how we remember.

Stages in remembering

Acquisition - New information enters your brain along pathways serving the special senses mostly –seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, experiencing and feeling. The key to remembering information from the special senses is concentration; unless you focus on information intently, it goes “in one ear and out the other.” This is why teachers are always nagging students to pay attention! Even the ‘common sensations’ of touch, pain and temperature are also remembered but these do not require a special effort and are registered in the ‘subconscious’.

Consolidation-If you have concentrated well enough to encode new information in your brain, the hippocampus sends a signal to store the information as long-term memory. This happens more easily if it’s related to something you already know, or if it stimulates an emotional response.

The hippocampus is a ‘sea horse like structure’ situated deep in the temporal lobes of the brain.

Retrieval - When you need to recall information, your brain has to activate the same pattern of nerve cells it used to store it. The more frequently you need the information, the easier it is to retrieve it along healthy nerve cell connections.

The aging brain

By the time you are 65 years, your brain isn’t what it used to be- you will start to notice the signs: you forget people’s names and you cannot remember where you left your keys or mobile phone. Clearly not everyone ages in the same way

Reaction time is slower and it takes us longer to learn new information. Sometimes it takes longer to retrieve information, resulting in that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon — where you almost have that word or that thought. That’s typical of the middle-age brain.

There is a good reason why our memories start to let us down. At this stage of life we are steadily losing brain cells in critical areas such as the hippocampus - the area where memories are processed. This is not too much of a problem at first; even in old age the brain is flexible enough to compensate. At some point though, losses start to make themselves felt. It’s true that by midlife our brains can show some fraying. Brain processing speed slows down. Faced with new information, we often cannot master it as quickly as our younger peers. And there’s little question that our short-term memories suffer.

The older, but wiser brain

There are, in fact, some brain functions which improve with age! We actually grow smarter in key areas in middle age which, with longer life spans, now stretches from our mid 40s to our mid to late 60s. In areas as diverse as vocabulary and inductive reasoning, our brains function better than they did in our 20s. As we age, we more easily get the “gist” of arguments. Even our judgment of others improves. Often, we simply “know’’ if someone — or some idea — is to be trusted. We also get better at knowing what to ignore and when to hold our tongues.

By midlife our brains have developed a whole host of talents that are, in the end, just as well suited to navigating the modern, complex workplace. As we age, we get better at seeing the possible. Younger brains, predictably, are set up to focus on the negative and potential trouble. Older brains, studies show, often reach solutions faster, in part, because they focus on what can be done. There is a continued improvement in complex reasoning skills as we enter middle age. This increase may be due to a process in the brain called “myelination.”

Myelin is the insulation wrapped around brain cells that increases their conductivity — the speed with which information travels from brain cell to brain cell. And the myelination doesn’t reach its peak until middle age. By this point, “the neuro-circuits fire more rapidly, as if you’re going from dial-up to DSL.” Complex reasoning skills improve, and we’re able to anticipate problems and reason things out better than when we were young. There’s another area of improvement as we age: empathy — the ability to understand the emotional point of view of another. Empathy increases as we age.

By the time we reach middle age, millions of patterns have been established in our brains, and these connected pathways provide invaluable perspective — even when it’s subconscious

Plasticity of the brain

The brain can be changed or moulded to suit the needs – the concept of “Plasticity” which relates to changes by adding or removing connections, or adding cells. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning.

In a recent study referred to as “your brain on Google,” healthy, middle-aged volunteers, all novices on the computer, were taught how to do a Google search. They were told then to practise doing online searches for an hour a day, for seven days. After the week’s practice, the volunteers came back into the lab and had their brains scanned while doing a Google search. The scans revealed significant increases in brain activity in the areas that control memory and decision-making.

The area of the brain that showed the increases was the frontal lobe, the thinking brain, especially in areas that control decision making and working memory. With practice, a middle-age brain can very quickly alter its neuron-circuitry; can strengthen the neuron circuits that control short-term memory and decision making.

The ability of the brain to change with learning is what is known as Neuro-plasticity.

Your brain a muscle

Consider your brain a muscle and find opportunities to flex it or exercise it. In fact, anything that stimulates the brain to think is exercise for the brain. The exercise can come in the form of reading, doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku, meditation, playing scrabble, starting a new hobby or new language. Even playing Bingo has shown improved memory and hand eye coordination in the elderly – besides they have something to look forward to, which can be a rarity among some elderly! Also, watch less television, because “your brain goes into neutral".

The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, use it or lose it.

Remembering names and numbers

Let me now try to answer the question I posed at the beginning – how to remember names and numbers.

Repeat it 7 seconds later

Train your mind frequently by repeating to yourself anything you need to remember as quickly as you learn it. This is very useful especially when remembering phone numbers and dates. Repetition is a simple system on how to improve memory power, but it works even for long term memory. Repeat a phone number several times, for example, and you should remember it for a short while. This works even better if you “sing” it in your mind to engage other parts of the brain. Recall it after 7 seconds to store it in memory

Write it down

Let the paper remember for you. The point is to have use of the information later, and if that’s more easily done by way of an “external memory device” like pen and paper, why not take advantage of these tools? Also, writing things down is another way to more strongly “fix” something in our minds.

Imagine the future use

If you think about how you will use information, you’re more likely to remember it. For example if after learning a new algorithm in a math class you imagine using it during a test, you’ll probably remember it better - particularly when taking the test. Imagine meeting someone again in the future and using his name, and you’ll likely recall it when that does happen

How to improve ‘brain fitness’ – consider the brain a muscle

Variety and curiosity is the basis. When anything you do becomes second nature, you need to make a change. If you can do the crossword puzzle in your sleep, it’s time for you to move on to a new challenge in order to get the best workout for your brain.

Brain aerobics

What exactly constitutes a brain aerobic exercise? To qualify as a brain aerobic exercise, the activity

  • Needs to engage your attention
  • Must involve two or more of your senses
  • Must break a routine activity in an unexpected, nontrivial way

Play games

Sudoku, crosswords playing chess or bridge, dancing regularly and electronic games can all improve your brain’s speed and memory. These games rely on logic, word skills, math and more. These games are also fun. You’ll get benefit more by doing these games a little bit every day -- spend 15 minutes or so, not hours.


Daily meditation is perhaps the single greatest thing you can do for your mind/body health. Meditation not only relaxes you, it gives your brain a workout. By creating a different mental state, you engage your brain in new and interesting ways while increasing your brain fitness.

Turn off your television

Television can stand in the way of relationships, life and more. Turn off your TV and spend more time living and exercising your mind and body.

Exercise your body to exercise your brain

Physical exercise is great brain exercise too. By moving your body, your brain has to learn new muscle skills, estimate distance and practise balance. Choose a variety of exercises to challenge your brain.

Read something different

Branch out from familiar reading topics. If you usually read history books, try a contemporary novel. Read foreign authors, the classics and random books.

Learn a new skill

Learning a new skill works multiple areas of the brain. Your memory comes into play, you learn new movements and you associate things differently. Learning a new language or becoming computer literate is equally good. Reading Shakespeare, learning to cook and building an airplane out of toothpicks all will challenge your brain and give you something to think about.

Make simple changes

We love our routines. We have hobbies and pastimes that we could do for hours on end. To really help your brain stay young, challenge it. Change routes to your destinations, use your opposite hand to open doors, and eat dessert, shave, and brush teeth, text or use the computer mouse. Writing with the other hand is a useful way of using the non dominant hemisphere to do a component associated with speech – usually located in the dominant hemisphere

The brain is an organ like no other. You can ‘exercise’ it in many different ways and this is the best way to make the best use of it. Use it or lose it is true of the brain; importantly you can use it in many different ways.

Myths of aging brain power

1. We lose 30 percent of our brain cells as we age and what is lost is lost for good

Recent brain scanning studies show that, as long as we’re healthy, we actually keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live. More importantly, we can recruit new cells and new pathways to take over what is lost. So what is lost may not be lost forever.

2. Our brains stop developing in our 20s.

It’s now known that our brains continue to develop, change and adapt. Growth of white matter and brain connections that we gain through years of experience allow us to recognize patterns faster, make better judgments and find unique solutions to problems. Scientists call these traits cognitive expertise and they reach their peak in middle age.

3. Midlife crises are inevitable.

Long-term studies now show that people find middle age the most satisfactory time in their lives. In fact, brain changes in midlife make us more optimistic, not less.

4. The empty nest syndrome.

More recent studies of real people — men and women — find that our lives, and our moods, often improve when the kids leave home.

5. Our brains operate best in our 20s.

In fact, our brains, in most important areas, reach their peak in midlife. We get better in a whole range of areas, including inductive reasoning, vocabulary, and judgment, even the ability to get the “gist” of an argument and find solutions. There is evidence that we can also become more creative as we age.

6. Our brains start to fade away.

Actually, brains in middle age begin to “power up” not down. In some cases, we learn to use two parts of our brain instead of one to solve problems. And it is those with the highest cognitive abilities who learn to use their brains this way. The same may not be true for all who are ageing.

7. Dementia is inevitable.

On the contrary, we now have enough people living long enough to show that dementia is not inevitable. There are increasing numbers of what are called “pristine agers,” whose brains remain largely intact well into their 90s.

8. There is nothing we can do to improve our brains.

New research shows that middle age is a time when the brain is “on the cusp,” and that what we do matters, even what we think matters. There is increasing evidence — not hype but solid evidence — that shows that such things as exercise, education and even what we eat does make a difference.
One way to keep our brains alive and growing is to actively explore ideas — and people — that challenge our view of the world.

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