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6 Quirky Ways to Improve Brain Function

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We may be biased, but we think the human brain is pretty special. All this week, mentalfloss.com is celebrating this miracle organ with a heap of brain[y] stories, lists, and videos. It all leads up to Brain Surgery Live With mental_floss, a two-hour television event that will feature—yes—live brain surgery. Hosted by Bryant Gumbel, the special airs Sunday, October 25 at 9 p.m. EST on the National Geographic Channel.

Think you need to listen to Mozart or complete crossword puzzles to boost brain function? These quirky activities might also do the trick. 

1. CONSUMING CAFFEINE

Notice that your focus sharpens after you’ve had your morning or mid-afternoon Starbucks? This won't come as a surprise, but “consuming caffeine can improve performance on simple and complex attention tasks,” Mary M. Sweeney, a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told mental_floss.

According to research, caffeine blocks receptors for a neurotransmitter called adenosine, which regulates our sleep cycles. This prevents the adenosine from telling us that we’re tired—hence, why we feel more perky and awake after we’ve slurped down a cup o’ Joe.  

2. GETTING EXERCISE 

Sure, exercise is good for your muscles, but it’s also good for your brain. One recent study showed that walking for just one hour twice a week increases the size of the hippocampus—the region that’s associated with verbal memory and learning. Exercise also helps you bust stress, which is known to affect both memory and cognitive function. So hit the treadmill and work out your body's most important organ. You'll thank yourself later. 

3. HAVING SEX

According to researchers at the University of Maryland, regular sex enhances mental performance and increases neurogenesis, or the production of new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus plays an important role in the storage of long-term memory—meaning that by getting a little frisky, you could be boosting your recall abilities.

4. DOODLING

It might look like you’re zoning out while doodling, but scribbling away in a notebook’s margins might actually improve your memory, help you absorb new ideas, and keep you on task.

In one study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodlers remembered more information from a boring answering machine message than non-doodlers. Researchers think this might be because doodling prevents you from daydreaming—an activity that actually requires a lot of processing powerand makes you focus on the situation at hand. 

5. LEAVING

If you’re trying to learn new material, avoid locking yourself away in the library for too long. According to Benedict Carey, a reporter who covers brain science for the New York Times, switching up locations while studying generates new associations in your brain and makes it easier to remember facts later. 

“The brain wants variation,” Carey says. “It wants to move, it wants to take periodic breaks.”

6. LOOKING AT PICTURES OF NATURE

If you have a problem with making impulsive decisions—say, eating too much fast food or not doing your homework—you might be able to curb these negative behaviors simply by gazing at scenes from nature.

A study recently published in PLOS ONE showed that people who look at images like lakes, forests, and mountains make less-spontaneous choices than individuals who look at pictures of buildings or geometrical shapes.

“Essentially what we suspect, and that preliminary data support, is that people's perception of time may be ‘lengthened’ with exposure to nature,” the study’s lead author, Meredith Berry, told mental_floss. “That is, they perceive more time to pass than has actually passed when looking at photos of nature (e.g., trees, mountains, lakes) relative to photos of built environments (e.g., buildings, cities). This ultimately enables people to look toward the future more, and make more future-oriented choices, rather than short-term, impulsive choices," she says. An example of an impulsive choice might be eating a high-fat food now rather than prioritizing longer term health goals.

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Brain Training Could Help Combat Hearing Loss, Study Suggests
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Contrary to what you might think, the hearing loss that accompanies getting older isn't entirely about your ears. Studies have found that as people get older, the parts of their brain that process speech slow down, and it becomes especially difficult to isolate one voice in a noisy environment. New research suggests there may be a way to help older people hear better: brain training.

The Verge reports that a new double-blind study published in Current Biology suggests that a video game could help older people improve their hearing ability. Though the study was too small to be conclusive, the results are notable in the wake of several large studies in the past few years that found that the brain-training games on apps like Luminosity don't improve cognitive skills in the real world. Most research on brain training games has found that while you might get better at the game, you probably won't be able to translate that skill to your real life.

In the current study, the researchers recruited 24 older adults, all of whom were long-term hearing-aid users, for eight weeks of video game training. The average age was 70. Musical training has been associated with stronger audio perception, so half of the participants were asked to play a game that asked them to identify subtle changes in tones—like you would hear in a piece of music—in order to piece together a puzzle, and the other half played a placebo game designed to test their memory. In the former, as the levels got more difficult, the background noise got louder. The researchers compare the task to a violinist tuning out the rest of the orchestra in order to listen to just their own instrument.

After eight weeks of playing their respective games around three-and-a-half hours a week, the group that played the placebo memory game didn't perform any better on a speech perception test that asked participants to identify sentences or words amid competing voices. But those who played the tone-changing puzzle game saw significant improvement in their ability to process speech in noise conditions close to what you'd hear in an average restaurant. The tone puzzle group were able to accurately identify 25 percent more words against loud background noise than before their training.

The training was more successful for some participants than others, and since this is only one small study, it's possible that as this kind of research progresses, researchers might find a more effective game design for this purpose. But the study shows that in specific instances, brain training games can benefit users. This kind of game can't eliminate the need for hearing aids, but it can help improve speech recognition in situations where hearing aids often fail (e.g., when there is more than one voice speaking). However, once the participants stopped playing the game for a few months, their gains disappeared, indicating that it would have to be a regular practice.

[h/t The Verge]

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Deutsche Telekom
This Virtual Reality Game Is Designed to Help Scientists Spot Dementia
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Deutsche Telekom

There’s a new reason to enter virtual reality, and it’s not to play ping pong or check the weather. A game designed to help diagnose dementia is coming to virtual reality, as CNET and the BBC report.

Sea Hero Quest, a game designed to test players’ ability to navigate, is now available for Oculus and Samsung Gear. Trouble navigating is one of the first signs of dementia, and the game (which was created by neuroscientists and funded by Deutsche Telekom) collects anonymous data on users’ ability to navigate through complicated pathways while captaining a virtual boat. It’s not designed specifically to be played by people with dementia, but rather to test the navigational skills of the population as a whole. The goal is to eventually be able to diagnose dementia far earlier than currently possible, perhaps by as much as 15 years.

Sea Hero Quest already claims to be the largest dementia study in history, with 3 million players so far. It can generate 15 times more data in virtual reality than in the mobile game, according to its developers, because it can capture eye-tracking movements and the movements of the boat within the game. Virtual reality can also support established tests developed for lab settings, like the often-used spatial learning task known as the Morris water maze.

The addition of virtual reality makes the process that much faster, adding a much larger dataset to what the scientists are already working on. They estimate that two minutes of gameplay generates the same amount of data as five hours in the lab.

This isn’t the first scientific foray into virtual reality. Researchers are also using it to explore sites for jaguar habitats, among other applications.

[h/t CNET]

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