Six Ways to Boost Brainpower

08/20/14 | by Training Games | Categories: Play

Excerps from Emily Anthes
Scientific American - Mind Magazine and by NAOMI COLEMAN,

The adult human brain is surprisingly malleable: it can rewire itself and even grow new cells. Here are some habits that can fine-tune your mind.

There is mounting evidence to suggest that it is possible to preserve the function of the brain as we age. Amputees sometimes experience phantom limb sensations, feeling pain, itching or other impulses coming from limbs that no longer exist. Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran worked with patients who had so-called phantom limbs, including Tom, a man who had lost one of his arms Ramachandran discovered that if he stroked Tom’s face, Tom felt like his missing fingers were also being touched. Each part of the body is represented by a different region of the somatosensory cortex, and, as it happens, the region for the hand is adjacent to the region for the face. The neuroscientist deduced that a remarkable change had taken place in Tom’s somatosensory cortex.

Experts believe that working out the brain can help keep our memory in peak condition.

Regular exercise such as dancing is associated with a significantly reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other forms of mental impairment, while meditation is a powerful tool for memory because it limits the amount of thoughts entering the brain.

Here, we look at six ways to boost your memory

1. Take up dancing
The old adage a healthy mind, healthy body is true according to brain experts. Dancing - especially salsa, jazz and classical - for 20 minutes three to four times a week is a great cardiovascular exercise for the body and brain.

The function of the brain depends on a variety of factors, two of the most important being the blood supply to the brain, and the nutrient and oxygen content of that blood. Because dancing stimulates the circulation, it stands to reason that it may enhance mental function.

And if dancing is not your cup of tea, the good news is swimming, rowing, running and fast walking will also help keep your memory fighting fit.

2. Feed your memory
There's not much evidence connecting specific foods with improved memory, but a balanced diet in general can definitely help. In fact 20 per cent of all the food calories we consume are used by the brain. To keep it at its peak performance, it's therefore important to eat regularly and not skip meals. Regular meals help drip feed the brain with the glucose it need to function.

Try adding a handful of blueberries to your cereal because, according to research carried out at Tufts University in Boston USA, eating just half a cup of these berries daily - rich in protective antioxidant components called anthocyanidins - could delay the deterioration in co-ordination and short-term memory that occurs as we age.

Also, eat plenty of foods rich in B vitamins which are essential for the formation of neurotransmitters which transmit nerve impulses. Good sources include wholemeal bread, milk, cereals and pulses.

Low iron intakes can also blunt brain power, so try to include the occasional meal of liver or red meat - both of which contain an easily absorbed form of this mineral.

Research at at the University of Berne in Switzerland, has found that higher blood levels of vitamin C and beta carotene are associated with better memory in people aged 65 and older. A really good source of both these nutrients is red peppers, but other brightly colored and deep green vegetables (spinach, mango, carrots and cantaloupe melons) provide them too.

Don't skimp on fish either: fatty fish in particular contains large amounts of omega-3 oils which are an important component of cell membranes in the brain and nervous system. In addition, oily fish has been proven to reduce inflammation, so it may slow down the inflammatory processes in the brain which can lead to memory deterioration.

3. Cut down your alcohol intake
Research shows heavy drinking affects memory, learning, reaction time and complex reasoning. Memory and judgment problems are the result of the toxic effects of alcohol on nerve cells.

If you drink heavily over a long period and then stop suddenly, you can be susceptible to fits, seizures and blackouts, which can be fatal or have permanent effects on the brain.

4. Meditate daily
Meditation is a very powerful way of controlling attention and there is some evidence to show that it can benefit memory.

'It is thought that meditation can influence parts of the brain associated with relaxation and a focused mind,' says Ian Robinson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin.

Experts believe meditation helps control attention because it limits the amount of thoughts entering the memory system found in the frontal lobes of the brain. This means the memory is not flooded with cortisol - the chemical produced from too many thoughts associated with stress. Too much stress can clutter up the memory system causing mental blocks.

5. Tackle your stress levels
Scientists have shown that stress can send the memory haywire, leaving even the brightest person struggling for words. Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the University of California at Irvine found that the hormone cortisol, which floods the brain at times of severe stress, can affect ability to access memory.

Once levels fall, remembering becomes easier again - explaining why quiz contestants often come up with the answer after their chance has passed.

6. Think in pictures
According to Professor Robinson, imagery is one of the most ancient and effective ways to improve your memory. Research shows that pictures activate more areas of our brain than words, proving to be a powerful tool for remembering faces, names, events and experiences.

'We are brought up to think in pictures as children, but as we grow up we lose the ability to think in images,' says Professor Robinson. 'Thinking in pictures helps fire up our brain cells between different parts of our brain. The more we practise using visual imagery, the better we will be at remembering things,' he says.

How to think in pictures
• Write down your shopping list - start with around ten items.

• Now, in your mind's eye pick some path or route that you know well from your house to the supermarket.

• Make a shopping list in images by mentally laying each item at a particular point on the route - for example, a corner, gateway, shop front, post box.

• Now, mentally walk with your mind's eye along this path again, and see if you can 'see' the shopping list items in their places.

• To check if you remembered correctly, compare your mental list with your written shopping list.

Lucy, A Film About Expanding Brain Capacity

08/20/14 | by Training Games | Categories: Play

By Kate Wong - July 25, 2014
Scientific American - Mind Magazine

On July 25, French film writer/director Luc Besson’s action thriller Lucy opens in theaters nationwide. The premise is that the title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is exposed to a drug that unlocks her mind, giving her superhuman powers of cognition.

“…It has long been hypothesized that human beings only use a small percentage of our cerebral capacity at any given time. For centuries, speculative science has postulated what would occur if mankind could actually evolve past that limit. Indeed, what would happen to our consciousness and newfound abilities if every region of the brain was concurrently active? If each one of the 86 billion densely packed neurons in a human brain fired at once, could that person become, in fact, superhuman?”

The notion that we humans have massive reserves of gray matter just sitting there waiting to be summoned into service has obvious appeal, but there is no scientific evidence to support it. And what’s odd about Besson’s reliance on this myth is that, according to the production notes, he allegedly set out to make the storyline scientifically plausible:

“Although Besson believed that the idea of expanding one’s brain capacity made for tremendous action-thriller material, he was particularly intent on grounding—at least in part—Lucy in scientific fact.”

Apparently he missed or ignored the many scientists who would have surely informed him that the idea that we use only a small portion of our brain (10 percent, the story usually goes) is wrong. As Barry L. Beyerstein of the Brain Behavior Laboratory at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver explained in a piece for Scientific American:

“…the brain, like all our other organs, has been shaped by natural selection. Brain tissue is metabolically expensive both to grow and to run, and it strains credulity to think that evolution would have permitted squandering of resources on a scale necessary to build and maintain such a massively underutilized organ. Moreover, doubts are fueled by ample evidence from clinical neurology. Losing far less than 90 percent of the brain to accident or disease has catastrophic consequences. What is more, observing the effects of head injury reveals that there does not seem to be any area of the brain that can be destroyed by strokes, head trauma, or other manner, without leaving the patient with some kind of functional deficit. Likewise, electrical stimulation of points in the brain during neurosurgery has failed so far to uncover any dormant areas where no percept, emotion or movement is elicited by applying these tiny currents...”

Neither do we regularly use only a little bit of the brain at a time, as science writer Robynne Boyd reported in a piece for Scientific American. She quoted neurologist Barry Gordon of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:

“”It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time,” Gordon adds. “Let’s put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body’s weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s energy.”

Yet just because we are already using our entire brain does not mean we can’t enhance its powers. Exercise and diet can boost cognitive performance. And some researchers think cognitive training can make people smarter.

As for cognitive-enhancing drugs, the few that are available, such as Ritalin and Provigil, are quite the opposite of the compound Lucy is exposed to in the film. Rather than stimulating all of the brain’s neurons to sense everything in one’s environment, these drugs work to help people zero in. The results are a mixed bag, however, as my colleague Gary Stix has observed:

“Most of today’s cognitive enhancers improve our ability to focus—but most benefits accrue to those with attention deficits. They allow the child with ADHD to learn the multiplication tables, but for those with average attention spans or better, these drugs can sometimes usher in comic mishaps.

Instead of cramming for the [Chinese Proficiency Test], as you might have intended, you are liable to get sidetracked into the most mundane of trivialities: you might get up from your textbooks for a drink of water and spend the next two days replacing the leaky plumbing in your kitchen sink. The focus of attention ‘sticks’ to whatever is in front of your face and a friend with a verbal crowbar has to pry you away.”

Are Multiplayer Games the Future of Education?

07/21/14 | by Training Games | Categories: Play

A new classroom approach tries to bring more competition into the classroom.

Melanie Plenda Jul 11 2014, The Atlantic

It was just supposed to be a quick trip to Beijing, a touristy group thing to take in the sights. It wasn't supposed to go down like this. There wasn't supposed to be a lost manuscript; the travelers weren't supposed to turn on each other. The only good, if any, to be found in this godforsaken quest, this unholy mission, was that by the end of it, they would all know how to speak Mandarin.

This intricate Maltese Falcon­-like story will unfold each day, over the course of semester, as a multiplayer game at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in New York. It is being designed as a language-learning exercise by Lee Sheldon, an associate professor in the college's Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences Program. "Using games and storytelling to teach­—it's not that radical of a concept," says Sheldon. "It makes them more interested in what's going on."

Sheldon is a pioneer in gamification, a new movement that essentially takes all the things that make video games engaging and applies them to classroom learning. Sheldon started developing the theory eight years ago. Since then, gamification now comes in all shapes and sizes and is used across educational levels, for kindergarteners through adult learners. Its practitioners range from individual teachers experimenting with game-like elements in their classrooms to entire schools that have integrated the games into their curricula.

"The goal is to change the student’s mindset to a mastery orientation­—to promote motivation, engagement, active learning­—and to cultivate 21st century skills like collaboration, problem solving, creativity and systems thinking," says Joey Lee, a research assistant professor of Technology and Education at Teacher's College, Columbia University. "Learning looks very different today, so we need to move away from the Industrial Revolution one-size-fits-all model that still plagues much of education."

Games offer a rich and complex environment that demands experimentation, problem-solving and quick thinking.

Sheldon discovered gamification by accident. After spending decades writing and producing television shows in Hollywood­—and, more recently designing video games—Sheldon transitioned into academia, teaching game design to RPI students. Not being a teacher by training, he says, he ran his class in traditional fashion: one person lecturing, everyone else listening, the typical drill.
v "I got bored very quickly with myself," he says. "If I was getting bored, you can imagine how the students were feeling. I thought, 'Well, you dummy, you're a game designer. Why don't you make the entire class into a game?' So I did that and things went really well."

Everything started turning around. Students stopped cutting class to the point where there was near-perfect attendance, and the average grade went from a C to a B.

Based on his own success, Sheldon went on to write the book The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. After that, the concept started taking off, as teachers in the U.S. and around the world expanded on the idea and added little bits of their own creativity here and there.

The reason it works, Lee explains, is that games themselves actively engage players cognitively, emotionally, and socially to keep them motivated to play. In their paper Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, Lee and his coauthor, Jessica Hammer, point out that games offer a rich and complex environment that demands experimentation, problem-solving and quick thinking. The rules are set and known, the tasks are clear, the rewards are immediate, and the action intensifies as a player gains skill. Even failure is attractive in the game universe, since players know if they keep trying, they will eventually master the skill or beat the level.

Furthermore, stories are emotionally compelling; they take a player from curiosity to frustration to optimism to pride to joy. Games offer students a chance to try out new roles and look at situations from points of view that are outside of their own. Through the games, they can see themselves in new ways: The nerd becomes a powerful orc who can slay the dragon and get the girl; the jock turns into a wizard at strategy known more for his brain than his cool. All of this is all socially acceptable, since it's in the context of a game.

Players know if they keep trying, they will eventually master the skill or beat the level.

This is why gaming aficionados can sit playing for hours on end. Applying those principles to the classroom has the same effect, says Larry Graykin, a language arts teacher at Barrington Middle School in New Hampshire. "The key benefit in my opinion is that it provides context for work that might not otherwise have a clear context," says Graykin, who gamified his classroom two years ago. "We can say, 'You need this for high school,' and that works for a certain population of kids. But for a lot of kids, they don’t see that far into their future."

Another benefit is the shift in emphasis from getting a grade to learning the material. In most gamified classrooms, students work for experience points (known as XP) instead of grades on tests or exercises. Rather than being penalized for what they don't know, students are rewarded for continuing to try until they learn the material.

"That's one of the things that I think is most critical in terms of this being a sort of paradigm shift," Graykin says. "In the traditional classroom, an unfortunate side effect of averaged grades is if a student does very poorly on one big test, or something like that, that's it. I've actually heard in teacher room conversations, 'Oh, well, there's no way he could possibly pass now.' And this eliminates that. They can rally at the last minute­—and they do."

Typically, every student in a gamified classroom starts out with zero XP, accumulating quests and accomplishments that translate into a letter grade by the end of the class. "They are participating, they are engaged," Sheldon says. "If for example, somebody doesn't do well on an exam, they can take the exam again. I'm trying to teach them, I'm not trying to trick them."

The result is that students feel that they are in control, with the teacher merely serving as a game master. They challenge themselves and collaborate with one another—and develop healthy competition when necessary—because they see the benefit to their own progress in the game. "The goal," says Lee, "is to make learning more about intrinsic motivation—to leverage a learner’s desire to explore, be curious, gain mastery, and so on. If a learner can gain experience points and level up as they gain knowledge, perhaps we can cultivate life-deep, life-wide, and lifelong learners."

The practice is not perfect, and not the right fit for every instructor. "Some teachers may not feel sufficiently equipped to try designing a game layer for their classroom," Lee says. "It takes some creativity, patience, and sometimes extra work to do gamification the first time. It’s much easier to not take a risk and to do education the safe, traditional way."

Lectures Didn't Work in 1350—and They Still Don't Work Today

Gamification also gets a little bit of pushback for its sometimes heavy-handed use of extrinsic rewards to make course material palatable to students, says Hamari. Even Sheldon gets a little miffed about the way some teachers have been using badges—actual physical rewards—with wild abandon. He prefers to let the students motive themselves and each other.

As an example, Sheldon describes his midterm exams. At the beginning of each semester, his class is divided into five guilds, which do projects and go on quests together. The 40-question midterm however, is a solo effort, except for the last 10 questions.

"If any one member of the guild gets those questions correct, they all get credit for it," Sheldon says. "And I was afraid that would make people lazy, or it would tip people into a better grade than they deserve, but it doesn’t. What happens is the students want to do it for the other people in their guild. And when they do, they get congratulated for it. They get a pat on the back, they get a high five­—that is the intrinsic reward. It's far more powerful to have somebody hug you because you got everybody something. So they all try to do it."

Once students enter the real world, bosses are generally short on hugs. So how well does a gamified classroom actually prepare students for life after graduation?

"I think they feel better about themselves," Sheldon says. "They are more focused, they learn how to do the job for themselves, they know they are doing something which is worthwhile. I don't think being able to do well on a multiple choice exam—something I've never done—is preparing them."

In game-based classes, he says, "You are all working together and you learn teamwork. You learn what skills you have and how you can rise to the occasion. I think those are all intrinsic rewards—and I think that's what prepares them."

Considering the Customer: Board vs. Digital Games for Teaching

07/21/14 | by Training Games | Categories: Play

By Kelly Smith - Jun 30, 2014

The value of games in education lies in a set of features that make games a truly powerful means of instruction. From helping to understand new concepts and ideas to providing a context for the practice of knowledge, games offer multiple ways to engage students. And whether it’s math skills or foreign language vocabulary, this kind of engagement is a crucial factor in knowledge retention.

There is a wide variety of educational games available on the market, so teachers’ choices must be careful and well informed

. We’ve explored and contrasted two kinds of games - board and video - pointing out their benefits in the learning process, the ease of their application in the classroom, as well as their advantages or potential drawbacks that teachers should take into account before employing one of these gaming styles in their curriculum.

Board Games

Board games are great in engaging students - by offering a playful, yet competitive environment, they help to focus on content and reinforce the learning experience. The board itself is a practical method for visualizing information.

By playing, pupils can organize the data they have learned into conceptual frameworks, rendering it more concrete. Some board games also require pupils to play in teams, fostering collaboration and problem-solving skills.

Classroom Use

Board games can be easily incorporated into the curriculum. Chances are that the majority of students are already familiar with the board game interface and can easily adapt their gaming skills to a learning context.

Advantages & Drawbacks

The greatest advantage of board games is their low cost - teachers won’t need any specialized equipment and can purchase just one game set to be used by everyone. Apart from using board games as a filler for downtime, teachers can request that students create board games themselves - check this guide for some creative ideas.

The only risk in the classroom use of board games lies in organization. Before introducing a board game, teachers need to plan the activity very well in order to guard themselves against potential chaos.

Video Games

Learning Benefits

Video games attract everyone’s attention and can be used in multiple ways: researching, measuring performance, developing IT skills, simulating real-life or imaginary situations, as well as training a wide variety of competencies.

All are highly interactive - a feature that naturally stimulates learning. As shown by a recent study, video games can also enhance students’ motivation to learn. Playing video games trains various skills, from strategic planning and critical thinking to social and collaborative skills. They also foster creativity, promote relaxation and can combat anxiety.

Classroom Use

Video games are a novel kind of classroom experience and the curriculum may need to be redesigned to incorporate them properly. Pupils will need to be equipped with tablets or PCs, which are often sources of great distractions, so teachers should remember to make the objective of the game clear to everyone.

Advantages & Drawbacks

Biggest drawback? It goes without saying - cost. Video games require electronic equipment, which needs to be purchased prior to incorporating them into the curriculum.

Mature teachers might benefit from additional training in order to become tech-savvy enough to manage the gaming experience without any hitches. Technical problems will also require the assistance of a technician, and generate additional costs.

Kelly Smith works at CourseFinder, an Australian online education resource.

Brain Disorders Might Arise from Starving Neurons

07/02/14 | by Training Games | Categories: Play

The complete article appeared in Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4 and was authored by Elizabeth M. C. Hillman,who is an associate professor of biomedical engineering and radiology at Columbia University. Her laboratory develops and uses advanced optical imaging and microscopy techniques to study blood flow regulation in the living brain.

Those of you who read this newsletter know that I am a huge advocate of expanding our blood flow to neurons through exercise. The assumption is adequate amounts of glucose and oxygen to our brain cells results is healthy brains. However determining how brain cells coordinate with our blood vessels to increase/decrease blood flow to our neurons poses many interesting research questions. Professor Hillman explains:Your brain is an energy hog. It weighs less than 2 percent of your total weight yet consumes one fifth of your body's energy. The brain draws its fuel—oxygen and glucose—from blood delivered by a whopping 400 miles of blood vessels. Lined up end to end, all that vasculature would extend from New York City to Montreal.

These blood vessels are astonishingly dynamic. They tune the flow of blood to respond to the brain's needs from moment to moment. When certain brain areas work hard at something, more blood flows to those regions to help them refuel. Vessels do this by dilating near the spots that need a supply boost. This widening coaxes blood to reroute, much as customers in a busy store redistribute themselves whenever a new checkout line opens.

Fuel for neurons is limited, so your blood vessels must carefully choreograph every instant to sustain your brain. Yet what if the brain's blood vessels fall out of sync with their neurons? If the vasculature fails to deliver more blood when neurons need it, those cells might starve. In the short term, cognition could suffer. Longer term, entire networks of brain cells could wither away.

Historically, neuroscientists have seen blood vessels in the brain as mundane roadways, irrelevant to the neurons they support. Yet a city needs its roads. More than a simple conduit for noisy cars, transport infrastructure profoundly alters how we function. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York, for example, the rising water levels and power outages disrupted distribution networks for people, food and supplies, bringing the city to a standstill.

Blood flow is equally vital to brain function, and there are compelling reasons to think that dysfunction in one could impair the other. Brain scans have shown us that the brains of healthy individuals behave differently from those of people with Alzheimer's disease, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, depression, autism or multiple sclerosis, to name just a few conditions. The standard interpretation is that neuronal activity has deviated from a typical state.

There is a catch, though. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the technique most widely used for imaging brain activity, measures changes in blood flow as a proxy for neuronal activity. If the relation between blood flow and neurons has gone off the rails, fMRI scans will still deviate from the norm no matter what the neurons are up to. Scientists are left in the dark as to which brain disorders might solely affect neurons and which might also disturb cerebral blood flow.

To get to the bottom of this, my laboratory has embarked on a mission to uncover how and when blood vessels and neurons might fall into discord. The evidence we have found suggests that this relation can indeed go awry and that it could contribute to—or even cause—neurological or psychiatric disorders. Fortunately, we might already possess the tools we need to correct the patterns of blood flow in the brain.A critical next step is to nail down how it is that neurons and blood vessels communicate. We have a lot to learn. For example, it is tempting to think that hungry neurons use up local oxygen supplies, triggering an increase in blood flow, but the reality is not quite that simple. Even when a rodent is inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which saturates the brain with oxygen, the animal will still exhibit a surge of blood to an area where neurons are hard at work. The same thing happens when very high levels of glucose are available.

So the call for more blood involves something more than a simple “low fuel” alarm. Fortunately, we already have an exceptional tool for studying blood flow in the human brain: fMRI. We can use fMRI to hunt for signs of neurovascular dysfunction by looking for deviations from the normal patterns of responses in different disease states. If we find reliable signatures, fMRI could become a valuable clinical tool for diagnosing and monitoring neurovascular disorders and could help guide us to new treatments.

Our work suggests that we can no longer ignore the brain's vasculature as if it were mundane infrastructure. It is a critical partner in normal brain function. Scrutinizing the brain's vasculature, learning its language, and understanding how it develops, ages and responds to injury could finally bring us closer to untangling the mysteries of the human brain. Professor Hillman's research is both fascinating and I believe on target. Our better understanding of blood flow and brain cells will indeed lead to progressive treatments for devastating brain diseases.

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