Spring Clean Your Mind

By Sara Vigneri

As we age, our minds slow down, reaction times dim and we aren’t as quick to recall information. But part of this decline, for me anyway, is the insane amount of information I keep in my ready access memory. On any given day, my brain is struggling to keep track of random bits of information. For example, my head is currently swimming with: daughter’s karate practice is at 5:00 p.m. tonight, change the bed sheets, don’t forget to buy milk for tomorrow morning’s breakfast, make a haircut appointment for my older daughter, pick up my husband’s prescription, etc.

Perhaps it’s not the simple passage of time that taxes our brains, but rather an increase  of information that overloads our working memory. Last summer, a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology examined a group of older and younger adults performing a memory task. Predictably, the younger adults performed better at the task that required the ability to recall and process information. When they gave the participants a task that required them to respond to random images with pre-set responses, the older adults were tripped up. They kept responding with the answers needed for previous images. In other words, their brains held on to the information for too long, making it harder for their memories to recall relevant information in the moment.

A different study out of Italy also tasked a group of older and younger adults with a memory test and determined that the older adults’ working memory was unable to hold as much information and therefore prevented them from scoring as well on the test as the younger adults.  A few years ago, researchers from the University of Toronto placed older and younger adults in an MRI scan while they performed memory tasks. The researchers discovered that the older adults had more difficulty ignoring non-task related information–in other words, their brains were distracted by non-relevant information which prevented them from focusing fully on the task at hand.

The author of the first study, Mervin Blair, summed it up as follows: “Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts on other mental abilities.” His solution? “Reduce clutter, if you don’t, you may not get anything done.”

But spring cleaning your brain is not necessarily an easy task. Companies like Cogmed Working Memory Training have developed brain training programs that they claim can improve working memory with eighty percent success. But Cogmed’s brain program requires one-on-one training with a professional—not exactly a practical way to spring clean the brain.

David Allen, in his book Getting Things Done, suggests that to give your brain the chance to clear out its memory banks you need to get information out of your ready memory and onto paper. So those random pieces of information that you keep in your head should be written down or recorded in some way, so as to free up space in your brain for more important matters.

A 2007 study found that training the brain with memory tests can improve the ability to recall information in older adults—in fact, those who did brain training were able to remember things as well as the younger adults in the study.  It’s research like this that led to the explosion of brain training games, available on your computer or mobile device, that promise to help keep your brain on its toes by solving puzzles. The website lumosity.com has a host of brain training games that it promises will improve memory. There is also the game Brain Age which promises to exercise your brain with activities based on number and word puzzles. The company claims that Brain Age is “a treadmill for the mind” because it provides challenging and rewarding exercises that give your brain the workout it craves.  This theory is based on MRI research that showed brain activity during mental exercises. They found that when performing tasks such as calculations and reading out loud, there is increased blood flow to the brain. So in the same way lifting a dumbbell increases blood flow to the biceps, performing a difficult mental task seems to exercise the brain.

I’m not exactly convinced that you need to spend money on ‘brain training’ to get the benefits. Spring cleaning your brain may be as simple as committing to spending some time on clearing out your mind. According to Mervin Blair, activities such as a daily crossword puzzle, learning a new language, or even relaxation exercises can help keep your brain fresh and de-cluttered. So this spring, commit to a few simple tasks to sweep out the cobwebs in your brain–maybe a daily Soduko puzzle or learning to meditate. You may be surprised by your brain’s ability to take on new challenges once you’ve cleared out the clutter.

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