Deric Bownds


The following is a 15 min. talk given at the Feb. 2, 2014, meeting of the Fort Lauderdale Prime Timers. (Here is a Spanish translation, and a French translation. )

Making our Brains Younger.        

I want to talk today about an experience we all have been having.watching our minds seem to slow down a bit over the years.

In the first part of this talk, I want to describe some of the changes in our brain on aging.  And then in the second part I want to suggest a few things we can do to reverse or slow down these changes.  There is some good newsover the past 20 years we have learned that older brains have as much ability to grow new nerve cells and connections as younger brains.  Experiments have shown that some brain exercises can make our brains function as well as most 20 year olds.  We can reclaim our whole visual field,  improve our hearing, increase the speed and accuracy of our attention.

We all slowly loose it after we reach a physical and mental prime in our late 20s,  by our 60s we are beginning to have errors in understanding.  If youre 20 to 40 years old and someone starts talking twice as fast you understand them, no problem. 70-90 years olds understand very little of it. Basically, those of us who are in our 70s are in the bottom 20% relative to people in their 20s with respect to reasoning, spatial visualization, perceptual speed and accuracy, and memory.  Our brains simply slow down, compared with a younger persons brain. 

We move our eyes less frequently around a scene, spending more time staring at a particular point in space recording less information than a bright-eyed young individual who is bouncing their eyes around the same scene to take five or more snapshots of it. 

By the time youre 80 years old, the portion of the horizon in front of you that you reliably see and report on is only about half the view of the world that you were taking in at age 20. 

Thats doesnt necessarily mean you cant see the periphery, you just dont typically do it. 

It is as if we were saying to ourselves, From now on, Im going to use a TV that  is 50% smaller than the one I have,  Im going to put Botox in the muscles that control my eyes so they can only start straight ahead,  and Im going to stop paying attention to unexpected things?  This is an example of negative learning. 

(The above, and much of the information in this talk, is taken from Michael Merzenichs recent book Soft-Wired - How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life. Available on Amazon as soft cover or Kindle versions.)

Another example of negative learning, suppose you fall and hurt yourself.

Now, to prevent that, its natural to flex your hips and knees and separate your feet just a bit to stabilize your stance, regularize your stepping, and turn your head down more often to watch your feetyouve changed the functional axis of the balance organ in your head to a less effective mode.  Now if you are bumped and stumble the visual scene comes at you faster than you can react. If you were equivalently bumped while looking forward the changes in the visual scene would be slower and you would more likely be able to react in time.

Think about hearing. It seems like you cant quite follow along with the radio or TV as well, so you turn up the volume. Accuracy in reception fades a little more. Up goes the loudness. Accuracy fades again.  The problem is not the volume, its the discrimination and accuracy of your hearing. If a radio station isnt tuned in correctly, you turn the tuner knob to fix it not the volume knob. For your brain, youre turning the wrong knob!  What you need to do is practice improving your listening skills, how rapidly and accurately you can discriminate sounds.  You can do this by paying more attention and also with hearing exercises I will mention. 

Think about navigation, finding our way somewhere, of course we all probably use this great new technology that is supposed to help us all out, GPS navigation in our cars.  We dont have to practice navigation any more, and what this means is that a crucial part of our brain involved in maps and memory isnt used, and it shrinks.  If we use it to make mental maps and navigate, it grows,  London cab drivers who have to memorize A to Zed have a much larger hippocampus than most people.   In any part of your brain use it, grow it;  dont use it, loose it. 

Our older brains are less effective at suppressing interferences from all this stuff that is going on around us and at suppressing our own mind wandering. This problem arises in part because the signal”— the brains activities that represent the thing youre trying to remember or do is growing weaker.   When a baby is born it hears only noise, and slowly learns what the important signals are, aging brains reverse this, returning to noise. 

Lets get back to a little more optimistic note.

We can get it back, at least much of it.  The older brain actually has as much ability to grow new nerve cells and connections as younger brains.   We can reclaim our whole visual field,  improve our hearing, increase the speed and accuracy of our attention, make our movement more varied and youthful. 

The simple rule, which I cant repeat enough is Use it or lose it,  keep nerve connections active and growing or let them atrophy and shrink.   Whether you are using it or losing it depends to large extent on what kind of brain space you are in.

Your brain has two major operating modes:  the attentional mode and the narrative or default mode.   These two modes are happening mainly in different areas of our brains. 

The attentional mode is centered right in the present, paying attention, noticing, engaging questions or problems, observing things. Its a task positive network, does physical cause/effect reasoning, uses the exterior parts of our cortex , the upstairs parts of our brains.

The other mode the narrative or default mode,  its sort of like when youve thrown your car out of gear, into neutral.  This is when you are mind wandering, thinking about things, being introspective about things unrelated to visual and hearing stimuli that are coming at you in the present. It is more introspective, stimulus independent thought, using more inside parts of our cortex, the downstairs parts of our brains. 

Your brain stays more alive and vital, can actually change in a younger direction the more you keep yourself in the present centered attentional mode.  It is from this attentional mode that  we can re-strengthen the connections between our brain cells, speed up the operations of the brain to improve their sharpness, completeness, accuracy, control our attention better, slow the shrinking of brain centers, increase the size of areas that do learning and memory.

Once we in the present,  paying attention, there is one activity that is more important than any other in keeping your brains and bodies alive.  Im sure you all know what it is.  

Just Move!   Do anything to get just a little bit out of breath, whether your running, walking, using a walker, or in a wheelchair.   Hundreds of experiments have shown that simple exertion or exercise not only increases the number of stem cells that regenerate muscle,  it also causes major changes in your brain.

Exercise increases levels of a molecule (abbreviated BDNF, for brain derived neurotropic factor.)  that stimulates the growth of nerve cells, especially in the hippocampus portion of our brain that is important for memory and navigation.  Exercise keeps our cells young by delaying the normal shortening at the ends of our DNA that occurs on aging.  It increases the functional talking between different parts of our brain that is responsible for our executive control, focus, and attention.

Exercise protects against diabetes, cancer, and age related diseases like Alzheimers.  It is an antidote to depression, and generally makes people more relaxed and confident. 

The exercise we are talking about here doesnt have to be some big deal.  Walking, housecleaning. Going to the gym only once a week can prevent normal loss of muscle mass with aging.  One study on people in their mid-sixties showed that walking three times a week, building up to 40 minutes at a stretch, after a year had caused a 2% increase in the volume of their hippocampus, while in the control non-walking group the volume had gone down by 1.5%

You can refine your brain through refining your movement,.  focus on the feeling of the flow of movement, use your flexible spine and core to move with your whole body, avoid stereotyped habitual movements, slow them down, speed them up, use different routes to the result.  Monitor the quality and precision of your movement, and reward yourself (in your mind) for every little improvement.

Now,  what about directly exercising your brain as well as your body?

You can tell me the simplest way to do that.  Just do any of your customary habitual activities a little bit different, do something new.  Try to shave with the other hand, or unzip your fly with the other hand.  It will feel weird, but after several trials you can do it, and you will have grown some new nerve cells or changed the connections between existing ones. 

The brain wants novelty, which grow and change its connections.  Habit, doing the same things on autopilot,  causes areas of the brain to shrink. 

Now another incredibly important point, maybe not as important for this group, because you are all here,  is to stay engaged with other humans.  Hundreds of studies have by now shown that social isolation correlates with diminished immune system function, increased susceptibility  to illness, inflammation,  feelings of helplessness and depression.  

Finally I want to mention reversing the aging of your brain using technology.

You can make your brain more youthful in a big way if you are comfortable using a web browser and a computer mouse or a tablet like an iPad.  You can use either of these gadgets to improve your brain speed, attention, accuracy, memory, and so on.

I want to caution, as with any other senior service providers, that you need to be on the lookout for snake oil salesmen, trying to sell you $250 software packages that claim to be scientific,  stuff you can get either free or for much less money. 

Ive reviewed many of these regimes (,,,  ), and of the various ones I have looked at, I think the best, the the most evidence and science based stuff, is Brain HQ, for brain headquarters, originated by a guy named Michael Merzenich and his collaborators. It is featured on the AARP website at where you can get a discount on using it,  I have followed Merznichs work for many years.  He is the guy who originally showed how plastic our adult brains are, areas of our brain can grow or contract with use or disuse.  His book Soft-Wired - how the new science of brain plasticity can change your life was published on Oct. 7 in soft cover, and is available in Kindle form also. It gives a good description of brain changes on aging and how they can be reversed. It mentions the computer exercises but also  lists more general daily things one can do to maintain brain and body vitality.

The exercises play in a web browser, Windows or Apple, also on tablets like an iPad.  Studies now done with thousands of subjects in many locations have shown that most 65 year and older trainees who do these exercises for about 40 hours over a period of time,  show 30 year old neurological abilities, with improvements in visually related attention, recognition, memory, etc. , and that even 10 years after training are in better health, with fewer falls, injuries, and driving accidents, lower incidence of depression, generally more with it.  

The exercises work on our core assets   Alertness and focus, positive mood, learning and remembering, accuracy, speed, rapid sequencing and prediction, Suppression of noise and distractions, fluency, time and place navigation, people skills,

I had a complete WHOA experience doing some of these exercises,  it felt like I could feel my brain changing as I was doing the exercises, for example,  ones that widen your visual field and get your eyes to move around more quickly.    I thought about trying to demonstrate some of these here, projecting from a computer onto the screen we have.  but decided this really wasnt very realistic,  the screen is too small for many of you to see, there are too many of us, and a number of us are not that comfortable with web browsers, mice, or tablets. I have the exercises on my laptop here, you can check with me if you would like to see them after the meal today or some other time.  If you use a web browser you can use the google search box on your browser to find the exercises Im mentioning.  Enter brainhq, one word, short for brain head quarters, and you will see the link.  And by the way, if you are curious about my mind blog writing, music and history, you can just enter my last name, Bownds, in a google search window. 

Thats it,  Im done. 

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