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From turning down the music to snacking on fish, the latest research on how to improve your ability to learn

Danielle Groen & Katie Underwood  

 

Chowing down on fish can pump up your brain  

Millennia ago, humans were doing pretty well for themselves, but it's when they settled around the basins of large rivers that civiliz-ations really started to flourish. Think of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley: "Humans got much smarter and more sophisticated when they lived closer to rivers," says Dr Cyrus Raji, a resident radiologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

So it's not entirely surprising that in a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Raji and his colleagues discovered consuming fish can actually enhance the physical size of the brain. Examining 260 subjects in their late 70s with no cognitive defects, the researchers found that the hippocampus-the learning centre of the brain-was 14 per cent larger in those who ate baked or broiled fish on a weekly basis than in those who did not. The omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish also improved the performance of neur-ons in the brain's frontal lobe, an area that is crucial for executive functions like short-term memory and task planning.

"If you have neurons that are bigger, stronger and can make better connections to other neurons, they're going to be able to do their job more effectively," Raji says. Plenty of seafood -mackarel, tuna, mussels, shrimp-is rich in omega-3s. Fish may be the secret to heftier brains, but variety remains the spice of life.

It's possible to become a virtuoso at any age

If you dream of appearing onstage at a concert hall but worry that a lack of childhood music lessons has thwarted your musical ambition, some good news: researchers at the University of Chicago have determined that absolute, or "perfect," pitch-the ability to identify and reproduce a note after hearing it-may be learnt into adulthood.

It's often assumed that early musical training is necessary to encode notes or scales in our brains. But according to senior researcher Howard Nusbaum, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, USA, "We may not be so limited to these narrow biological windows." In fact, adults with a higher auditory working memory (that is, an innate knack for remembering sounds in general) significantly improved their ability to recreate near-perfect notes during simulations in Nusbaum's lab. This finding refutes earlier theories that suggested perfect pitch is an innate quality. "The most important way to become a better musician at any age is to practise playing music," Nusbaum says, "but having perfect pitch won't hurt."

 

Writing longhand trumps typing on a keyboard

Though advances in technology have encouraged us to veer away from such old-fashioned analogue techniques, when it comes to absorbing new information, jotting things own by hand is markedly more effective than pounding away on keyboard.

According to findings published in the periodical Advances in Haptics and co-authored by a researcher at Norway's University of Stavanger and a neurophysiologist from France's Aix-Marseille University, the physical act of writing-not typing-activates both our brain's sensorimotor and language centres. That element of motor memory is involved in recognizing the words on a page by sight-possibly meaning that the note you're making will leave a lasting visual impression in your brain.

Writing "Pick up chicken" on a paper grocery list also takes longer than, say, tapping a chicken emoji on your smartphone, and that time differential could have an effect on retention as well. Your primary-school teacher may have been onto something when she made you write lines.

 

Even the hardest of hearts can be taught how to melt

In all likelihood, you've had a less-than-pleasant encounter with a narcissist at some point. Notoriously selfish and vain, people with this personality type are known for their inability to feel empathy. But there's hope for them yet! In 2014, researchers at England's University of Surrey and University of Southampton developed an encouraging workaround for those who lacked compassion: encourage them to adopt the perspective of the sufferer.

When lead researcher Erica Hepper and her colleagues showed subjects a video of a woman describing her experiences of physical violence, watching alone failed to trigger an appropriate response. But when they prompted participants to put themselves in the woman's shoes, even those who scored as "high narcissists" expressed genuine concern and sympathy. So the next time a callous acquaintance refuses to see your side of things, take heart: it appears that, with a little guidance, even the least tender among us can improve their empathetic abilities.

Tetris can make you a better driver

In May 2013, a study out of Montreal's McGill University revealed that playing the video game Tetris can improve the amount of information older adults could take in without moving their eyes or heads (known as useful field of view, or UFOV).

After six 90-minute sessions over three weeks, participants improved their UFOV and quickened selective attention (the ability to focus on one piece of information in a larger field of data) by nearly 72 milliseconds. That's a nice boost, since improved UFOV has been associated with etter task performance-especially behind the wheel. Researchers saw similar results after participants played the war-themed video game Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, but organizing a bunch of falling blocks seems more soothing than blasting bad guys away.


A varied gait may help you relearn how to walk  

After a traumatic brain injury, the smallest tasks, from feeding oneself to walking, can seem like Herculean endeavours. But certain findings suggest that a few simple steps-literally-might help affected parties get back on their feet.

In a study from Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University, subjects were asked to
alternate their regular walking patterns with more complicated ones-by exercising on a split-belt treadmill. Participants who were exposed to belts that alternated between moving at the same speed and different speeds were able to resume their movements more easily than counterparts whose belts con-sistently moved at different speeds.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you're trying to relearn basic movements, the key may lie in random alternation. This information should be a boon to those engaged in post-traumatic physical rehab.


Ditching cigarettes can mend brain matter

Add this to the laundry list of reasons smoking is terrible for your health: the habit can affect the part of the brain that's crucial for conscious learning (See "After You Quit Smoking", page 50). In a major study released in February 2015 by Scotland's University of Edinburgh and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University, researchers analyzed recent MRI brain scans of more than 500 subjects, all of whom had been examined as children in 1947.They discovered that smokers had a demonstrably thinner brain cortex than those who had refrained from lighting up.

"The cortex is involved in everything that requires higher-order cognition: attention, mathematical reasoning, logical reasoning, our capacity to juggle a lot of concepts at once," says lead researcher Sherif Karama, assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill. "[In old age,] smokers end up with a lower level of cognitive abilities than non-smokers, even when you account for initial IQ."

But not all is lost: if a person ditches the cigarettes, the cortex can begin to repair itself. "For every 7,000 cigarettes you smoke-that's roughly one pack a day for a year-you need to have stopped smoking for almost a year for that area to recover," Karama says. "But if people quit for long enough, their cortex does appear to come back to where it should be for their age."

Getting caffeinated may boost long-term memory

Mainlining espresso will keep you very alert, but recent research suggests that it'll also help your long-term memory. In 2014, scientists from Johns Hopkins University published the results of a test in which participants were given either a placebo or 200 milligrams of caffeine-about as much as one strong cup of coffee-once they finished studying a series of pictures. The next day, after being shown more photos, the caffeinated group fared much better than their non-jittery peers at recognizing details that were similar (but not identical) to the old series.

That skill-known as pattern separation-suggests "a deeper level of memory retention," researchers said. So the moment you learn something new, consider making a beeline for the coffee shop.

 

 

Mental photographs could cement new words

Conventional wisdom suggests that the best way for reluctant readers to improve their skills is to phonetically spell out smaller segments of what's on the page. But according to a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience earlier this year, the key to how our brains absorb new words may be purely visual.

Researchers at the Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., worked with 25 people who were shown a collection of 150 meaningless groupings of letters and asked to commit them to memory. Initially, participants responded to the gibberish as, well, gibberish. But using fMRI scans, the scientists discovered that after subjects spent time learning the information, the area of their brains that corresponds to visual word forms became activated-they began interpreting the "words" as though they were words.

In a statement released by Georgetown University, Maximilian Riesenhuber, the senior author of the study, suggests that this information may mean humans respond less to phonemes than to actual shapes. "The visual word-form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together," he says. The take-away: rather than spending time sounding out various syllables, it may make more sense to take a mental photograph as you find out the meaning of your newly acquired noun, adjective or verb.

 

Turning down the music can turn up your recall

Kids today may be able to simultan-eously text, update Facebook, post photos on Instagram and talk to friends in person, but older adults pay big time for multi-tasking in ambient noise.

A recent study out of the Georgia Institute of Technology demonstrated the dulling effects of blaring music on our recall-senior-citizen participants remembered 10 per cent fewer names when prompted with faces by scientists. Our associative memory already tends to decline with age, but throw some background beats into the mix and our brains get seriously muddled. Though classical music and smooth jazz may help you relax while reading, they're not going to make things any easier when you're trying to remember whether your sister's brother-in-law is Harsh or Harish.   


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