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Monthly Archives: January 2010

Links for January 2010

Better thinking through chemistry

This chapter was due for inclusion in The Rough Guide Book of Brain Training, but was cut – probably because the advice it gives is so unsexy!

The idea of cognitive enhancers is an appealing one, and its attraction is obvious. Who wouldn’t want to take a pill to make them smarter? It’s the sort of vision of the future we were promised on kids TV, alongside jetpacks and talking computers.

Sadly, this glorious future isn’t here yet. The original and best cognitive enhancer is caffeine (“creative lighter fluid” as one author called it), and experts agree that there isn’t anything else available to beat it. Lately, sleep researchers have been staying up and getting exciting about a stimulant called modafinil, which seems to temporarily eliminate the need for sleep without the jitters or comedown of caffeine. Modafinil isn’t a cognitive enhancer so much as something that might help with jetlag, or let you stay awake when you really should be getting some kip.

Creative types have had a long romance with alcohol and other more illicit narcotics. The big problem with this sort of drug (aside from the oft-documented propensity for turning people into terrible bores), is that your brain adapts to, and tries to counteract, the effects of foreign substances that affect its function. This produces the tolerance that is a feature of most prolonged drug use – whereby the user needs more and more to get the same effect – and also the withdrawal that characterises drug addiction. You might think this is a problem only for junkies but, if you are a coffee or tea drinker just pause for moment and reflect on any morning when you’ve felt stupid and unable to function until your morning cuppa. It might be for this reason that the pharmaceutical industry is not currently focusing on developing drugs for creativity. Plans for future cognitive enhancers focus on more mundane, workplace-useful skills such as memory and concentration. Memory-boosters would likely be most useful to older adults, especially those with worries about failing memories, rather than younger adults.

Although there is no reason in principle why cognitive enhancers couldn’t be found which fine-tune our concentration or hone our memories, the likelihood is that, as with recreational drugs, tolerance and addiction would develop. These enhancing drugs would need to be taken in moderate doses and have mild effects – just as many people successfully use caffeine and nicotine for their cognitive effects on concentration today. Even if this allowed us to manage the consequences of the brain trying to achieve its natural level, there’s still the very real possibility that use of the enhancing drugs would need to be fairly continuous – just as it is with smokers and drinkers of tea and coffee. And even then our brains would learn to associate the drug with the purpose for which they are taken, which means it would get harder and harder to perform that purpose without the drugs, as with the coffee drinker who can’t start work until he’s had his coffee. Furthermore, some reports suggest that those with high IQ who take cognitive enhancers are mostly likely to mistake the pleasurable effect of the substance in question for a performance benefit, while actually getting worse at the thing they’re taking the drug for.

The best cognitive enhancer may well be simply making best use of the brain’s natural ability to adapt. Over time we improve anything we practice, and we can practice almost anything. There’s a hundred better ways to think and learn – some of them are in this book. By practicing different mental activities we can enhance our cognitive skills without drugs. The effects can be long lasting, the side effects are positive, and we won’t have to put money in the pockets of a pharmaceutical company.

Link to more about The Rough Guide book of Brain Training
Three excellent magazine articles on cognitive enhancers, from: The New Yorker, Wired and Discover

Cross-posted at mindhacks.com

The Rough Guide to Brain Training (Moore & Stafford, 2010)

The Rough Guide to Brain Training is a puzzle book which incluces essays and vignettes by myself. The book has 100 days of puzzles which will challenge your mental imagery, verbal fluency, numeracy, working memory and reasoning skills. There are puzzles that will look familiar like suduko, and some new ones I’ve never seen before. Fortunately the answers are included at the back. Gareth made these puzzles. I find them really hard.

I have 10 short essays in the book, covering topics such as evidence-based brain training, how music affects the developing brain, optimal brain nutrition and what the brains of the future will look like. As well as the essays, I wrote numerous short vignettes, helpful hints and suprising facts from the world of psychology and neuroscience (did you know that squids have dounut shaped brains? That you share 50% of your genes with a banana? That signals travel between brain cells at up to 200mph, which is fast compared to a cycle courier, but slow compared to a fibre optic cable). Throughout the book I try to tell it straight about what is, isn’t and might be true about brain training. I read the latest research and I hope I tell a sober, but optimistic, message about the potential for us to change how we think over our lifetimes (and the potential to protect our minds against cognitive decline in older age). I also used my research to provide a sprinkling of evidence-based advice for those who are trying to improve a skill, study for an exam or simply remember things better.

Writing the book was a great opportunity for me to dig into the research on brain training. It is a topic I’d always meant to investigate properly, but hadn’t gotten around to. The claims of those pushing commercial brain training products always seemed suspicious, but the general idea – that our brains change based on practice and experience – seemed plausible. In fact, this idea has been one of the major trends of the last fifty years of neuroscience research. It has been a big surprise to neuroscientists as experiment after experiment has shown exactly how malleable (aka ‘plastic’) the structure and function of the brain is. The resolution of this paradox of the general plausibility of brain training with my suspicion of specific products is in the vital issue of control groups. Although experience changes our brains, and although it is now beyond doubt that a physically and mentally active life can prevent cognitive decline across the lifespan, it isn’t at all clear what kinds of activities are necessary or essential for general mental sharpness. Sure, after practicing something you’ll get better at it. And doing something is better than doing nothing, but the crucial question is doing something you pay for better than doing something else that is free? The holy grail of brain training would be a simple task which you could practice (and copyright! and sell!!) and which would have benefits for all mental skills. Nobody has shown that such a task or set of tasks exists, so while you could buy a puzzle book, you could also go for a jog or go to the theatre with friends. Science wouldn’t be able to say for certain which activity would have the most benefits for your mental sharpness as an individual – although the smart money is probably on going jogging. It is to the credit of the editors at the Rough Guides that they let me say this in the introduction to the Rough Guide to Brain Training!

There wasn’t room in the book for all the references I used while writing it. This was a great sadness to me, since I believe that unless you include the references for a claim, you’re just spouting off, relying on a dubious authority, rather than really talking about science. So, to make up for this, and by way of an apology, I’ve put the references here. It will be harder to track specific claims from this general list that it would be with in-text citations, so if you do have a query, please get in touch and I promise will point you to the evidence for any claims I make in the book.

Additionally, I’ll be posting here a few things from the cutting room floor – text that I wrote for the book which didn’t make it into the final draft. Watch out, and if you do get your hands on a copy of this Rough Guide to Brain Training, get in touch and let me know what you think.

Amazon link (only £5.24!)
Scientific references and links used in researching the book
Cross-posted at mindhacks.com

Quote #251: What man can make of man


An experimental analysis shifts the determination of behavior from autonomous man to the environment—an environment responsible both for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member. Early versions of environmentalism were inadequate because they could not explain how the environment worked, and much seemed to be left for autonomous man to do. But environmental contingencies now take over functions once attributed to autonomous man, and certain questions arise. Is man then “abolished”? Certainly not as a species or as an individual achiever. It is the autonomous inner man who is abolished, and that is a step forward. But does man not then become merely a victim or passive observer of what is happening to him? He is indeed controlled by his environment, but we must remember that it is an environment largely of his own making. The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control. It is often said that a scientific view of man leads to wounded vanity, a sense of hopelessness, and nostalgia. But no theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been. And a new theory may change what can be done with its subject matter. A scientific view of man offers exciting possibilities. We have not yet seen what man can make of man.

B.F.Skinner, last words of Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)