Does Anything Really Work?

We all have our personal theories about what helps and what hinders our mind’s capacity to think.  And our culture is rife with fads.  There is probably no more engaging question for us to ask ourselves than how we can enhance our mental powers.  But there is little hard evidence about what actually works.

Some are convinced in the power of vitamins, aspirin, anti-oxidents, or certain foods like blueberries and olive oil.  Others put their faith in mental exercises.  But it now seems clear that if we practice any skill — like solving crossword puzzles — we will get better only at that particular skill.  There is little evidence that practicing any one skill will transfer to other skills.  Practice doesn’t produce overall cognitive improvement.

Sharon Begley, the Science Editor if Newsweek, recently reviewed what scientists do know about enhancing cognition and came up with some interesting observations.  One of the most disturbing was the power of nicotine: “scientists at the National Institute on Drug Abuse . . . found [it had] ‘significant positive effects’ on fine motor skills, the accuracy of short-term memory, some forms of attention, and working memory, among other basic cognitive skills. The improvements ‘likely represent true performance enhancement’ and ‘beneficial cognitive effects.’” (See, “Can You Build A Better Brain?”)

There are too many arguments against using nicotine, of course.  But that’s not the only solution.  According to Begley, there are three additional and benign possibilities for enhancing the mind:  physical exercise, meditation, and some video games.  If we stop to think about these three points, they make a kind of sense.

The value of exercise reminds us that the mind is essentially a part of the body.  Like the heart, the liver and other organs, it responds to improved general maintenance and care.

Meditation may work because it enhances the mind’s “default” functioning.  Recent research shows that when the brain is not actively engaged in problem solving, it is busily reminiscing past experiences, day dreaming, and anticipating future events.  Such SITs (Stimulus Independent Thoughts) are analogous to what psychoanalysts call free association or reflection, the state of mind that facilitates new connections and new thoughts.

Video games are a form of play, a simulation of exciting fight and flight activities that require constantly changing adaptations and multiple, shifting forms of attention.  Good players must invoke unconscious and intuitive processing to keep abreast of the action.

I have no hard evidence to show that any of these thoughts explain how the brain’s capacity is enhanced, but I am intrigued that all of them are forms of activity that are outside the brain’s usual focused, problem-solving activities.  They all get our unconscious minds engaged, using our brains in ways we don’t typically use them.

This suggests that the brain will normally do its work of guiding us through our daily lives, but if we want it to grow, we have to approach it indirectly.  The brain makes things happen for us, but we can’t make it grow through our consciously willful efforts.