The Gratitude Attitude: Five Best Days

Gratitude is an attitude that mental health professionals say promotes mental well-being. They advise practices such as noting three good things about each day and writing them down at night. Studies actually show that such habits durably improve mood. In the giving spirit of the Christmas season I would like to share with you one of our family traditions that, in retrospect, I realize promotes the gratitude attitude over the course of each year.

We began taking our boys to Colorado to learn to ski when they were very little. Economic and time constraints meant one week a year, determined by my husband’s surgical on-call schedule. That week included the turn of the year on New Year’s Eve. Children’s skiing torchlight parades, followed by dinner at a Chinese restaurant and early bedtimes gradually gave way to a movie (usually laughably bad) followed by dinner at a locals’ Italian restaurant with paper-covered tablecloths and crayons for doodling. The family expanded to include our boys’ friends – first as children and teenagers along for a vacation, then as young men who worked as ski instructors. Somewhere along the way we began the habit of discussing our five best days of the year over New Year’s Eve dinner.

The crayons and the paper table covers are very convenient – everyone begins jotting down their five best days, in order, almost as soon as the menus arrive. The entire dinner time winds up devoted to going around the table in five rounds, hearing from each person about what made each wonderful day and how they decided where to rank it in the list. The choices are life stories in snapshots, changing with growth and priorities. They are funny, poignant and surprising. We also hear from people who have been with us on past New Year’s Eves, calling, e-mailing, or texting their top five days, sometimes accompanied by pictures. They all get heard.

The reason this tradition promotes gratitude is a very practical one. If you know you are going to have to come up with your five best days of the year on New Year’s Eve you learn pretty quickly that memories are weak. You cannot cram for this test. You have to start noticing potential top five days as they happen over the course of the year. You start writing them down. Pretty soon you actually have a little journal and it contains good stuff. The good things that happen in life start to break into your awareness and compete with danger-surveillance program that runs continually in the background of your mind. All good, with none of the side effects of mood enhancing drugs (which fail in the long run anyway).

Just as a matter of historical interest, we traced this tradition back to its origins. It actually began with my husband’s surgical training at Massachusetts General Hospital. The surgical interns and residents on the general surgery service met at the end of each day and were asked to talk about the cases they helped with and to explain what they had learned. The practice helped everyone process what they had done and learn from their experiences. As a family, we were always sit-down dinner people,  with candles even when there was still a high chair at the table. Like the surgery residents, we  always talked about everyone’s day. Skiing days included lots of bests. Best fall, best jump, best run, best lift ride. The evolution to a summing up of bests at the end of a year was inevitable. What is a surprise is the way the practice has continued and spread from our families to others. Maybe you would like to give it a try.

Human Diversity: A Mind Thing

(A version of this essay was published in Minnesota Medicine in March, 2005.)

The first snowy egret I ever saw was standing in a shallow pool, a beautiful white creature with a wispy headdress floating in a gentle breeze. When he lifted off, trailing his long black legs, I was startled by a flash of bright yellow – he looked like he was wearing a child’s rubber boots, designed to hug a bird’s clawed feet. He did a loop around the pond in  flying low in a peculiar, non-aerodynamic position. His legs hung down rather than stretching out parallel to his body. He dipped closer to the water and his dangling yellow feet brushed the surface. He’s landing, I thought. But he didn’t. He repeated the maneuver four times.  He’s afraid to land, I thought. But then he touched down with hardly a splash, and dipped his beak to catch a fish, then another, and another. In a moment of bird-watching epiphany, I realized that his feet were like a fisherman’s lure. He’d rounded up his lunch. 

I looked around the pond. I’d just watched a bird with bright yellow feet use them to attract the curiosity of his prey. Across the water was a bird with a lower bill that expanded into a pouch to collect fish as he skimmed, openmouthed, over the water. Perched high above was another, just about to dine on a large fish he’d  skewered with  fearsome talons. What an impressive display of diversity!  If people were this diverse, New England fishermen would grow waterproof, blubber lined hands, typists would develop extra fingers, and mothers really would have eyes in the backs of their heads.  

But people are pretty much the same as far as their bodily equipment goes.  Five fingers on each of two hands, ten toes divided between two feet, two eyes, upright posture, and a narrow range of physical abilities, notwithstanding the spread between ordinary and Olympian. The traits we associate with human diversity are superficial – hair color and texture, skin color, facial appearance. Almond shaped or round, eyes still see. Long, elegant skeletal frames and short squat ones all support bodies against the universal force of gravity. Skin pigmentation protects the body covering from the sun, more or less depending on the power of the sun in the areas of the world where the people originated. We are much more like each other than we are different in our biology. The birds have it all over us in the diversity contest.  

After my egret experience, I packed up my binoculars, got on my bike and headed home, humbled a little by the thought that all of the talk and concern about diversity among people is overblown, maybe just another representation of man’s abiding sense of self-importance. But along the way I passed bikes and cars, houses and stores, a radio broadcast tower, and a museum.  I crossed a bridge between two islands and waved to a fisherman in his boat. And I realized that each of these man made things  I passed began as an idea, somewhere, some time, in somebody’s head. We might not differ much in anatomy and physiology, but no two of us have identical thoughts. The mind is the site of the real diversity among humans. The mind is plastic and ever developing. It records, collates, recalls, communicates, and combines unrelated information in new ways. Yellow feet catch the eye, but minds change the world.

Why We Cry..and How We Make the Tears

 

 

“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.” The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Do animals cry? Probably not. Indian gamekeepers told Charles Darwin stories of elephants that shed tears of sadness, and dog lovers have tales of canine tears, but the emotional tears of humans are unparalleled in the animal kingdom.

We are always making tears

All land dwelling animals, including people, make tears constantly. Eyes are windows on the world, and baseline tears are constant window washers. The window pane is the cornea, a thin panel of collagen, containing very few cells, no blood vessels, and more nerves per square inch than any other part of the body. These nerves signal alarm and summon an army of reflexive tears in response to a speck of dust, a cold wind, or a whiff of an onion. Reflexive tears, which are just a lot of baseline tears, wash out intruders and fill in dry patches on the cornea, keeping it clear and moist to focus light entering the eye. Emotional tears appear in humans during infancy, but not immediately. The crying that infants first do to signal their needs is much like the crying of little chimpanzees – tearless. Emotional tears come later, just like talking. Both are outward expressions of the lives of our minds, and they take a while to learn.

What tears are made of

Tears are much more than little beads of salt water running down your face. They are a three layer sandwich. The oil-containing molecules in the outer layer tighten up the surface of the watery middle layer to keep it from spilling over eyelid and sliding off the surface it protects. The oil floats on the watery middle layer and smooths its surface, optimizing the passage of light through to the eye’s interior. The third part of the sandwich, inside and closest to the eye, is the mucinous layer, kind of a gluey protein that helps tears stick to the eyeball. The mucinous proteins capture and kill biologic intruders like bacteria and viruses, and soak up some of the watery layer to help transfer nutrients, oxygen and moisture to the cornea. Both the oil and mucin slow evaporation of tears as blinking spreads them over the eye.

Evaporation and drainage

Dry spots appear on the cornea after just fifteen non-blinking seconds – easy to do while concentrating or daydreaming. Even with blinking, tears evaporate, or they drain out from the eye into the nose via two tiny lacrimal ducts on the upper and lower eyelids near the nose. If these ducts become scarred or blocked by infection, tears overflow. Six to 10% of babies are born with tear ducts not yet open, but 95% of these will open by age one without any attempt at surgical repair. Conversely, one way of treating dry eyes is to block these ducts with small plastic pellets.

Dry eyes

Too few tears, tears with abnormal composition, and decreased blinking cause dry eyes that itch, sting, burn, get red, and cause blurred vision. Dry eyes are an increasing problem in our air-conditioned, airline-traveling, contact lens-wearing, Lasiked, medicated and aging society. The list of drugs that dry eyes includes many commonly prescribed classes: decongestants, antidepressants, antihypertensives, antihistamines, beta-blockers, hormones, diuretics, ulcer medications, acne drugs, and oral contraceptives. Other causes of dry eyes are infections and immune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome as well as  radiation and radioactive iodine treatment can also damage the tear producing cells. All of these conditions damage the tear producing cells  – the machinery for tear production. 

Remedies for dry eyes 

Treatment of dry eyes is always aimed at removing offending problems and increasing lubrication. The usual tactics include artificial tears, wind protection, air humidification, cessation of unnecessary medications, and treatment of underlying diseases and infections. Excessive tearing often means allergies, or blocked lacrimal ducts leading to poor drainage of baseline tears into the nose.

 

The tear producing machinery

The medical conditions mentioned above shut down tear production and cause pain and swelling in the lacrimal gland, a spongy little structure tucked up under the upper outer corner of the eyelid. The lacrimal gland is the tear producing factory, aided by the oil-producing Meibomiam glands near the eyelashes, and a cluster of mucin-producing cells in the eyelid lining.

The controls for the machinery

When the lacrimal glands get a call for more tears, either reflexive or emotional, the messages come through the autonomic nervous system, which oversees the automatic functions of the body. Reflexive tears spring from messages sent from the eye and nose. Emotional tears come from messages sent by the limbic system, the deepest and oldest part of the brain, the part that conjures up feelings.

What are emotional tears?

What are emotional tears? Are they just more voluminous baseline tears? Or does emotional crying rid us of “humors of the brain,” as Hippocrates thought? In Roman times, mourners used small glass vials called lachrymators to collect their tears for burial with the one for whom they cried. In today’s laboratory, emotional tears are almost as hard to come by as research money to investigate them. Some dedicated men such as Professor William H. Frey II (Dept. of Pharmaceutics at the U. Of Minnesota) have learned enough to suggest that tears of grief rid the body of some of the products of stress, supporting the claim that crying makes people feel better. Compared to reflexive tears, emotional tears contain up to 25% more proteins, of classes related to stress. Why? No one knows – yet. Emotional tears are still a land of mystery, part of the unique expression of inner life that separates the human animal from the others.

 

Consciousness Unplugged*

 

Turn on the bedside lamp. Arrange the pillows. Settle in with a book in progress and open to last night’s marked page. Recognize nothing. Memory for those parts read as sleep stole over you never formed.

Go back a page or two…ahh! Here is something familiar. Start there. All is smooth for a page or two. Then the pace slows. The distance between words and meaning lengthens and a struggle to understand begins.  Time slows and suddenly the still visible words no longer symbolize anything. This second, or fraction of a second, marks the border of an elusive state in which the self stands apart, still awake and aware, but disconnected from the machinery it normally uses. Catching the sensation, without slipping into the oblivion of sleep, is like being suspended in time and separated from all the meanings automatically assigned to what is seen, heard and felt in the real world – yet the world is still here.

Sleep steamrolls the elusive state almost instantly, but, while it lasts, it is a fascinating sense of “being,” poised between two worlds. One is the world of the bedroom, the light, the book, the sheets, and the surrounding walls. The other is a world detached from the meanings of all those familiar, objective things. I suspect, but do not know for sure, that this thin little membrane between wakefulness and sleep is the target area of people who are skilled in meditation and of  contemplatives who seek a spiritual connection between themselves and something outside nature.

Imagine being able to hang in the in-between place, without succumbing to the all-powerful tide of sleep, yet to be detached from the cold, hard world of the surrounding room and also aware that you are still you. Reports from skilled seekers of enlightenment, from faithful meditation practitioners and from some of the great religious traditions of wisdom suggest that exploration of consciousness unplugged from its routine state might be rewarding.  And for some reason, physical health benefits like lower blood pressure and more even moods come back from that place.

There is real appeal, too, in  personal experience that lends credence to the idea that there is more to each of us than $5.00 worth of raw materials – that some part of us rises above the chemistry.  My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor’s first person description of her expansive trip through her own brain while in the middle of a stroke, rocketed around the internet not because of its neuroanatomy and physiology, but because it added to the hope that the human creature is more than an animal. The hope that the nagging sense of otherness, the need to be good and to do good things, the ability to imagine, the drive to create art and music, and the love of symmetry and beauty reflect more than random biologic events culled out of DNA by the drive to survive.

When I was a child I tried to hold myself poised in another early phase of sleep – the one in which vivid imagery parades across the inner screen – in my case it was always from left to right. The images were always complex, detailed and colorful –unrelated by any story line, and not necessarily imagery form any of my real-life experiences. Elephants decked out in magnificent jeweled saddles and the like. The trick was to not pay them too much attention, or I would be back up in wakefulness, but also to pay them just enough that I would not fall into the sleep pit.

Adulthood put an end to the drifting mode of getting into sleep. Busy days and chronic sleep deprivation made cliffs out of the previously gentle slopes surrounding the sleep pit. No more lollygagging into unconsciousness.  But I suspect those childhood experiences were the beginning of my unshakeable sense that the watcher of these fascinating states of consciousness, as well of dreams, is the deepest part of the self – a part that can be unplugged from the $5.00 body.  The partial unplugging that precedes sleep is fun. The complete unplugging that comes at the end of life? I suppose it depends on what you believe. Is there something else? Is there nothing else? No way to know for sure. But I would not like to experience a persistent, conscious sense of self in a void. That might be hell.

*this was not written for an Elks Magazine Healthline column.

Broken Heart Syndrome: The Octopus Trap

“Doctoring her seemed to her as absurd as putting together the pieces of a broken vase. Her heart was broken. Why would they try to cure her with pills and powders?”  Leo Tolstoy, writing about Kitty’s heartbreak over Vronsky in Anna Karenina

 

Sometimes people say that a spouse who dies unexpectedly within hours to weeks after the partner’s death has “died of a broken heart,” though a variety of different medical conditions are responsible for the increased death rate among grieving partners, who are often elderly. In 1990 a paper appeared in the Japanese medical literature that described a peculiar heart problem, documented by modern technology, that the popular press seized upon as a possible explanation for the correlation between grief or fright or other emotional stress and sudden, unexpected death. The cardiomyopathy the authors described was an abnormality in the heart muscle of the left ventricle, the chamber of the heart that pumps blood out to the body. That part of the heart acted as if it had been “stunned” into inactivity and caused pain and other symptoms commonly associated with heart attacks, but the patients did not have any coronary artery disease.  These facts seemed fit neatly into the concept of a “broken heart.”

Why an octopus trap?

The ventriculograms, or dye studies, of the hearts of the Japanese patients described in the 1990 paper showed peculiarly dilated left ventricles, ballooned at their tips so that they resembled octopus traps – narrow-necked, flask-shaped contraptions that are easy for the tentacled animals to enter but hard to escape. In the Japanese language an octopus trap is a takot-subo and by the mid-2000s the name Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or TCM, was widespread and many more cases had been described. Risk factors for the stress-induced cardiomyopathy were both physical and mental and included stays in ICUs, near drownings, major physical injuries, bad medical or financial news, legal problems and natural disasters, and, of course, unexpected death of a loved one. Cases have also been attributed to cocaine and methamphetamine use, as well as to exercise stress testing. These patients who acted as if they had had a heart attack were most often women and they had no history of heart problems prior to the events that hospitalized them.

Who is at risk? What are the symptoms?

Takotsubo syndrome is not common, but also not rare. It accounts for 1-2% people who have symptoms initially thought to be caused by regular coronary artery disease. In women, some people estimate that as many as 5% of heart attacks are actually TCM.  Most TCM patients are Asians or Caucasian, over 90% are post-menopausal women and most cases come to attention because of heart attack-like symptoms such as acute chest pain and shortness of breath.  But unusual presentations also occur as a result of the effects of the poor heart muscle function. When it’s pump action fails, the heart sends hormonal signals that affect water and salt balance in the body.  Fluid retention occurs in some people. Low sodium levels cause symptoms of profound fatigue in others. Clots may form in the poorly contracting ventricle, break loose and cause strokes. Lethal complications such as ventricular fibrillation and actual rupture of the impaired ventricle are very rare, but have occurred.

What’s the cause?

Diagnosis of Takotsubo syndrome requires new abnormalities in the electrocardiogram, absence of coronary artery disease and no evidence of heart inflammation from an infection or autoimmune disease. While the enzyme markers for a heart attack may rise, they do so earlier and fall back to normal more quickly than they do in a routine heart attack. In addition, the muscle abnormalities in the left ventricle can’t be mapped to the territory supplied by one coronary artery as they can when a blockage is responsible for the damage. Doctors who make a TCM diagnosis must also make certain the patient does not have a tumor called a pheochromocytoma, which produces stress hormones.

Most patients recover completely

By now TCM is known to be transient, with supportive care leading to complete recovery within 1-2 months in over 95%of patients. Recurrence is extremely rare. However, the actual cause, or mechanism by which the transient heart damage occurs, remains unknown. A number of theories have been proposed and all of them have something to do with a temporary derangement in function of the cells of the inside layer of cells of the left ventricular chamber of the heart. In these cells normal energy production from fatty acids is halted. The area of the heart involved happens to have a high concentration of receptors for catecholamines (adrenaline like hormones), perhaps making it susceptible to overstimulation and damage by severe stress. The high preponderance of postmenopausal women in case reports suggests that perhaps sex hormones are somehow protective factors.

Do people really die from broken hearts?

But is the Takotsubo syndrome responsible for deaths that seem to come from emotionally broken hearts? The mortality rate in cases of Takotsubo syndrome that come to medical attention is low. Recovery rates are high. Broken heart deaths most often occur in older people who have multiple health problems which might play a role. For example, when singer/actress Debbie Fisher died as she was planning her daughter Carrie Fisher’s funeral this year, a NYT reporter speculated about the cause of death being the Takotsubo syndrome. But Debbie Fisher had suffered several strokes in recent years and had high blood pressure. Later stories attributed her death to a fatal stroke related to high blood pressure.

Grief and stress do raise the risks of dying for the bereaved, but the causes of death are many and varied and mostly related to longstanding health problems.  The pills and powders Kitty scorned for her broken heart in Anna Karenina have a place in the treatment of the many other problems that occur in the setting of grief, especially depression. While it is tempting to attribute sudden, unexpected deaths in emotionally stressed people to an odd and mysterious heart problem named after an octopus trap, science requires objectivity and evidence.  So far the evidence about sick hearts that resemble octopus traps suggests that, at least in the people in whom the diagnosis is made, death is a very rare outcome and complete recovery is the rule.

Fatigue: Gentle Messenger…and Tyrant

As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, when confronted with a decision about what constituted pornography, the definition is hard, but “I know what it is when I see it.” An all-encompassing definition of fatigue is similarly difficult, but everyone knows what fatigue feels like. The profound lassitude that signals an oncoming flu is a gluey, mesmerizing state of mind and body that renders one incapable of remembering ever feeling good, of imagining ever feeling energetic again, or of conceiving of a desire to participate in any physical, social or mental activity beyond crawling beneath the bedcovers.  

The perception of energy failure

 Where there is life, there is fatigue. All plants and animals run on energy produced in little chemical factories (mitochondria) in every cell. The ultimate source of biologic energy is the sun’s nuclear energy, converted to usable form by plants and transferred to animals as food. The more complex the living thing, the more obvious the need for periods of rest and recovery to replenish energy. When the demand energy use outpaces the time needed for recovery, or when normal function is derailed by illness, drugs or toxins, fatigue is the name we give to what we feel, mentally and physically. To the research scientist, fatigue is a by-product of numerous little proteins (cytokines) produced by the immune system to protect us from outside invaders and internal disorders like cancer. How these proteins create the feeling of fatigue is a mystery, but there is admirable logic in a system that commandeers a patient’s energy, drive and ambition and sends him packing off to bed while an internal battle rages.  

Voluntary fatigue

Less admirable is our ability to override the biology that produces tiredness, and to become passive, cranky and sleep-deprived. In fact, most complaints of fatigue reflect the deliberate choice to ignore the symptom and would and yield to simple lifestyle changes – if one were willing and able to sleep more, lose weight, eat regular, well-balanced meals, exercise enough, manage time wisely, avoid smoking, excess alcohol, and junk food, and engage in satisfying work. In our culture these are tall orders, and a background level of fatigue is often accepted as normal. 

Evaluation of fatigue 

New, unexpected and persistent tiredness, however, may signal underlying illness or environmental stress and warrants a serious evaluation, with clear communication about exactly what fatigue means to the patient. First, a description of the patient’s normal “background energy” is important. Some people are full of energy from the day they are born. Others are inveterate couch potatoes, happy to sit and watch life go by. The feeling of fatigue that prompts one to see a doctor is, by definition, different from the patient’s normal state, but the doctor sees only a snapshot in time. Patients and families should never be shy about volunteering information about what life used to be like. 

Defining the symptom

Next, the language used by patients to describe fatigue needs to be clear. “I’m tired” sometimes means “I’m weak,” and “I’m weak” sometimes means “I’m tired,” but in the jargon of medicine, weakness means loss of muscle strength. Provided that they exert full effort, tired people can generate normal muscle power upon request, but people with strokes or nerve and muscle diseases cannot. Separating weakness from fatigue is the doctor’s first job – otherwise he may head off on the wrong diagnostic road. Description of the activities affected by tiredness and/or weakness, and characterization of changes fatigue brings to daily life are crucial to the process of diagnosis.   

Finding the source

Once a doctor understands the way fatigue affects life for a patient, he moves on to a “review of systems” – a top to bottom list of questions ranging over all the body’s organs, looking for clues to the presence of heart, kidney or liver disease, diabetes, cancer, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, insomnia, degenerative neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s, autoimmune illnesses like lupus or MS, chronic infections, eating disorders and problems of the thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands. A good doctor will then delve into the lifestyle and life events surrounding the appearance of fatigue. Tiredness is a complex, high level symptom that may also originate in the mind – it is one of the cardinal symptoms of depression. 

Is it the drugs

Next comes a careful inventory of all medicines in use, prescription and non-prescription. New fatigue symptoms may parallel the addition of new drugs (even antibiotics can cause fatigue). An inventory of potential toxins and hazards in the environment may turn up a faulty furnace producing carbon monoxide or exposure to toxins such as volatile hydrocarbons that can damage the part of the brain called the cerebellum – a major player in energy balance. 

Following the clues

 Following a good, inquisitive medical history, a complete physical exam (the kind that requires undressing) may turn up other clues that suggest the need for more than “routine” tests. Fatigue is messenger bringing information about conditions ranging from minor to mortal. When not readily explained, fatigue warrants the best of our medical tools to ferret out the source of trouble. The first step though, is still a careful history and physical examination. Without these, advanced medical technological evaluation of fatigue is little better than a fishing expedition sent to sea with no information about where the fish hang out. 

                                                    The Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Definition:

Profound, life-altering fatigue lasting more than 6 months.

May follow a viral infection, but no test abnormalities persist along with the fatigue.

Physical and mental activities both worsen symptoms.

Variety of accompanying symptoms: weakness, muscle and skeletal aches and pains, impaired memory, lack of drive, poor sleep.

Diagnosis:

No specific tests, other than exclusion of other illnesses that produce these symptoms, among others. CFS is a “diagnosis of exclusion.”

Conditions to be excluded:

Chronic infections, mononucleosis, autoimmune disorders (lupus, M.S.), hypothyroidism, low adrenal function, sleep apnea, cancer (particularly pancreatic), obesity, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, major psychiatric disturbances: schizophrenia, depression. 

Mind Games

The arrival of the baby boom generation at the threshold of old age coincides with a technology boom that marries the appeal of computer and video games to updated views on the brain’s neuroplasticity– its capacity to rewire itself even in adulthood. This union has spawned mind game businesses in which clients exercise their brains with computerized games, quizzes and tests. Lumosity and other cognitive training companies (see a sampling below) claim success in improving clients’ mental flexibility, speed, focus, concentration and memory. Well over 60 million subscribers hope their brains benefit from mental workouts in virtual gyms. Is their money well spent?

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity refers to the dynamic process of physical change in and between brain cells that occurs in response to experience. When an infant is born, there is ample space between the cells in the outer layer of his brain, where higher functions like seeing, thinking, speaking, planning and remembering will develop. By the time he is two years old, this space between brain cells is tangled with nerve fibers connecting them to each other and to new cells which have migrated in from deeper areas. These changes continue in response to experience and are accompanied by pruning away of some of the initial connections to maximize efficiency and conserve energy.

For years the dogma taught in medical school was that neural circuitry was complete by the early twenties, a concept that was hard to understand because learning is possible at all ages and learning must have some kind of physical basis. But new evidence gradually emerged to prove that the brain continues to rewire itself throughout life. Neuroplasticity persists. The developers of the tools used by the companies like Lumosity seized upon this concept and added to it a wealth of data obtained from cognitive testing by psychologists and neuroscientists about how people think, remember, organize, plan and act. The brain games they devised for mental workouts in virtual gyms  call upon these functions in hope of strengthening the brain circuits they use.

Use the circuits or lose them

Unused brain circuits lose connections just like unused muscle loses size. Hard learned algebra disappears once there are no more tests to call it into use. But there are apparently some traces of initial learning left, because relearning is easier than first time learning. Rusty skills can be brushed up with less effort than their first development required. Brushing up a skill presumably involves a physical process within the networks of nerve cells called upon for the task. It is this process that the virtual brain gyms seek to stimulate and apparently succeed in doing according to at least some measures of improvement.

Virtual mental gyms vs. real life mental exercise

The mental skills exercised by cognitive training programs include memory, attention, mental speed and flexibility, mathematical skills and visual-spatial processing. There is no doubt that exercising these brain functions is beneficial and that, with enough time spent and effort expended, the exercise improves the ability to do the tasks involved. The question is whether or not the improvement in these tasks carries over into real-life reasoning, planning and problem solving abilities. Here the data are murky indeed. It appears that the positive effects of exercising in mental gyms, if measurable, are confined to the types of tasks involved in the exercise and are not sustained for long after the practice ends. Lifetime habits of mental activity have much more persistent influence as people age.

Most people know elderly individuals who have maintained robust minds. They are usually curious about life, resilient, adaptable and habitual seekers of information. These traits inform all of their interactions and activities. They spend their lives in mental gyms of their own construction and prefer active use of their minds over passive entertainment. Very often, they have also remained physically active long into older years.

The brain training programs popular today aim to provide a similar pattern of mental activity in an entertaining way, but the challenges are intermittent and short. If the participant has been on a lifelong course of high mental engagement with the world, and if he happens to enjoy the games and tests he is involved in and is committed to them, his test results after participation are likely to be better than those of someone who has been less active mentally in the past and who does not particularly enjoy the program.

Does mental exercise prevent Alzheimer’s disease?

Does an active, flexible and resilient mind resist Alzheimer’s disease? Since we do not know the cause of this devastating disorder, it is hard to speculate about what might make a brain resistant to the pathology that characterizes the disease – the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that scar the brain. But it has long been known that the degree of mental deterioration in life in does not necessarily reflect the amount of scarring seen in the brain at autopsy of the patient with Alzheimer’s disease. Of two people with virtually identical diseased brains at autopsy, the one who had higher levels of mental activity over life – more reading, writing, educational achievement- will have suffered fewer and less severe disease symptoms. But even if this observation is coincidental and mental exercise has nothing to do with protection against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, an actively lived life of the brain has its own rewards beyond preservation of health. And it does not require a virtual gym.

Other options

Though mind games don’t necessarily improve mental functions in daily life, there are no negative effects from engaging in brain training, except, perhaps, on the budget and on time better spent in physical and social activity. Regular modest aerobic activity like walking (preferably outdoors), resistance training such as weight lifting and Pilates exercises, adequate sleep and a supportive and enjoyable social network have all been correlated with better mental functioning in old age. For no fees there are always books, board games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, hobbies, crafts, conversations and devotion to others’ needs.

 

 A Sampling of Reputable Brain Training Programs

 

 Lumosity, http://www.lumosity.com

         Rosetta Stone Fit Brains  www.fitbrains.com

            Brain Fitness by MindSparke www.mindsparke.com

                                                          Brain Gymmer http://www.braingymmer.com

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