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Use It Or Lose It !

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kashyap

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Push and prod the brain a wee bit every day to stay smart. And also to steer clear of dementia, which is on the rise in the country

Sit cross-legged on the floor, shut your eyes to the world without, focus on your breath and slowly, very slowly, enter a deep state of nothingness. This process has occupied the 8-8.30 p.m. slot on Vishnuraj Rao Kunjur's daily planner for the past two and a half years. He claims the half an hour journey within has made a world of difference to his think-on-your-feet job as senior manager, research, at Infosys, Bangalore. "It helps me in thinking," says Vishnuraj, 32. "I manage my expectation levels better and respond rather than react."
Equally demanding is retail guru Raghu Pillai's job as president and chief executive of Reliance Retail. "I like swimming as a mindsport to keep the brain agile," says Pillai, whose weeks are packed with 14-hour work days and travelling almost every other day. "I have started yoga. I hope this combo helps."
Be it swimming, yoga or meditation, if it keeps the brain racing, go for it, say experts. There is mounting scientific proof that this 1,400gm bundle of soft tissue, which makes us human and the most complex beings on earth, is after all capable of change.
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, recently proved that meditation could physically alter the brain. The part of the brain responsible for attention and processing sensory inputs was thicker in experienced meditators though that area of the cortex-outer layer of cerebrum-usually gets thinner with age. This throws up the possibility that with regular meditation one could think and reason with as much clarity at 80 as at 30. "We used to think that everything became static once you grew up," says Prof. Sumantra Chattarji, neuroscientist at National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore. "On the contrary the brain is highly plastic and changing all the time."
Sample this landmark study on Knowledge-the London drivers' test that City & Guilds, Britain's leading vocational examination board-recently endorsed. The test involves remembering every street within six miles of London's Charing Cross. Since 1856 when it was introduced, all drivers of the city's traditional black cabs had to gain this knowledge for a licence. Three-quarters of the aspirants drop out of the three-year rigour. But those who do stay behind the wheel, Dr Eleanor Maguire of University College of London found, had bigger mid-posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with navigation.

The longer they were in the driver's seat, the more developed their posterior hippocampus was. With this study, the scientific world proclaimed that a healthy brain could change structurally. Year before last, neuroscientist Richard Davidson of University of Wisconsin in a study on Tibetan monks found that meditation intensified activity in the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead and responsible for happiness and positive thoughts and emotions. The study reiterated that the brain could be trained to physically modify itself.
While there is so much more to be explored in this "three-pound universe", as Chattarji fondly refers to his subject of study, all neuroscientists are unanimous on this: use it, or lose it. And that a trained brain is healthier. The more challenging the activity, the better. So, skip the easy crosswords. Go for the not-so-easy sudoku, and keep pushing. Make it a lifestyle and feel the brain sprout fresh synapses-connections between brain cells which are responsible for communication using chemicals called neurotransmitters.
The idea is to never stop learning. "We all have certain abilities and those of us who keep acquiring new forms of knowledge use the abilities most," says Dr E.S. Krishnamoorthy, neurologist and neuropsychiatrist in Chennai. "It can be a new hobby or a vocation, or a new set of skills that you require in your new job." Get started as early in life as possible, though it is never too late.
Pooja Chabria of Chennai picked up a few tricks at a one-day programme held by Aspire Superkidz, which trains young mothers to sharpen the mental abilities of their infants using visual and audio inputs. With training, Shiv, her year-and-a-half-old son, differentiates the card with eight dots from the card with nine dots when Pooja flashes them and says, eight. Though he is yet to speak coherently, he recognises animals and flowers, too, when shown pictures. "Just as we do exercises to flex muscles and build them, we have to flex our brain, too," says N. Madhumathi, director of Aspire Superkidz. "The education system is left brain-oriented, we try to sharpen the right brain of the children."
The most active phase of knowledge acquisition is from ages 2 to 13. "Early life experience is crucial. That's when the brain has the greatest capacity to grow," says Chattarji. "It will grow because it is genetically meant to do that. But what you do with that empty building is up to you; you can decorate it or keep it barren. That is nurturing. A very stimulating early life, with exposure to music, paintings, greater social interactions and a lot of opportunity and playtime, produce more electrical inputs. An enriched environment can enrich your brain."
Shanti and Aneesh Bhanot, who are media consultants in Chandigarh, make their 12-year-old son, Hari, solve sudoku puzzles every day. They had also put him on abacus classes at Universal Concept Mental Arithmetic System. "He is quick with responses not only in the classroom but even when we are, say, shopping," says Shanti. "We now plan to send him for Vedic mathematics classes."
Before choosing the activity, however, it is important to identify the orientation of the child. "A kinesthetically oriented child learns and thinks of concepts better by touching physical models," says Major Satyanarayanan, neurolinguistic and behavioural trainer in Chennai. "Auditorily inclined children do better when the concept is read out while visually oriented children learn by taking mental snapshots of the concept, be it a phone number or a complex formula."
The theory of multiple intelligences as propounded by Howard Gardner says that people have seven intelligences-linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal-but each one is better in some than others. Strive to be good at one and the other areas improve as well. "Stimulating the brain in the strong area will help strengthen all areas," says Dr R. Karthikeyan, director of Gemba Management Consulting, Chennai. "Story-telling and games, which are otherwise never a part of analytical reasoning, stimulate the right brain and help in drawing an analogy."
It is never too early to introduce mental gymnastics. Based on the understanding that the foetus's ears develop by the fourth week, Mumbai-based paediatric surgeon Dr Snehlata Deshmukh has been prescribing music to pregnant women. "I recommend music, classical music preferably played on the santoor or sitar which are identifiable with the heart beat," says Deshmukh, who has been practising music therapy for the last 12 years. "It is better to play the same music all through. Music stimulates the left and right lobes of the brain." Deshmukh measures the effect of music on the babies using ultrasound. "When music is played, foetuses either join their hands, and if twins, they come closer," she says.
To study the effect of music on foetal growth, Dr T. Mythily, music therapist and behaviourist at Apollo Hospitals, Chennai, made 200 pregnant women listen to instrumental classical music for 20 minutes at the same time every day from the nineteenth week of pregnancy. "Music stimulates the prefrontal lobes which are responsible for planning, cognition, perception and aesthetics," says Mythily. "In about five weeks, it becomes a habit for the foetus, which starts kicking hard if the music is not played at that time. Take this music to the labour room and childbirth becomes very easy because the foetus recognises the music." Music as subtle vibrations ups the serotonin levels in the brain. (A neurotransmitter, serotonin plays a role in regulating emotions, mood, sleep and appetite.) Such babies learn faster than other babies, she says.
 
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kashyap

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Use It Or Lose It -- Contd

Harshika, 5, started walking when she was 10 months old and was talking distinctly by 2. "Her teacher [at Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram in Chennai] says her problem solving skills are high for her age," says Harshika's mother, Jamuna Balamurugan, group leader for industry collaboration at NIIT, Chennai. Jamuna had listened to music on veena-prescribed by Mythily-every day when she was carrying Harshika.
"This ability of the baby to be with music will remain for seven years," says Mythily. "Initiate the child in any aesthetic activity during these years and the child grasps very quickly."
The active involvement of parents makes a lot of difference. Jamuna's sister Ganga Aravindan opted out of full-time work as physiotherapist to spend more time with her child. Like the Bhanots, she makes three-and-a-half-year-old Sahithya solve picture puzzles and reads out stories to her every day. This constant exposure to knowledge could perhaps explain Sahithya's high curiosity levels and early speech.
Kindle that curiosity by responding positively, say experts. The thirst for knowledge will also prevent or delay brain degeneration by adding to the cognitive reserve, which is a bank of skills and abilities acquired over the years. The greater the cognitive reserve, the lesser the chances of mental lethargy. "People with Parkinson's disease seem to have a rigid personality, what is known as pre-morbid personality. They are more habit-bound than people who are impulsive and curious," says Krishnamoorthy. "Presumably, people who are mentally active develop such a huge cognitive reserve that even if they were to start losing their brain cells it would take a long time for the damage to become demonstrable."
The power of music to evoke a positive mood, leading to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine in the right hemisphere, is well known. Equally well known is the power of a positive state of mind in improving cognition. But can simply listening to music make one smarter? Prof. Keith Kendrick, head of laboratory of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at Babraham Institute, UK, in his lecture at Barnard's Inn Hall in December 2005, says that "music instruction and learning to play a musical instrument have been associated with a number of more lasting beneficial effects". Studies have shown that learning, playing and instructing improve spatiotemporal and mathematical abilities.
Thinking is a biochemical process and brain cells need neurotransmitters (such as acetylcholine, serotonin and dopamine) to communicate with one another. Neurotransmitters are made of amino acids found in protein-rich foods like meat, fish and cheese. Vitamins and minerals are essential to convert ordinary amino acids into neurotransmitters. So savour music, but never skip breakfast, which is perhaps more vital to brain function. The first meal of the day is a sure-fire way of preparing the grey matter for learning, retention and recall. An empty stomach in the morning is often associated with lower fluency and problem-solving ability because of a drop in serotonin levels. "The human brain uses about 20-30 per cent of a person's energy intake at rest. Eating the right food can boost IQ, improve mood, provide emotional stability, sharpen memory and keep us mentally young," says Meeta Lall, Delhi-based nutritionist. "The intake of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, and water and alcohol influence mental health. Often, deficiency of multiple nutrients rather than a single nutrient is responsible for changes in brain functioning."

Mental agility can be maintained with yoga. "Breathing has three stages, inhalation, retention and exhalation," says Sundar Rao, director, Sivananda yoga Vedanta Centre in Bangalore. "Yoga uses holding of breath to improve concentration. As concentration improves, one moves to contemplation and meditation."
Research on Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, has shown that electrical activity in the brain increases by 6 micro volts in depression patients who were prescribed this Art of Living breathing. "Sudarshan Kriya stimulates the vagal nerve, which brings electrical signals from the brain to the heart and the vagal afferentes which carry signals from the chest to the brain," says Dr B.N. Gangadhar, professor of psychiatry and head of the department at NIMHANS. "These end in the frontal lobe and with practice, SKY could enhance cognitive functions. We have not yet examined if it can change the structure."
Scientists at the institute have also found that Vipassana meditation enhances rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep-characterised by dreaming, eye and body movements and faster breathing-with alpha and theta waves, is vital for memory consolidation, attention and general well-being.
So burning the midnight oil may not be a good idea. Sleep is especially crucial for students who need a high recall potential. In a study, researchers at Harvard Medical School's Center for Sleep and Cognition found that brain, during sleep, "actively engages memories and leads them to be strengthened the next day, and it's a long-lasting effect".
Says Dr Joshi John, scientist at University of California Los Angeles, USA, who studies sleep and cognition: "A growing body of research suggests that sleep is critical for improving and consolidating recent memory traces. Sleep deprivation may lead to memory impairment. Increased physical and mental activity may prevent or delay the deterioration of memory."
Sleep and mental calisthenics apart, the market is flooded with medications claiming to enhance cognitive functions, especially memory. But neuroscientists are sceptical. "I would not advise anybody to take medicines for enhancement of memory," says Dr D. Nagaraja, director of NIMHANS. "There may be some property which enhances the particular chemical concentration involved in memory. But they cannot be substitutes for better techniques or a better way of learning." There is one thing that experts are unanimous about: a healthy and active lifestyle, and protection from risk factors like hypertension, cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes to preserve brain function. "Although no single medication is recommended for healthy individuals to improve memory, several drugs are used to slow the progression of memory decline in dementia such as Alzheimer's disease," says Dr Madhave Thambisetty, neurologist at Oxford University, UK. "Most of these medicines work by boosting the levels of [neurotransmitter] acetylcholine. Current research indicates that factors like high levels of education, occupations demanding substantial technical and managerial skills as well as mentally stimulating activities like reading, solving puzzles, or playing a musical instrument can protect against memory impairment in later life. These findings support the use it or lose it theory."

Encouraging the body to lug it along with minimal chemical intervention may be the best way to preserve and sharpen the brain. "If you think a little more calcium will strengthen the synapses, it is not so," says Chattarji. "Everything in nature is in a fine balance, and a little too much of calcium can have side-effects."
What is most important is to enrich the brain with experiences to create a substrate that will hold in good stead for an enriching life and career. As Thambisetty says, such enrichment is especially relevant in developing countries like India where the burden of memory disorders is expected to increase by more than 300 per cent over the next four decades.
Often necessity is key. What prods Pillai to stay sharp is his ambitions, the scale of the projects and the complexity and volume of his tasks. Vishnuraj continues to meditate because it helps him manage his couple of hundred-strong workforce without losing his cool. Staying connected to the cause helps, and, as Nagaraja says, rest of it falls into place.
 
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kashyap

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Use It Or Lose It -- Contd

GUEST COLUMN
Thrive on challenge
By Dr Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
To say that IQ is the measure of intelligence is like appraising health merely on the basis of body temperature. It is becoming increasingly clear that mental sharpness is a combination of several abilities that often go hand in hand. Some people who are autistic, for instance, are known to possess extraordinary talent. More often, one encounters non-autistic individuals who are talented in many ways but one particular talent is way off scale. Albert Einstein was a genius in mathematics but he probably could not write poetry. Leonardo da Vinci, however, was sharp in many areas of knowledge.
Research in neurology in the last 10 years has shown that we can very much change things. Each of us has a genetic make-up, with genes for specific connections in the brain. It is possible to change some of these connections in childhood; minor changes are possible in adulthood. After that it is a steady decline-for most of us.
But it is certainly possible to slow down ageing through various activities like crossword puzzles, sudoku, reading and writing poetry, writing essays and solving mathematical problems. The thrust is on intellectual problem solving. There is a great deal of plasticity in the brain; the brain is a dynamic organic system that is in a state of dynamic equilibrium with the environment. That the brain consists of isolated modules that do different things is partly true. There is specialisation but what is extraordinary is the degree to which these different parts interact. Now, at last, science is poised for exciting discoveries that would help understand things like metaphor, poetry, creativity and self-awareness. The discovery of mirror neurons is going to help explain self-awareness.
Standard things like antioxidants and vitamins B and C help stay sharp. Challenging the brain is what is important. That does not mean watching television passively. On the contrary, indulge in stimulating conversations, be in the company of people who are genuinely passionate-not merely ebullient or euphoric about what they do. They can communicate this passion because there is nothing more contagious than enthusiasm. Avoid sceptics and nay-sayers. Attend stimulating lectures. Do a course in a subject like archaeology. Listen to the right person to get interested in the subject. Poetry, for instance, is all about metaphorical connections between unrelated ideas. This helps the brain form connections and that prevents decay. Computer games may be frivolous but just the right amount will help improve attention span, which decreases with age.
Music is elevating, especially for those who are musically inclined. It communicates in a language that cannot be articulated in words. It enriches the mind in a way that cannot be measured in tangible terms. Visual art-I don't mean contemporary art but the spiritual dimensions of ancient art-stimulates the brain though we are yet to understand how. It stimulates the aesthetic aspects of human life. This is common sense and not essentially science. But science supports the idea of keeping the brain active. It also makes one happier.
The sharpness of the brain in the course of a day differs from person to person. My brain is sharpest in the mornings, between nine to noon and again in the late evening. But most people say morning is the best, after a refreshing night's sleep. We still don't exactly know the nature of influence sleep has on brain functioning. But it is supposed to allow consolidation of memories. So one is likely to recollect better what one learns just before falling asleep.
Motivation undoubtedly helps. Motivation is autocatalytic. The more motivated you are, the more motivated you become. It becomes self-perpetuating. Getting over that initial inertia may be difficult, but after that there is no stopping you.
Yoga and meditation might have dramatic effects on the functioning of the brain. But western science has been sceptical while eastern mysticism says, 'We don't need to convince you.' The barrier between these two parallel worlds, western and eastern medical practices, has to break down. I personally, and strongly, believe that yoga and meditation help. If practised regularly, yoga, music and meditation probably do bring about structural changes in the brain, although this needs to be established scientifically.
It is an ethical question whether brain function should be developed through techniques. Up to a point there is no harm. But too much memory is a burden; it could affect thinking. Human beings have evolved, through natural selection, certain abilities which are in optimum ratio. That does not mean one cannot enhance some abilities.
There is no evidence to suggest that different groups of people differ in intelligence like they do in skin colour and nose size, though I don't rule it out. A thousand years ago, Jews were money-lenders. Arabs were scholars, who took mathematics from India and developed it. They were the guardians of civilisation and Jews were doing nothing. When the Jews were persecuted, they switched to priesthood and began focusing on learning and scholarship. The chances of getting a Nobel Prize if you are Jewish (rather than gentile, white) are about 50:1.
In the US, they say, the African descendants have lower IQ than the whites by 10-15 points while the Chinese settled in the US have greater IQ by 10-15 points. The Chinese get higher grades because they are hardworking, say the Americans. But if the Africans get 15 points less, it is inferred that it must be genetic. This is double standards and hypocrisy.
Ramachandran is director, Center for Brain and Cognition and professor of psychology at University of California, San Diego. He was recently awarded Padma Bhushan and elected life fellow of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which also awarded him the Henry Dale medal.
As told to Kavitha Muralidharan

STRESS & BRAIN
Valley of unease
By Tariq Bhat
Kashmir: Violence and Health, a recent survey by Medecins Sans Frontieres, has thrown up some disturbing facts about the mental health of the people of the Valley. One-third of 510 people surveyed in Budgam and Kupwara had thoughts of suicide in the 30 days preceding the poll. Two-thirds were nervous or worried and had sleep disorders.
Civilians in Kashmir often get trapped in the crossfire between the police and terrorists or witness bombings. The resultant emotional stress, experts say, could make them behave abnormally. "Noora, a 45-year-old woman from Poonza, Tral, had withdrawn into a shell after her son was killed. We had to work hard to revive her," says psychiatrist Dr Arshid Hussain of Government Medical College, Srinagar.
Children are the most vulnerable. Dr Akash Yousf Khan of Psychiatry Hospital, Srinagar, says a lot of children in Kashmir suffer from post traumatic stress disorders with symptoms like headaches, altered sleep and loss of appetite. "These children, some as young as one and a half years, had witnessed or were linked to traumatic events," he says.
"Chronic stress early in life causes structural damage to the hippocampus [brain area responsible for memory]," says Prof. Sumantra Chattarji, neuroscientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. "It damages cognitive abilities and enhances emotionality. Amygdala, which is the seat of emotions, is rewired and becomes bigger. Under chronic stress, the individual loses his cognitive abilities and becomes anxious."
This reflects in Khan's findings: 64.28 per cent of the children had complications like loss of appetite, altered sleep and headache; 32.14 per cent of such children displayed outbursts of anger; 21.42 per cent did badly in school and 17.8 per cent had lost interest in all activities.
Antidepressants help prevent some of these changes in the amygdala. So do therapies like Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing which Hussain practises using aquariums. Watching fish facilitates horizontal eye movement which, experts say, is therapeutic.
But many who survive the initial trauma take to alcohol to suppress emotional anxiety. "But over the years, alcohol can impair memory," says Chattarji. "Counselling can undo some of these damages. Or taking up a new job or talking to people who would empathise with you."
 
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kashyap

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Use It Or Lose It -- Concluded.

LIVE THE MOMENT
Prasoon Joshi, executive chairman, McCann Erickson India
I never shut myself away from an issue. One can take correct decisions only by sensing the dilemma properly and in its entirety. To do this, be in a good state of mind, not just at work but also in life. It is not easy but all of us have our own ways of getting there at least temporarily-a stimulating conversation, a lovely raga, a superb piece of writing, an intricate melody, the laughter of your child.
Innovative thinking is a challenge that holds good in any kind of job. To work under pressure, to work at several things simultaneously, to deliver within a tight deadline, to manage people, finances and emotions, to juggle time and energy, to get your body to keep pace with your mind, to do justice to not just your work but your talent, to find the balance between the creative and the commercial: this is what a typical day presents for me. Stability breeds complacency. Turbulence causes movement, a progression. So challenges and problems are important. For me life is like water and as I have written, Paani ka ek sach hai aur woh sach hai behte jana, raston ko chod dena rastein naye banana. ('There is but one truth of water, that to flow: to run off course and surge on to create new paths.') I listen to my instincts because instinct is not just sixth sense; it is an amalgamation of all senses and the subconscious. Don't just sharpen your mind; open it. One has to be constantly hungry to savour moments of life. Be a good 'medium', a good antenna to attract good ideas and new thoughts, because ideas choose you, you don't get them. Diet and exercise help one take quick decisions, but my food and exercise get restricted to that for the mind. So it is a music concert over a workout and reading some good poetry over eating health food that help keep my brain sharp.?Age and experience play an important role in decision-making. But it is all about the state of the mind. You can feel 60 and feel the same excitement sitting on a Ferris wheel that you felt as a six-year-old. It is about living the moment.

I TALK TO MYSELF
S. Sreesanth, bowler
When things are moving at a very fast pace in a match, I talk to myself, repeat the thought and control my thought process. This I learnt while training at MRF Pace Foundation. Brain Gym is about handling the left and right sides of your brain and controlling it to function the right way. Cricket is more of a mind game where thinking, planning and controlling your mind are crucial. When I get hit for a few runs, I try to remember when I bowled a very good spell and recreate it in my mind. I tell myself that I can do it again.
In the game I played against the West Indies in Chennai and got hit for 22 runs in one over, I was a bit down because Ajit Agarkar had already got a wicket. I looked at the scoreboard and was horrified but I was also realistic. I told myself to think about the time when I bowled well. Even during practice sessions I follow a mental routine. I write down my goal for the day, repeat it to myself. Before matches I follow this routine and don't try to think too much because that creates pressure. I like to control my thought process.
HUM A TUNE
Milind Deora, MP, Mumbai South
A young parliamentarian's is a high-pressure job. Over the last two and a half years I have learnt never to let political problems affect my personal life. It is achievable through proper time management and prioritising. And don't get affected by all and sundry. I have not had to face problems on the personal front, but I have my share of problems in the constituency. The mismatch between expectations and reality adds to the stress. I would have exploded by now, but for music and the guitar! I take a day off when I am too stressed. I also go scuba-diving. While the cellphone has made life easier, it has also contributed to the stress. So it is not a bad idea to switch off from the rest of the world once in a while.
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