Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age

Brain Power: Improve Your Mind as You Age


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Virtually everyone fears mental deterioration as they age. But in the past thirty years neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is actually designed to improve throughout life. How can you encourage this improvement? Brain Power shares practical, state-of-the-evidence answers in this inspiring, fun-to-read plan for action. The authors have interviewed physicians, gerontologists, and neuroscientists; studied the habits of men and women who epitomize healthy aging; and applied what they describe in their own lives. The resulting guidance — along with the accompanying downloadable Brain Sync audio program — can help you activate unused brain areas, tone mental muscles, and enliven every faculty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608680733
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 12/13/2011
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 804,567
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Michael J. Gelb is the preeminent authority on the application of genius thinking and a pioneer in the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. Gelb leads seminars for organizations such as DuPont, Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Raytheon, and YPO. He is the author of the bestselling How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day.

With almost three million audio programs in print, Kelly Howell is highly acclaimed for her groundbreaking work in healing and mind expansion. She is the creator of Brain Sync audio technology and the world’s leading innovator in the practical application of brain-wave research.

Tony Buzan, the inventor of Mind Maps, lives in Marlowe, outside London. His business is headquartered in Cardiff.

Read an Excerpt

Brain Power

Improve Your Mind as You Age

By Michael J. Gelb, Kelly Howell

New World Library

Copyright © 2012 Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-074-0


Think Counterclockwise

Some contend that age is a terrible price to pay for wisdom, but it needn't be, if we are mindful about our approach to aging. Surprising research reveals that opening our minds to what's possible, instead of presuming impossibility, can lead to a longer life, better health, and a stronger brain.

Since most of us were raised with the faulty notions that the brain deteriorates with age, that learning is easier when we are younger, and that memory loss is inevitable, we severely underestimate the power of a positive attitude. We also tend to overlook the hidden effects of cultural influences on our attitudes and beliefs about aging, influences that can drain mental and physical vitality from our lives.

Death may be nature's way of telling you to slow down. And some of our parts do wear out as we use them, but, fortunately, the brain isn't one of them.

Social psychologist Ellen J. Langer, PhD, has revolutionized our understanding of the relationship between attitude and aging. Langer's remarkable "counterclockwise" study demonstrates the astonishing power of a positive mind-set regarding our mental and physical health.

In 1979, Langer and her graduate students arranged for two groups of elderly men, who were in the care of relatives, to go on weeklong retreats at a secluded monastery in New Hampshire. Before attending their respective retreats, the men underwent a battery of tests measuring everything from intelligence to visual memory, dexterity, hearing, and vision.

The first group of men was invited to reminisce about life twenty years earlier, in 1959. At the end of the week, the group who reminisced reported that they had a pleasant week, and they showed some improvements in their mental and physical functioning when they were retested.

The second group was instructed to return as completely as possible in their minds to 1959. Every conversation was to be held in the present tense, and the men were instructed not to discuss anything that happened after September 1959. The experiment was meticulously staged with props and decor from the 1950s. At meals, the men engaged in heated debates on issues of the day such as the threat of communism, the need for bomb shelters, and Castro's advance into Havana. They shared thoughts on "recent" books such as Ian Flemings's Goldfinger and Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus. And they watched "newly released" movies such as Ben-Hur and Some Like It Hot. In the evenings, they enjoyed Ed Sullivan, Sgt. Bilko, and Gunsmoke on a black-and-white television set. Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, and Nat King Cole sang on the phonograph. They listened to the radio as Royal Orbit won the Preakness, and they watched the Baltimore Colts defeat the New York Giants, 23–17, in the NFL championship game.

What happened? All the participants became more active. They started serving their own meals and cleaning up afterward, and they took the initiative to arrange their own social activities, such as card games and book discussion groups. Langer observed, "Despite their obvious and extreme dependence on relatives who initially drove them to Harvard's psychology department ... they were all functioning independently almost immediately upon arrival at the retreat."

Follow-up tests at the end of the week revealed that participants showed dramatic improvements in memory, flexibility, vision, hearing, appetite, and general well-being. The most striking result from Langer's study is that, after the men lived as though they were younger for only one week, their shriveled, arthritic fingers actually lengthened and released as the men embraced a more youthful attitude.

How powerful is attitude? According to Langer, "Simply having a positive attitude made far more difference than any to be gained from lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol." She concludes, "While exercise and eating well are important for health, our attitudes about what it means to be healthy or to be old may be even more important."

When Langer's subjects returned in their minds to a time when they were younger and healthier, their brains underwent a radical change and literally grew younger. Langer suggests that if a group of elderly adults can produce such dramatic changes, perhaps the rest of us can make changes, too. "I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny," she says. "It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us, but rather our mindset about our physical limits."

Your brain is plastic, adaptable, and capable of development throughout your life. Biology doesn't fully determine your destiny, and your limits are more self-imposed than inherited. Knowing that you can improve your brain is the beginning of improving it, because your attitude serves as a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Power of Expectations

How strong is the effect of mind-set on longevity? Langer's associate, Becca Levy, PhD, was determined to find out. Beginning in 1975, she surveyed 650 people about their expectations regarding the aging process. Subjects responded to statements such as "Things keep getting worse as I get older" or "I am as happy now as I was when I was younger."

Dr. Levy and her colleagues used the survey to categorize respondents as either negative or positive in their attitude toward aging. More than twenty years later, she discovered that the group with more positive, optimistic expectations about aging had outlived the more negative, pessimistic group by an average of more than seven years.

Commenting on Levy's research, neuroscientist Valerie Gremillion, PhD, says, "So this doesn't seem like magic, let's point out these effects can occur through a number of known mechanisms, from decreasing depression and increasing motivation, to psychoneuroendocrine effects on the immune system, and through active engagement with the world and an associated decrease in feelings of loneliness and helplessness."

Consider this groundbreaking fact: by increasing awareness of the way you form attitudes and expectations about aging, you can influence the quality and duration of your life. With this in mind, let's begin cultivating the most adaptive attitudes for healthy aging.

Learn Optimism to Achieve Better Results

"Old age," said Bette Davis, "is not for sissies." Anyone can be optimistic when everything is going her way. If you are in perfect health and just fell in love, you don't get much credit for being optimistic. Optimism counts when you face difficulties. Resilience in the face of adversity is the most distinguishing characteristic of those who age gracefully and adapt well. And resilience is a function of optimism.

Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, pioneer of positive psychology and author of Learn Optimism, followed the development of optimists and pessimists over the course of decades. Seligman discovered that optimists get better results than pessimists in most areas of life: optimists outperform on their aptitude tests, get sick less frequently, recover faster when they do get ill, and make significantly more money. (The pessimists who are reading this are getting really depressed!) Seligman found that optimists get better results even though pessimists are better at accurately assessing the challenges and difficulties in a given situation.

The good news for pessimists is that an optimistic attitude can be developed. The key is what Seligman calls "explanatory style." In other words, pessimists and optimists tend to have very different self-coaching strategies in the face of adversity, and pessimists can learn the more adaptive and creative approach that leads optimists to achieve better results. Seligman expresses it this way: "The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case."

So if a pessimist experiences an age-related disorder, such as degenerative osteoarthritis of the hip that is so bad it requires a total hip replacement, the pessimist's internal dialogue might include phrases like these: "I will never be able to do what I used to do," "This will ruin everything," and "This is my fault for doing all that cross-country running when I was younger." The optimist approaches the same challenging circumstances with an internal dialogue that might include phrases such as these: "This surgery will allow me to do what I love to do again," "I will make the most of this temporary setback," "I will use the downtime to strengthen my patience and compassion, and will emerge as a wiser, more balanced person," and "I'm glad I conditioned my body to meet athletic challenges when I was younger, because I can use that experience to recover quickly and fully."

If a pessimist gives a presentation at work with the intention of gaining approval for a new project and the proposal is rejected, the pessimist's internal dialogue might include phrases like these: "My proposal isn't good enough, and I'm a failure," "This is a disaster — it makes a mockery of everything I've worked on," and "The situation is hopeless and will never change." The optimist approaches the same type of rejection with an internal dialogue that might include phrases such as these: "The board that rejected my proposal will have three new members in six months, so I will try again at that time," "I will use this time to strengthen my proposal so that it will be much more compelling and irresistible," and "I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn from this rejection — it will help me become more effective."

Optimists get better results in most areas of life because they stay engaged and continue to search for solutions. Pessimists assume that solutions aren't possible, so they stop seeking. Optimism is a skill of emotional intelligence that can be learned. The key is to become aware of your habitual internal dialogue so that you can then consciously embrace the most creative, resilient perspective on any challenge you face.

Rewire Your Brain for Resilience and Brilliance

A primary tenet of neuroscience, formulated by Donald O. Hebb, PhD, is "Neurons that fire together wire together." Habits are formed from neuronal connections that, over time, get wired together in the brain. Many habits are useful, such as tying your shoes or flossing your teeth. But some habits, like worrying and other pessimistic thought patterns, aren't constructive and require conscious intervention to change.

Extreme habit patterns are observable in individuals who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by repetitive behaviors and uncontrollable thoughts. Many OCD sufferers know that their ritualized behaviors, such as repetitive hand washing or checking the oven countless times to be sure that it's really off, are irrational, but the automatic pattern is so powerful they feel powerless to stop it.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD, coauthor of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, has been successfully teaching patients with severe OCD to rewire their brains in order to free themselves from destructive patterns of habitual thought and action. Schwartz's approach can be applied to rewiring any habitual pattern,

He counsels that you begin by observing the process of your mind at work. Acknowledge when worrisome, pessimistic, or anxiety-driven thoughts arise, and label them as by-products stemming from maladaptive wiring in your brain.

As you note the anxietyproducing thought pattern, you disconnect it from association with events in the external world and instead attribute it to the habitual circuitry in your brain, circuitry that you are now in the process of rewiring.

Dr. Schwartz advises that once you've become aware of a negative thought pattern, you should consciously alter the pattern of association by redirecting your attention to something pleasurable, such as listening to your favorite music, working in the garden, or playing with your pet. Even though you might be feeling anxiety or dread, you change the pattern of association in your brain as you willfully focus on something pleasurable. With practice, this positive refocusing gradually rewires your negative neural circuitry.

Another method for mindfully changing pessimistic patterns and negative associations is "the Work," developed by Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is. In a process similar to the one developed by Dr. Schwartz, Katie teaches you to identify and question thoughts that cause suffering and then turn them around.

For example, your negative thought might be, "I'm always forgetting things; my memory is getting worse with age." Katie counsels asking these four questions about the negative thought:

1. Is it true? Are you really always forgetting things? Do you ever remember anything?

2. Can you absolutely know that it's true? Absolute knowledge is elusive.

3. How do you react — what happens — when you believe that thought? Bring your attention to the physical reactions you have when you experience a pessimistic thought. What happens to your posture, your breathing, etc.?

4. Who would you be without that thought? This question invites you to let go of your attachment to the negative thought.

Katie suggests that, after you have investigated your statement with the four questions, you aim to experience the opposite of your original statement. She calls this a "turnaround." You might turn around the original statement ("I'm always forgetting things; my memory is getting worse with age") by stating, "I always remember important things. My ability to remember what's important is improving with age." Or, "I'm skilled at forgetting unimportant things. This improves the quality of my life as I get older."

As you learn to turn around your negative, pessimistic thought patterns, you'll feel better and respond to life's challenges in a more adaptive and creative manner.

Develop Mental Acuity and Extend Your Life with a Daily Dose of GFH

GFH isn't the latest hormone therapy. It's an acronym for three essential practices that improve mental acuity and extend your life: gratitude, forgiveness, and humor.

Age Gracefully with Gratitude

Gratitude has been lauded by many remarkable thinkers throughout history. For Thomas Jefferson, "the disposition to be grateful" was an essential key to happiness. The great physician, humanitarian and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer explained, "The greatest thing is to give thanks for everything. He who has learned this knows what it means to live." And the Roman philosopher Cicero noted, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others."

The word gratitude comes from the Latin root gratia, translated as "grace." All major spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of grace and gratitude, but it is only in the past ten years or so that science has begun to validate what religion has always taught. Robert A. Emmons, PhD, Michael E. McCullough, PhD, and their colleagues have, as part of the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, conducted many experiments to measure the effects of the disposition to be grateful.

They discovered that people who count their blessings rather than their burdens are more adaptive, are more optimistic, and report a significantly greater experience of well-being. They write, "In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events."

An attitude of gratitude is relatively easy to cultivate, and a simple gratitude journal is the best way to get started. Take a few minutes every morning to write out a list of things that inspire you to feel grateful. After you compose your list, spend a few seconds focusing on the feeling of gratitude for each thing you've written down. After you've reviewed your list, just "float" in the feeling of gratitude for a minute or so. Repeat the process in the evening. That's all it takes to get your immune system revved up. Practice this simple gratitude exercise, and you'll discover more grace in your everyday life. The British poet and philosopher G. K. Chesterton expressed it this way: "You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink." Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen To Good People, also reminds us to appreciate the holiness of the everyday phenomena that we often take for granted. Like Chesterton, he recommends focusing attention on gratitude for simple things — the air you breathe or the clothes you wear. As you count your blessings, you discover that you are blessed.


Excerpted from Brain Power by Michael J. Gelb, Kelly Howell. Copyright © 2012 Michael J. Gelb and Kelly Howell. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Tony Buzan xi

Introduction: A Whole New Brain I

Chapter 1 Think Counterclockwise II

Chapter 2 Be a Lifelong Learner 45

Chapter 3 Exercise for More Brain Power 69

Chapter 4 Mind Your Diet to Nourish Your Mind 91

Chapter 5 Create a Brain-Enhancing Environment 123

Chapter 6 Cultivate Healthy Relationships (and Stay Sexy!) 135

Chapter 7 Rest Peacefully to Delay Resting in Peace 151

Chapter 8 Liberate Your Mind by Synchronizing Your Brain 163

Chapter 9 Last Words 179

References 183

Recommended Reading and Resources 205

Acknowledgments 211

Index 213

About the Authors 227

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