Monday, September 28, 2015

Challenges at navigation enhances cognitive function, memory

                                         Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munkácsi 1929

Physical activity have been popular to improve physical performance, but numerous studies have also indicated that long term exercise prevents age related mental decline. It is even suggested that exercise improves mental function at any age. However, the exact nature of these results have remained controversial: some studies show better mental health resulting only from specific exercises, whereas other studies find that all structured physical activities produce mental benefits. Recent study at the University of Florida adds an important element of understanding. The scientists investigated the effects of physical activity that required participants to constantly adjust orientation in a three dimensional space, such as climbing a tree, or balancing on a narrow beam. In contrast to Yoga class, these spatially challenging movements led to significant  improvements in short term memory. Also, memory improvements were apparent after just a couple of hours of tree climbing, obstacle navigation or balancing tasks. In addition repetitive cervical traction exercises, such as wobble board exercises put motion into the lower back. This improves cerebral fluid flow, providing fresh oxygen and nutrition to the brain. The traction also helps stretch chronically tight upper cervical muscles and ligaments, increasing their elasticity. The very small center of gravity of the wobble board challenges coordination and increases the range of motion, which might provide further, indirect benefit.

However the exercises direct influence on brain activity and mental abilities could be due to a small brain region, called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for the formation of new memories, particularly spatial orientation, or declarative memory. The brain circuitry used for orienting in physical space is also utilized for abstract thinking, because abstract thinking is symmetric in organization to the processing to physical experience. A habitual path in physical space can make it more difficult to learn a new road map, because the memorized mental map interferes with new information. This is the reason that habitual associations, mental routines negatively impact acquiring new knowledge. Because of this interconnection, new learning is dependent on weakening of old memories, the erasing of connections between neurons. Spatially challenging, dynamic body positioning and orientation exercises temporarily liberate the mind from old schematic associations, patterns, which enhances learning. Physical activities that challenge the mind with non repetitive dynamic movements, such as dance, vigorous cleaning, wobble board exercises or ball games are also helpful. Mental flexibility allows new information to be better absorbed. However, regular physical exercise and all kinds of physical movement is beneficial for the the mind by triggering dopamine release, an important feel good hormone, which is important in motivation. Stationary exercises, such as yoga, is instrumental for emotional, mental health by reducing stress, the path toward emotional stability.

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