Monday, September 28, 2015

Balance and weight bearing exercises enhance cognitive function, memory

                                         Three Boys at Lake Tanganyika by Martin Munk√°csi 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 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, put motion into the lower back, which improves cerebral fluid flow, providing fresh oxygen and nutrition to the brain. The traction also helps stretch and increase elasticity of chronically tight upper cervical muscles and ligaments. Wobble board also challenges coordination and increases the range of motion.

The exercises influence on brain activity and mental abilities could be due to a small brain region, called the hippocampus, a region 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. Thus, 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 enhance learning by temporarily liberating the mind from old schematic associations and patterns. Non-repetitive dynamic movements, such as dance, vigorous cleaning or ball games are also helpful. Mental flexibility allows the mind absorb new information better. 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, reduce stress and improve mental health by promoting emotional stability.

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Monday, September 21, 2015

Overcoming negative emotions is essential for success

File:US Navy 110527-N-OA833-014 Newly commissioned Navy and Marine Corps officers toss their hats during the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 2011 graduation.jpg
Naval Academy graduation

Emotions are the most important perhaps the only motivating force of the most complex animals, birds and mammals. To understand how emotions regulate our lives, we need to examine the working of the brain. A stimulus forms complex neuronal activation patterns in the cortex, which then can be replayed repeatedly. The appropriate temporal order of the constantly changing cortical projection triggers corresponding motoric activation, experience, and memories. This way past experience informs present behavior and produces far superior response. But beyond the sensory and motoric function, brain oscillations form emotions, the energy balances of the brain. Greater brain frequencies are energy expensive and form negative emotions, which, over time handicap personal and professional success and even cause health problems. Negative emotions are energy states, thus they form according to physical laws.

High brain oscillations are essential for analytic thinking, detailed, focused work, preparation or reaction to immediate danger. However, physical discomfort and aggravation also enhances brain frequencies. These detailed mental projections form a self-centered, insecure view, which prevents an overarching picture and decrease confidence. Distorted, fractured mental pictures limit perceived opportunities. The automatic regulation of the brain energy balances means that emotions control our thoughts and actions. Our emotions may govern our actions today, but our present actions determine our emotions tomorrow. For this reason, there are tried and tested methods that over the long term can change faulty mental operation patterns.

The most ancient technique to achieve lasting mental change is meditation. Meditation and prayer comes from ancient traditions, but generate mental stability just as well in modern setting. It can be practiced alone, but probably it becomes more powerful when performed in a group setting. More contemporary method is setting goals, which lessens the importance and power of negative circumstances. Even in rats, goal-oriented activity improves short term memory. In human subjects, motivation increases mental stability and reduces conflict, thereby enhancing performance. However, negative emotions often lead to worry and anxiety, which prevents goal directed activity. Mental transformation is possible due to positive social environment. The emotional drive to comfort the sufferer is present in two year old children and mammals (through grooming behavior). Such emotional bond is relaxing, leading to health and mental benefits for both the giver and receiver of compassion. In fact it is found that while toxic social connections can kill, positive emotional relationships promote mental and physical health. Neuroimaging data supports these ideas.

Over the long term even practicing just one of the tried methods of mental transformation (positive social connections, goals, meditation, or prayer) lead to mental stability, patience and inner confidence. Positive emotions are associated with lower brain oscillations, which lack details, and allow the confidence of an overarching vision. In the mind unnecessary details are eliminated and the mental focus widens, allowing natural, creative solutions to emerge. These contrasting dynamics emerge through the powerful effects of emotions via automatic mental operation. Calm minds cannot be easily disturbed. Just as energy flows from warmer, to colder matter, emotionally more stable (less irritable) people succeed in spite of challenges. Emotional stability also means the ability to engage, relate to others and situations, and to find inherent solutions. These flexible people adopt to opportunities with ease, even on the trading floor (as recent research shows, traders with positive attitude make more money).

Surround yourself with positive environment, positive people, and positive ideas that lifts you.

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Monday, September 14, 2015

The octopus: alternative evolution toward learning and intellect?

Common octopus by Albert Kok

The evolutionary drive toward complexity and specifically organizational, neuronal complexity is highly evident during evolution. Octopuses, which have independently evolved camera-type eyes (with a lens, iris and retina), a highly derived early embriogenesis, closed circulatory systems and large brains, are a very good case study for parallel evolution. The recently sequenced octopus genome shows a spectacular example of the evolutionary drive toward greater complexity. The octopus probably achieved the limit of intellectual, organizational complexity that is possible in a non vertebrate animal. They are among the very few animals that are known to master tool use. Octopuses display extraordinarily sophisticated behaviors, including complex problem solving, task-dependent conditional discrimination, observational learning and spectacular displays of camouflage. Its dexterous arms are lined with hundreds of suckers that function as specialized tactile and chemosensory organs, and they have an elaborate special pigments containing cell system that enables rapid changes in appearance by direct neural control. Vastly modified in size and organization relative to other mollusks, the octopus nervous system is diffuse, with only one third of it is located inside the actual brain. Axial nerve cords in each arm function with some functional autonomy. Altogether in these structures nearly half a billion neurons, more than six times the number of mouse brain, are contained.

In early 2012 dozens of researchers agreed to work together to uncover the octopus sequence, the largest-known genome in the invertebrate world. Since the octopus has more genes (33, 000) than that of humans (20,000 to 25,000), the work has been especially difficult. The collaboration of scientists has payed off, as the octopus genome was recently published in the journal Nature. The octopuses radically different evolutionary path to intelligence from that of vertebrates is an amazing puzzle and has huge evolutionary importance. In octopuses a sophisticated neuronal wiring system forms throughout their entire bodies, which allows fast and intricate camouflage by expanding and contracting pigment filled sacks within milliseconds. This regulation can change overall color and even patterning in a blink of an eye. This complex neuronal network also empowers the octopus complex sensing with its suckers. Genes, known to be involved in developing complex neural networks in mammals is shared with the octopus. RNA editing is a molecular process through which some cells can make discrete changes to specific nucleotide sequences within a RNA. Shared with humans and other animals, octopuses mastery of this molecular process might help them regulate highly organized, concerted nerve firings. The new genetic analysis also shows the genes ability to move around on the genome, which might play a role in boosting learning and memory. Gene duplication, a well known evolutionary step in vertebrates, seems to be missing in octopuses, which makes their intellectual and organizational complexity all the more remarkable.

The octopus genome demonstrates the power of evolution to enhance complexity in the living world. Although they display impressive learning ability and some purposeful behavior, octopuses do not form emotions, which is the basis of intellectual abilities of mammals and birds. However, this does not mean that they are not engaged in some of the funniest purposeful behavior: Judge for yourself!

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Monday, September 7, 2015

The emotional complexity of the mental world

File:Eeg gamma.svg
Gamma wave recording by Hugo Gambo

Negative emotions tend to have an insidious, long term presence, which is bad for health, toxic for relationships and damaging for a career. Surprisingly however, negative emotions can and often play a role in long term success. Although positive emotions are the most important generators of personal and professional success, in some cases, luxury and comfort can lead to laziness and mediocrity. Promising, overconfident young talents can morph into disillusioned, bitter personalities, with insignificant lives. What is the explanation for such contrasting outcomes? Solution can be found in the complexity of emotional regulation.

Our inner thoughts stretch out into the past or the future, but we respond to stimulus (by actions and behavior) in a fraction of a second. This fast reaction rate does not leave time for careful analysis or analytic thinking. The action part of our lives necessarily occurs in a completely automatic fashion, directed by our momentary mental state. We know that positive emotions feel good and they have powerful health benefits, yet we cannot help feeling blue, aggravated, or get teary eyed when faced with tragedy. Emotions are not under conscious control and have unstoppable power in directing our lives.

Emotions are energy states; therefore they cannot be altered without interaction with the outside world! However, changing our attitude about a situation is like switching the car into reverse. Attitude can overturn the emotional charge between positive and negative intention in an instant (for example, love can turn into hate or vice versa). This is the reason, negative emotions can propel someone toward success and positive emotions can lead to failure. For example, stress affects almost everybody from time to time, yet some people manage to strive in spite, or because of stress. Those, who can maintain focus on positive attachments or goals (by positive attitude), will transform a negative emotional state into positive one, greater brain frequencies into lower ones. This process requires patience and determination, but if done consequently, it will lead to long term success. It is therefore often found that personal challenges, which can even take the form of a physical handicap, can become the source of exceptional creative and professional success.

Goals are powerful motivators toward success. Even in robotic simulations a characteristic future control grabbing is found by Wissner-Gross and Freer. Both immediate satisfaction (short term joy) and aggravation by unsatisfactory circumstances exhausts future opportunities by using up energies in the present. Mental calm, non-reaction in the present on the other hand conserves energy for progress, increasing future freedom. How to navigate life's emotional complexity? The situation can be well visualized as a moving boat. As side-to-side movements slow the boat, emotional storms derail progress, but a fast moving boat cannot rocks side to side. Recent scientific studies support the above claim and can be found in my book. Emotional stability is an inner confidence, which is the engine of mental progress. What kind of a boat are you? Can you reliably regain your inner calm when things are tough?

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