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Brain Related News and Information

February 2012

Here are a few odds and ends of reports on recent research into how our brains and minds work. There are also a few other brain-related items and brainpower tips.

Why Did Our Brains Get So Big?

Richard Wrangham, a Harvard University biological anthropologist, has hypothesized that cooking was the human innovation that lead to our large brains. Man's ancestor, Homo erectus, appeared about 1.6 to 1.9 million years ago had a brain that was 50% larger than its predecessor, Homo habilis. It also had a large drop in tooth size. Cooking, Wrangham says, can account for both of these.

Cooking makes many food more easily digested. Studies of the diet of modern chimpanzees suggests that the available nutrition from plants and raw meats would not be enough to support the larger brain (Our current brains use up to 20 of our total calorie intake). Others theorize that a move toward more use of soft animal products was enough to support the larger brain.

Source: Scientific American, January 2008 Issue

IQ and Longevity

Researchers from the University of Glasgow and other universities in Scotland found that IQ level is related to longevity. They published their findings a few years back (September 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine). It used data from a 1932 test of 87,498 Scottish school children born in 1921, as well as other data, and they tracked their subjects' data over a 70-year period.

What they found was that when born in wealthier neighborhoods, people's life spans were generally the same regardless of IQ level, but when born in a poor area, a person had a definite advantage in longevity if he or she had a higher IQ in childhood. There are several speculations as to why this should be, ranging from higher IQ leading to the adopting of better health habits to being better able to cope with many adverse situations in life.

Some Thoughts

It makes sense that it would increase lifespan in a poor neighborhood and not in a wealthier one. Not all brain scientists are big believers in the value of a high IQ alone, without the "software" or thinking habits that really make a difference. But having better basic "hardware" certainly has to be of some value. It could make it easier to find a way to live more like the people in the wealthier areas, and so extend one's life (lifespan differences between the poor and wealthy have been well documented).

Perhaps the more interesting finding was that having a lower IQ made no negative difference in the longevity of those men and women who lived in the wealthier neighborhoods. Once again, this supports the idea that it is our habits (both physical and mental) that are more important. Beyond a certain level of raw intelligence that is necessary for modern day survival, it is how we use it that matters most.

Almonds for Brainpower

Along with all of the other health benefits for our bodies, almonds are particularly good for the brain. In research at the University of Illinois-Chicago mice which had an Alzheimer's-like disease were fed almonds. After several months they were tested for memory, and did better than the mice given the usual food. They also had fewer of the abnormal brain deposits thought to underlie the disease.

According to researcher Neelima Chauhan, almonds have substances which act like cholinesterase inhibitors and related drugs that are commonly used to treat Alzheimer's disease. The amount given the mice wasn't that large, either, the human equivalent of about a small handful of almonds daily (15 to 20 nuts). Almonds also contain calcium, magnesium, vitamin E and phytochemicals that may be good for brain health. Other studies have shown almonds to be good for heart health too, which means they might be good for maintaining blood flow to the brain.

One thing not discussed in the scientific literature is whether it makes a difference if they are roasted or raw. It seems likely that the raw nuts have more health-promoting elements, but almonds are commonly sold roasted as well. I suspect that there isn't an important difference because the compounds that seem to be the most useful in them are not vitamins, which are more likely to be destroyed by heat.

Use That Reticular Cortex

The reticular cortex is a small organ in the brain, and a part of the reticular activating system. It directs incoming stimulus to our conscious or unconscious mind. In other words, it decides what "catches" our attention. It is "programmed" by what we focus on. This is why, for example, if you buy a certain make of car, you start to see more of the same all over. Your reticular cortex is making you more aware of them.

To use this to increase brainpower, focus on your thinking successes. Note when you figure something out for the first time, or when you have a particularly creative idea. This focus programs your reticular cortex. Then when there are opportunities to practice and improve your brainpower, you will be more aware of them. This process will also make you more aware of when you are thinking effectively, thus encouraging a belief in your own mental powers, which is very motivating, and so encourages more improvement.

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