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April, 2013

Here are a few short reports on some recent brain research. Following those there is a test you can give to your friends (or yourself) to see if they are able to pay attention and focus very well, which is an indication of their potential brainpower.

Reacting Without Thinking

It may seem that reacting without thinking is a bad thing, but it depends on the context. If you start to fall you want your legs to move and correct your balance long before you could have reasoned out a solution. So, as much as we would love to remember to think first before taking action, we also do not want to impede the brain's ability to order the body to react without conscious thought. What might interfere with that natural ability? Electrical stimulation could be a problem, according to a recent report from MIT Technology Review.

Why would you electrically stimulate your brain in the first place? It has been found that transcranial electrical stimulation (TES), when used on a particular part of the brain, can enhance memory. The catch is that the process seems to interfere with automaticity, which is that ability to react without conscious thought. It is not yet clear that this potentially bad effect is significant enough to render the technique unusable, especially considering the potential applications for stroke victims and others who have memory loss and might learn to speak again more rapidly with TES.

Creative Inspiration

A recent study has shown that there is a different pattern of brain activity leading up to moments of creative inspiration in problem solving, compared to more methodical solutions. When subjects prepared to have an "aha!" solution, brain imaging showed a pattern indicating that they were focusing inwardly, and more able to switch there thinking to new areas, and possibly silencing irrelevant thoughts.

The problems were displayed on a video screen. When mental preparation led to sudden insights, there was more brain activity in temporal lobe areas associated with conceptual processing and cognitive control. More methodical solutions showed more activity in the visual cortex. Researchers took this to indicate that this deliberate problem solving involved external focus of attention on the video screen.

You may have heard me say that creative insight is more likely with work than with waiting. This study and others may lead to learning exactly what kind of work to do, or how to put people in the most creative frame of mind to solve problems. I'll be reporting more on this in future newsletters.

Of course, as often happens in science, the research is mostly confirming what has been known and used for centuries. Methodical problem solving is different from sudden insight? No big surprise there. Don't expect the research to disprove many of the techniques for creative problem solving either. It will more likely just show why they work.

Research like this is very important, and really may lead to new ways to think. However, don't hesitate to use what works for you before it is "proven." Man was thinking long before science existed.

Daydreaming for Brainpower?

In another study (this one was done a few years back), it was found that daydreaming is not mental laziness, as it is sometimes considered. In fact, those who daydream may be better at solving problems. The study, which used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to scan subjects' brains, found that certain areas inside the brain become more active during daydreaming, including what is known as the "executive network," a region of the brain associated with complex problem-solving. So kick back on the couch once in a while and let your mind wander.

The TOVA Test

TOVA is the acronym for "test of variable attention." I've mentioned it previously in the Brainpower Newsletter and on our Brainpower Facebook Page. It's not a difficult problem to solve, but those who have ADD (attention deficit disorder) seem to have trouble finding the solution either quickly or easily, and so it is one of the many tests used for diagnosis. Here is the puzzle:

I have before me two boxes. One is empty, the other I notice has a box within it, and that box has two boxes within it, and those two boxes have 4 boxes each within them. So, I pick up the box with all the other boxes in it, and place it inside the empty many boxes are there all together?

You can figure out the answer for yourself, but there is a clue in the side bar if you are not sure. As mentioned, it not really a tricky or tough puzzle, but you might want to copy it down and let your friends give it a try.

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TOVA hint: Baker's dozen


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