The truth about the fields of Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience is that we truly know very little about the brain. These fields are relatively young in reference to others. What we thought we knew about the brain 10 years ago no longer translates to today, and the same will probably occur with what we know now and what we will know 10 years from now.
We talk a-lot about different factors that we can participate in to prevent cognitive decline, such as: eating nutrient rich diets, getting adequate sleep, combatting stress, and maintaining physically active lifestyles. Our goal with this program is to not only give participants pertinent and up to date information about these lifestyle factors but also provide them with activities that help boost cognitive activity in the brain.
Research over the years has shown that participating in activities like the ones we produce do aid in promoting cognitive functioning but for more complex reasons than we may believe. Most research designs that study and attempt to manipulate or increase cognitive functioning follow a specific outline. They include activities or prompts that are incredibly simplistic and pair them with activities that are more challenging. The goal is never to be right or get the correct answers, the goal is only to increase activity between cells in the brain.
IMEP is essentially physical therapy for the brain. Each individual has different reasons for being in the classroom. Some may experience more cognitive decline than others, or specific cognitive declines that are different from their counterparts. The experience in the classroom will be different for each person. The needs, opinions, and ultimately the results will be different for each participant- but regardless of all these variations we can be confident that the content that is reaching the classroom is statistically and scientifically shown to produce neural activity.
Activities pertaining to differing topics: We try to incorporate many different activities for different purposes. We often utilize activities such as trivia, math, crosswords, word play games, maze’s, etc. Some of the activities are designed to target specific structures in the brain or specific cognitive functions. For instance, a maze activity is designed to target spatial orientation and the visual centers of the brain that are involved in that cognitive skill. While we are trying to activate and tune specific features, these activities do not only facilitate growth in these departments. Even when we are participating in a maze activity, we are increasing activity throughout the brain entirely. The brain utilizes visual centers, reward pathways, navigation specialized neurons, memory activation, and much more. When we do a math problem, we aren’t only using an area that specializes in math- we use most of the brain.
While some activities are specified for specific growth, the idea is that the brain is overall working at a higher activity level than at a resting state. This increased activity on a whole basis is what actually facilitates growth and aids in restoring some cognitive functioning. In order to achieve this increased level of activity we have to incorporate many different approaches and games in the content; some of which may be easy while others may be quite challenging. Some may be less enjoyable than others, and some may be incredibly intriguing. The goal is, of course, to entertain and create a wonderful atmosphere for participants, but in order for the program to provide true memory enhancement we must have a wide variation of activities that span various levels of difficulty to achieve neuronal activity that produces lasting effects.
“Easy” Activities: You will find in the content that there are a few activities that seem as though they are too simplistic, but there is a scientific reason behind this. If our goal is to increase brain activity to enhance cognitive functioning, then we have to be prepared to cover information that we already know. If I go out for a walk to better my health, my legs already know how to walk but the benefit is for my heart. If someone asked me what 6 + 6 equals, I would immediately say 12 and I may even be offended that they would ask me such a trivial question. I know what 6+6 is, just like my legs know how to walk, but it is for the benefit of my brain, outside of the centers that are dedicated to mathematics skills. When we review or engage in things that seem easy to us it has less to do with whether we are able to do that task. It has everything to do with promoting electric signals that pass from neuron to neuron, ultimately creating plasticity and strengthening these pathways for neurons to follow which keeps our brains healthier.
“Hard” Activities: For activities that appear to be incredibly challenging we can say the same as we did for “Easy” activities, just in reverse. Learning is an integral part of cognitive enhancement. As adults we tend to only do things we know how to do. We decide at some point that learning isn’t essential in our everyday lives; that perhaps we’ve learned enough. If we truly want to create as much activity in the brain as we can and create new neural connections that produce better cognitive functioning, we must learn. Learning is not necessarily always understanding or getting it right the first time. In fact, productive learning often involves being incorrect and failing at tasks before we can develop a true understanding. Failure has a function in the body on a physical level and there is an anatomical reason as to why it is essential.
If I choose to do a new task but I only want to engage in it if I believe I can get it right then I’m not creating new neural pathways; in fact, I’m using existing ones and they aren’t having to work very hard. If I choose to engage in a new task that is complex that I may not have the answers to, then my brain in turn puts out a big question mark. It doesn’t know what to do. So, it works overtime, tries to connect multiple pathways that already exist to come to an answer. When these pathways can’t come to an answer something magical happens. It creates new pathways, extends information to various structures of the brain, and keeps doing so relentlessly until we finally come to a correct answer. Learning in this capacity has the most benefits for the brain and cognitive functioning.
Hope Robinson serves as the IMEP Content Coordinator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with Minors in Cognitive Science and Health & Society from The Ohio State University.