December 4, 2023

Tend to Your Cognitive Garden for Optimal Mental States

Author: Kate Findley
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By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Dr. Restak shows you how to empower yourself by taking charge of your mood and emotions. This will lead to greater fulfillment and sharper cognitive performance.

Brain illustration
Cognitive reserve increases with purposed cognitive training for reasoning, processing, and memory skills. Photo By Ravil Sayfullin / Shutterstock

Increase Cognitive Reserve

You can increase cognitive reserve—the mind’s resistance to age-related brain damage—by regular engagement in cognitive training. For example, Michael Marsiske, a lead investigator in a NIH study, studied subjects ranging in age from 65–90, with an average age of 73. They underwent 10 sessions of cognitive training, 60–75 minutes each. He found that the 10 sessions were sufficient to boost reasoning skills, memory, and rapid mental processing.

First, for reasoning skills, he taught the research subjects how to discern patterns in a letter of word series. For example, “a, c, e, g, i.” What’s the next letter? It’s “k,” since every other letter has been omitted. 

“These kinds of puzzles and games are in a book that I’ve written recently with Scott Kim [The Playful Brain],” Dr. Restak said. 

The second area that Marsiske focused on was memory training. He taught his subjects to form visual images, mental associations, and construct narratives. 

The third area was speed of processing and visual searching with divided attention. Subjects were asked to look at a computer and identify objects on the screen at increasingly brief exposure times while dividing their attention on two separate tasks. 

“Marsiske’s results were very impressive and very dramatic,” Dr. Restak said. 

Just 10 exercises of 60–75 minutes each led to these kinds of improvements: memory was improved by 75%; reasoning was improved 40%; and speed processing was improved 300%. Best of all, these improvements held up over the next five years.

Remember, these were older adults of an average age of 73. It’s likely that if the subjects started at even earlier ages, the results would have been even better. 

Formal education is a great asset, but at a certain point, everybody leaves school and becomes an informal learner. The Great Courses is an example of informal, self-directed learning. 

You are reading these articles and/or taking these courses because you want to; no one is forcing you to do it. Thus, you are directing your education, and in doing so, increasing your cognitive reserve.

Mental States and Brain Performance

You can take other concrete steps to sharpen your brain. Remember that the goal is to improve and maintain a general mental state that is most conducive to achieving top brain performance. 

Monitor your moods, thinking, and inner self-talk—the things that you say about yourself and the world. Seek to achieve cognitive excellence aided by healthy and positive mental states. 

When feeling low, try to discover why. If you don’t feel the way you should or feel depressed, try to find out why. 

“Try to avoid what I call the buried treasure myth—that you have to dig deep down and pull up some psychological reason and say, ‘I must be depressed now because of something that happened 20 years ago,’” Dr. Restak said. “We’ve sort of moved beyond that. Psychiatry doesn’t really work that way anymore. We think of low moods as a result of things in the environment, not events in the past.”

Next, keep things in perspective. Take what the ancients called the long view: link the past, present, and future. Doing this involves the frontal cortex. 

Don’t waste mental energy on things you can’t control. Most stressful situations arise when we feel dependent on circumstances we can do little about. 

Avoid sinking into learned helplessness, which is perceiving oneself as helpless and unable to control stress. The remedy is to focus your mental attitude on decisions that you can make now. 

Golden Shackles Dilemmas

“Most of all, beware of what I call golden shackles dilemmas,” Dr. Restak said. “That’s when something is pretty good, you like it, you’re getting benefits from it, but the situation is on the whole negative.” 

On such occasions, a painful decision has to be made such as finding a new job or a divorce. The stress of not acting on making a decision can also lead to several conditions: depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, memory loss, impaired concentration, and impaired well-being. 

To increase your cognitive reserve, don’t let momentary feelings govern your behavior. Ever since we were children, we’d say, “I didn’t feel like doing that.” 

A part of growing up is realizing sometimes you have to do things you don’t feel like doing. As Montaigne put it, “Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.”

It also works the other way. Behavior can also affect feelings: Do it and you will feel it, we often say. If we act enthusiastically, we will begin to feel enthusiastic.

William James, considered one of the greatest 19th-century psychologists, wrote, “Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.

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