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Wisdom & Insight
Brain Fitness, Cognitive Health and VolunTourism
Brain research has expanded almost exponentially, it seems, over the last decades, and we are now discovering, more than ever before, about how our brains respond to different stimuli and to different activities. We are even being reminded of our individualized capacity to consciously alter the pathways in our brains by establishing new habits, new ways of thinking, and doing so by utilizing age-old technologies such as yoga meditation and the practice of mantras. Any experience, of course, will 're-wire the brain,' but this should not be the focus of our attention. Instead, as a VolunTourism Community, we should consider how VolunTourism experiences can serve to assist voluntourists in exploring their own brain fitness and cognitive health.
'Neurogenesis' and 'Neuroplasticity' - There's A Difference
"Neuroplasticity Is A Dirty Word," offers Dr. Vaughan Bell as the title of a June 2010 post on the Mind Hacks Blog. "Clearly this is rubbish and every time you hear anyone, scientist or journalist, refer to neuroplasticity, ask yourself what specifically they are talking about. If they don't specify or can't tell you, they are blowing hot air. In fact, if we banned the word, we would be no worse off."
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Clearly, how we explain our choice of words has an impact. Perhaps we can utilize these same terms as put forth by Alvaro Fernandez, co-author of The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists, Practical Advice, and Product Reviews, To Keep Your Brain Sharp, who talks about neuroplasticity and neurogenisis as they pertain to brain fitness and cognitive health.
In Chapter 1 of their book, Fernandez and Goldberg write:
"The human brain is now considered to be a highly dynamic and constantly reorganizing system capable of being shaped and reshaped across an entire lifespan. It is believed that every experience alters the brain's organization at some level. The key words in this new approach to the brain are neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Neuroplasticity refers to the lifelong capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience. Neurogenesis is the ability to create new neurons and connections between neurons throughout a lifetime. The latter process is also referred to as synaptogenesis. Neuroscientists often tend to distinguish between 'neurogenesis' and 'synaptogenesis', but for reasons of simplicity we will refer to both with a combined term of 'neurogenesis.' This new paradigm contrasts with traditional ideas of the human brain being a fixed and essentially limited system that only degrades with age."
In an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski, the authors ask, "In the future, will we have access to better assessments and tools to identify and train the cognitive abilities we need to work on the most, in the same way that we can go to a gym today and find the combination of machines that provide the most effective personalized workout?"
Dr. Zelinski replies:
"The physical fitness analogy is a good one, in that cognitive enhancement requires engagement in a variety of activities. Those activities must be novel, adaptive and challenging. this is why computer-based programs can be helpful. Even at a more basic level, what matters is being engaged with life, continually exposed to stimulating activities, always trying to get out of our comfort zones, and doing our best at whatever we are doing."
Such discourse, coming from the world of academia and scientific research, bodes well for VolunTourism. In light of the results Dr. Nancy McGehee, Dr. John Lee, and I have discovered through our research on the importance of engagement, stimulating activities, and 'getting out of comfort zones" for voluntourists, these service-travel journeys may very well have an application in the realm of brain fitness and cognitive health. Why would we even want to do such a thing? Here are some thoughts from Alvaro Fernandez that may help to answer the question.
One-On-One With Alvaro Fernandez
Brain Fitness: Advice For Building On The Invaluable Challenges Of A VolunTourism Experience
"Emotional self-regulation to manage the stress and anxiety of being exposed to new contexts - - simple biofeedback tools can help; learn breathing & visualizing exercises that can come [in] very handy when they need them [and]
"Especially for people over 40, working memory training: to be able to better pay attention to and process what can be very 'noisy'/confusing environments in the beginning"
I sent several questions to Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of SharpBrains.com, to get his feedback on the intersection between brain fitness and voluntourism:
VolunTourism.org: As a way of introduction to neuroplasticity and the notion of utilizing exercises to actually re-train the human brain, what can you tell us about your most recent research discoveries, specifically, and the over-arching field of brain fitness and cognitive development?
Fernandez: The brain remains malleable through our whole lives - what we do/think/feel has an impact on our brain's structure and functionality. It is now estimated that most adult brains generate around 10,000 neurons a day, and whether those neurons survive or not, and how they get connected to pre-existing neurons and networks depend on how we use our brains. If we simply follow our routines, they will tend to die, because they serve no purpose. If we do things that are novel, varied and challenging, they will survive and strengthen our brains and mental capacities. These are the general guidelines that everyone should be aware of. In a recent talk I gave at UC Berkeley, a member of the audience said she had done Peace Corps in Africa in her 50's. Well, a very intelligent decision for her brain fitness and continued cog[nitive] development.
On top of this, there is a number of specialized tools, from meditation to online/software packages, that can enhance a number of targeted mental capacities.
VolunTourism.org: Voluntourists have cited 'learning new things' as one of the most significant motivations for participating in voluntourism experiences. What can you tell us about the importance of 'learning new things' in the context of what you have discovered in your research and work with SharpBrains.com?
Fernandez: The most important thing, and this links perfectly with voluntourism, is that "learning new things," to harness meaningful neuroplasticity, does not mean to absorb a few more facts/tips/content. It means learn new skills, new languages, new abilities. It means learning how to do fundamentally new things - not just a bit more of the same.
VolunTourism.org: Voluntourists are often cognitively challenged before, during, and after their voluntourism experiences as a result of pre-trip preparations & education, interactions and the collapse of world views during their trips, and post-trip reflections on their experiences. What exercises would you recommend to assist them in building on these invaluable challenges that provide, perhaps, an unprecedented opportunity to 're-wire' their brains?
Fernandez: It really depends on the individual, but I can imagine two common needs:
- Emotional self-regulation to manage the stress and anxiety of being exposed to new contexts - - simple biofeedback tools can help; learn breathing & visualizing exercises that can come [in] very handy when they need them
- Especially for people over 40, working memory training: to be able to better pay attention to and process what can be very "noisy"/confusing environments in the beginning
About Alvaro Fernandez
Alvaro Fernandez is SharpBrains’ co-founder and Chief Executive Officer. He has been quoted by The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, and Associated Press, among others. Alvaro is a member of the Global Agenda Councils initiative run by the World Economic Forum, and recently wrote the acclaimed articles Preparing Society for the Cognitive Age, for Frontiers in Neuroscience, and Why We Need to Retool Use It or Lose It, for the Journal of Active Aging. He started his career at McKinsey & Company and led the launch and turnaround of several publishing and education companies in the US and Europe, including Bertelsmann On Line, Docent, Inc, and Edusoft, a unit of Houghton Mifflin. Alvaro has an MBA and MA in Education from Stanford University, and enjoys teaching The Science of Brain Health at SFSU and UC-Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Detailed LinkedIn Profile: Alvaro Fernandez.
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