Brain fitness.

February 18th, 2011

Until her last year, at 94, my Aunt Anita remained astute, clever and insightful. Every morning with her coffee, she’d work the newspaper’s crossword puzzle and other word games. And, having memorized long ago her list of two- and three-letter words, there was no game she enjoyed more than Scrabble. People would remark on her sharpness. “Use it or lose it,” someone would say.

So how do we sharpen our minds? What exercises are there to keep our brains in shape? Do crossword puzzles really work? Are they enough?

The scientists at Posit Science, a global company that provides brain-training programs, have some answers. Led by co-founder and Chief Science Officer Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco, the firm’s approach to brain training is based on the science of brain plasticity.

Here are 14 tasks they offer as brain fitness tips. You’ll find the reason for each when you click through to the link.

1.     Add some dark chocolate to your diet.

2.     Go on a guided tour of a museum or another site of interest. Pay careful attention to what the guide says. When you get home, try to reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember.

3.     Choose a song with lyrics you enjoy but don’t have memorized. Listen to the song as many times as necessary to write down all the lyrics. Then learn to sing along. Once you’ve mastered one song, move on to another!

4.     Sit in a place outside your house, such as on a park bench or in a café. Stare straight ahead and don’t move your eyes. Concentrate on everything you can see without moving your eyes, including in your peripheral vision. When you have finished, write a list of everything you saw. Then try again and see if you can add to your list.

5.     If you’ve ever thought about learning to play an instrument or take up an old one, now is a great time!

6.     Do a jigsaw puzzle that will be challenging for you—no fewer than 500 pieces.

7.     Set your television volume down a little from where you normally have it set. See if by concentrating you can follow just as successfully as when the volume was higher. As soon as that setting gets easy, turn it down another notch!

8.     Practice throwing and catching a ball up in the air. If you’re good at it, take up juggling.

9.     Find an activity you like to do by yourself—such as completing a crossword puzzle or knitting—and take it to the next level. See if by concentrating and giving more effort to the activity you can succeed better or more quickly.

10.  If you’re right-handed, use your left hand for daily activities (or vice-versa). Start with brushing your teeth left-handed, and practice until you have perfected it. Then try to build your way up to more complex tasks, such as eating.

11.  Add fish—especially fatty fish like salmon—to your diet.

12.  Brain health is another reason to get on your bicycle, to the swimming pool or wherever else you like to exercise your body.

13.  Take a walk on a cobblestone path.

14.  Get a good night’s sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, make sure your bedroom is quiet and dark, learn some deep relaxation techniques, and avoid alcohol and caffeine after 7 in the evening.

Maybe I’ll see you soon at the museum or on a cobblestone path. In the meantime, I hope you find yourself a delicious piece of dark chocolate.

A winning strategy.

February 11th, 2011

I’m from Milwaukee originally and a Green Bay Packers fan. So after the Packers became Super Bowl Champions in Dallas on Sunday, I was exhilarated, excited and downright ecstatic. (Okay, I was jumping up and down, screaming.)  Now five days and a couple of online stories later, I look on the team with both awe and respect.

My admiration for the Packers goes beyond the skill of this young team. It centers on personal energy. The players’ energy and Coach Mike McCarthy’s energy. I’m talking about the kind of energy that builds team spirit and team chemistry. Based on some reading I did this week, I’d say the Packers’ course to the Lombardi trophy included a strategy that was creative, focused and emotionally intelligent. Here’s why.

First there was Dave Begel’s commentary, Lessons learned from Super Bowl XLV, published Tuesday in OnMilwaukee.com, where I learned of Mike McCarthy’s brilliant move to have his team measured for Super Bowl rings the night before the game. When I asked Dave about it, he said there’d been reports in The New York Times, on Fox Sports and elsewhere. He told me that in interviews, McCarthy had said it was his experience the team with the most confidence had the best chance of winning. And that was going to be his team. Measuring for rings was setting the expectation of winning. It was an effective leader’s act of assurance, of his unshakable belief in the team’s ability to win.

Then Mary Roberts, the human spring of ideas at Buzz Monkeys PR, directed me to a Jan. 25 Super Bowl XLV story in Bleacher Report (B/R) about Charles Woodson’s desire for a post-Super Bowl trip to the White House.

President Obama had said he’d only attend Super Bowl XLV if his hometown Chicago Bears were playing. So after the Packers’ NFC victory over the Bears, Woodson made it known the Packers would indeed be going to see the President. That “Declaration of Intent,” as B/R columnist Tom Edrington put it, was followed by a Packer locker room “White House! White House!” chant.

According to Edrington, there had been no talk of visiting the White House back in the Steelers’ locker room. And he mentions the “Pittsburgh mentality” as a response to pre-Super Bowl hype, which I interpreted as a Steelers’ attitude that nothing meant anything before the game. But I would believe otherwise.

I think Mike McCarthy’s act of measuring for rings and Charles Woodson’s statement of intent for the team to be Super Bowl Champions are indicators of a mindset that illustrate beautifully the energy of success I call Qinomics.

The Packers focused only on winning. They were determined to win. They expected to win. They knew they’d win. There was no room for doubt, uncertainty or worry. In other words, no energy was wasted thinking about – or creating – an unwanted outcome. They were a team of pure, positive energy in action. “Conceive, believe and achieve” is a winning strategy every time. No exception.

Mindful matters.

February 4th, 2011

I’m guessing most of us have a weather story or two to tell this week. I’m on a ski vacation in the Colorado Rockies, so my tale is numerical: 46 degrees below zero.

Monday had been a dazzlingly beautiful blue-sky ski day. My friend Susan and I had a blast our first day on the mountain. We were ecstatic and eager for six more days of the same.

That night I read Katherine Harmon’s newly published “Observations” blog post for Scientific American magazine and was pleased to learn that in addition to having fun on the slopes, I’d been improving the health of my brain.  She reported on the findings of a new study published online earlier that day in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that indicate even modest amounts of aerobic exercise can increase the volume of the brain’s hippocampus structure. Yes!

But when the temps dropped overnight to minus double-digit degrees, I took advantage of my housebound status to catch up on less physically active pursuits: reading, writing and meditative time.  So no coincidence that Minneapolis friend Craig Borden had sent me the link to a New York Times article, titled How Meditation May Change the Brain. This piece cites findings of a a Massachusetts General Hospital study published Jan. 30 in the “Neuroimaging” section of Psychiatry Research, that reports those who meditate daily for 30 minutes had increased gray matter in the hippocampus. A Scientific American magazine podcast on the same study can be found here.

Today, as temperatures are back on the rise, I’m headed to Copper Mountain Resort. And I’m happy to know I can be “sharpening my saw” all day long, be it a peaceful ride up the chairlift or cruising down a wide, groomed blue run.

Three heads are better than one.

January 28th, 2011

Last night I met with my Master Mind group. There are three of us, and I consider the other two knowledgeable and trusted friends my personal board of directors.

We are a friendly alliance of minds that meets once or twice a month with a commitment to help each other achieve our main professional goal. We review plans and discuss the strategies and actions required to execute those plans. So it was no surprise that I awoke today more energized than usual, appreciating their honesty, ideas, feedback and cooperative spirit. Or, in other words, their energy.

Then this morning I received an email that reinforced my thoughts and feelings about last night’s gathering. It was the weekly “Yesterday and Today” newsletter from the Napoleon Hill Foundation. One of the articles included Hill’s list of the qualities he believed a successful leader must possess. I do love a powerful list, so I think this itemization of leadership qualities is worth sharing. And I hope you’ll find it as useful as I do. Those qualities are:

  • Personal initiative.
  • The adoption of a definite major purpose.
  • A motive to inspire continuous action in pursuit of a definite major purpose.
  • A Master Mind alliance through which you may acquire the power to attain your definite purpose.
  • Self-reliance in proportion to the scope and object of your major purpose.
  • Self-discipline sufficient to insure mastery of the head and the heart, and to sustain your motives until they have been realized.
  • Persistence, based on the will to win.
  • A well-developed imagination, controlled and directed.
  • The habit of reaching definite and prompt decisions.
  • The habit of basing opinions on known facts instead of relying on guesswork.
  • The habit of going the extra mile.
  • The capacity to generate enthusiasm at will, and to control it.
  • A well-developed sense of details.
  • The capacity to take criticism without resentment.
  • Familiarity with the ten basic motives that inspire all human action.
  • The capacity to concentrate your full attention upon one task at a time.
  • Willingness to accept full responsibility for the mistakes of subordinates.
  • The habit of recognizing the merits and abilities of others.
  • A positive mental attitude at all times.
  • The habit of assuming full responsibility for any job or task undertaken.
  • The capacity for applied faith.
  • Patience with subordinates and associates.
  • The habit of following through with any task once begun.
  • The habit of emphasizing thoroughness instead of speed.
  • Dependability, the only requirement of leadership that can be stated with one word – but no less important to success on that account.

Resilience is a state of mind.

January 21st, 2011

Yesterday I received an email from friend and former colleague Mary Roberts, top banana at Buzz Monkeys PR. She had just finished reading Unbroken, the remarkable, true-life story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete whose battered B-24 bomber plane crashed in the Pacific on a search mission during World War II. He survived in a life raft for 46 days only to be captured by the Japanese and spend two years of the war in some of the worst POW camps.

Mary told me there was a chapter about Louie and two other men’s experience in the life raft that made her think of Qinomics and the power of directing one’s thoughts and energy no matter what the circumstances. Because of their positive, hopeful, determined attitudes and how they approached their predicament, Louie and another man survived. The third man remained fearful, hopeless, despairing and was convinced he would die. No matter how encouraging his two raft mates were, he could not imagine survival. And he did die. (This extraordinary chapter can be read online in last month’s issue of Vanity Fair magazine.)

The full title of the book is “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.” And it was the irrepressible energy of resilience that struck me most deeply while reading the Vanity Fair excerpt.

Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter defined resilience as “the new skill” in a blog post earlier this month, titled Five Lessons from 2010 Worth Repeating. And resiliency is considered a key quality of effective leaders, according to leadership researchers and authors Fred Luthans and Bruce Avilio. (See Brain Food post dated 9/24/10) They describe it as one’s capacity to cope successfully in the face of significant change, adversity or risk. And they believe that resiliency – along with the other psychological traits of hope, optimism and confidence – are skills that can be learned and developed.

I’m happy to know that people think of me and Qinomics when it comes to the attributes that can define and contribute to one’s success. It’s my belief that the way you think and how you commit your energy allow you to create your experience. It’s my mission – my “why” – to help others direct their energy and creative power to achieve professional success and fulfillment, however they choose to define it.