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Train Your Mind and Change Your Brain
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Friday, March 24, 2023
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Dr. Cynthia Green knows that Sun Valley-area residents have their physical fitness dialed in in terms of the number of steps they take each day and how fast they can jog to the top of Bald Mountain.

But, as a frequent visitor, she also knows that many have questions about how to maintain  their mental prowess.

Her answer: Train your mind. Change your brain.”

Green, the daughter of Ketchum residents Ron and Susan Green, is a clinical psychologist, author and one of America’s foremost experts on brain health, focusing on brain fitness and memory improvement.  Armed with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from New York University, she has served on the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine since 1990.

She is an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, having served as co-principal investigator on several clinical trials. And in 1996 she founded the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center, the first program of its kind.

She recently spoke at a luncheon for members of the Wood River Jewish Community where she talked about the new frontier of neuroplasticity and working with mental athletes using strategies dating back to ancient Rome and Greece.

“In Greek times oratory was the primary means of communication. The orators would go on for hours so listeners had to memorize things,” said Green, who has been featured in such publications as Time, Newsweek and the New York Times. “We offer our memory athletes strategies, have them compete against one another on the basis of what they can memorize and follow up to see how their training worked.”

Given that she had only an hour, Green focused on how to remember names.

“We’re actually very capable of remembering names, so why is it so hard to remember?” she asked. “We’re distracted. We don’t pay attention when someone’s telling us their name so their name is  fleeting. It’s a ‘not getting problem,’ not a forgetting problem.”

Pay attention and focus more on what you wish to retain, she said. Of course, that’s easier said than done, given incessant interruptions from text messages and phone calls.

“Life gets in the way. Daily chores make it harder to focus. So does emotional distress, substance use, lack of sleep. Sleep is a hot topic in my field right now--if we don’t get enough, it impacts our ability to focus and makes it harder to pay attention,” she said.

Memory strategies are the most effective ways to remember better. They’re proven to boost recall by up to 33 percent, she added. Given that, she offered five strategies for remembering names:

  • REPETITION

    Repeat someone’s name out loud or to yourself when you meet them: “I’m so pleased to meet you, Ben.” “Tell me about yourself, Eryn.”

  • CONNECTION

    Connect something you know to the person’s name: “Jean is my grandmother’s name.” Or “Susan? Like a Black-eyed Susan.”

  • STORYTELLNG

    Create a short story for the name.

    “This is a simple story—not an epic,” said Green. “If someone’s named Frank Hill, imagine a line of frankfurters marching over a hill. Or, think of Jack and Jill going up the hill for someone named Jill Hillside.”

  • TAKE A SNAPSHOT

    Think of detailed static image to help you remember a name. The more detailed the better. For instance, you could picture a robin sitting on a branch when you meet someone named Robin.

  • MAKE A MOVIE

Make a short Tik Tok-like video in your mind’s eye to help you recall someone’s name. For instance, you might picture a phoenix flying in the desert should you meet someone named Jess Phoenix.

There’s no magic pill for brain health, Green said. The best thing you can do is address your lifestyle. Make sure you get regular exercise, sleep and a healthy diet. Don’t smoke and do some cognitive training. Social engagement has not been not studied as well as it should be. But it is good for brain health, she added.

Playing against the clock seems to be most helpful when doing crossword puzzles and word games.

“Be fast. Be nimble,” said Green.

Exercise is one of the best things someone can do to increase neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to form new synaptic connections. Learning something new, like crocheting or how to play a musical instrument also creates new connections in the brain.

“How we behave changes the brain and training the mind changes the brain,” said Green. “Every time we do something novel, we create new connections in the brain. Anything we learn that’s new is good for our brain.”

Finally, stop overtasking, she said. There’s only so much a human brain can handle at once.

“Live with your brain in mind and focus on the moment. When you want to remember something, such as where you parked your car, hit an intentional pause and bring your focus to that moment.”

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