| Journal of the Arizona Dental Association, June-July 2013
Dr. Curtis practices general
dentistry in Safford. He is
an accomplished editor,
author and professor. Dr.
Curtis is Editor of
. His email address is
Stress, as you might imagine, further lowers cognitive
As an aspect of intelligence, cognitive flexibility can be
improved. One-note wonders like me can overcome
centration, the tendency to think and focus on only a
single aspect of a situation at a time. But in the search
to build neurons and synapses, most cognitive enhanc-
ers don’t work, warns Newsweek reporter Sharon
Begley in her January 3, 2011, article, “Can you build
a better brain?” Accordingly, don’t count on vitamins,
beta-carotene, flavonoids, or omega-3s to goose
your gray matter. Neither blueberries nor crossword
puzzles offer much hope, either.
While you can’t beef up your brain with exercise,
exactly, some activities do help. Cultivating the skills
we already possess doesn’t make us much smarter, but
learning new skills—such as another language or ball-
room dance moves—can create new and more com-
plex, interrelated neural pathways. Stress reduction,
unsurprisingly, promotes cognitive flexibility, as does
exposure to diversity (such as occurs during travel).
Begley also advises aerobic exercise. A 2007 study
suggested that 35 minutes on a treadmill at 70 per-
cent of maximum heart rate boosts mental agility. If
you need to solve a big problem, go for a run.
Finally, Begley writes, meditation increases cognitive
flexibility by strengthening the parts of the brain that
control attention and sensory input. So does playing
videogames, which bumps up motor control, visual
acuity, working and long-term memory, and rapid
Jilly and I were late for the presentation, but we ar-
rived in time to help answer audience questions about
the Tibetan diaspora. The photojournalism students
replayed for us the videos we had missed, full of
Tibetan prayer flags fluttering and monastery gongs
clanging in Mainpat’s digital dawn. As I watched, I
felt my awareness divide. At the same time that my
memory banks transported me back to the refugee
camps, they also inserted a few curling reflections on
my brisk activity in the dental hygiene clinic.
I considered that I could get used to the kind of
split-level extemporaneity I had just encountered.
I felt energized. Enlarged. Just a tad more sentient.
Not a bad payoff for an hour’s work.
Don’t count on vitamins,
beta-carotene, flavo-
noids, or omega-3s to
goose your gray matter.
Neither blueberries nor
crossword puzzles offer
much hope, either.
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