Making the science of cognitive fitness work for you
Putting It All
Enrich Your Life,
Enrich Your Brain
About This Report
Your Brain at Work: Making the Science of Cognitive Fitness Work for You
has been developed as part of a nationwide workplace program co-sponsored by the
Mature Workforce Initiative of The Conference Board and The Dana Alliance for
Brain Initiatives with support from The Atlantic Philanthropies.
The Mature Workforce Initiative is committed to helping employers engage and develop
mature employees within the rapidly changing multigenerational workplace. Our evolving
work is validated by frequent interaction with our 2,000 member companies as we respond
to their emerging business issues. Funding for the Initiative is generously provided by
The Atlantic Philanthropies.
The Conference Board is one of the world's pre-eminent business membership and
research organizations. Best known for the Consumer Confidence Index and the Leading
Economic Indicators, The Conference Board has, for more than 90 years, equipped the
world's leading corporations with practical knowledge through issues-oriented research
and senior executive peer-to-peer meetings.
The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is a nonprofit organization of more than
265 neuroscientists who are committed to advancing public awareness of the progress
and promise of brain research and to disseminating information about the brain in an
accessible fashion. The Dana Alliance, supported entirely by the Dana Foundation, does
not fund research or give grants.
The Atlantic Philanthropies are dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the
lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people through grant-making. Atlantic focuses on
critical social problems related to aging, disadvantaged children and youth, population
health, and reconciliation and human rights.
Put your brain to work
and it will work for you
e’ve all seen the news: we can affect how our brains work.
Neuroscience tells us that we can increase our chances
of maintaining our mental edge and functional independence
throughout our lives. How? By working to keep our brains fit the
way we work to keep our bodies healthy.
What you do every day matters to
your brain. The choices you make,
your level of physical and mental
activity, your social life, diet, and
sleep habits—all these things can
affect cognitive fitness: a state in
which we are performing well mentally, emotionally, and functionally.
Your Brain at Work connects the
latest research to practical suggestions for incorporating healthy brain
habits at work and at home. Good
choices can help you maintain cognitive vitality in every area and at
every stage of your life.
Because you are working, you’ve
already taken the first step. A brain
at work is a brain that works. The
mental and social stimulation of the
workplace help keep your brain fit.
If you already have a wellness or fitness program at work, this material
can add a brain health component
to it, or become the basis for a new
wellness program. On your own, you
can use this booklet as a personal
cognitive fitness tool kit.
Your Brain at Work includes basic
brain facts, a readiness quiz to determine what sort of brain lifestyle
you’re living, chapters on brain
health, and an action plan to help
you use this information wisely and
well. Brain health is a lifelong commitment, and it’s never too early to
begin. Or too late. Practicing cognitive fitness will help you stay on top
of your game, on the job and off.
In this booklet, we are going to
show you how.
Your Brain at Work 1
Table of Contents
3 Readiness Quiz
4 Meet Your Brain
If you don’t know your cerebrum
from your cerebellum, have no
8 What Does It Mean to Be
It’s true after all: use it or lose it
12 Move Your Body
When you work out your body,
your brain benefits
16 Meet, Greet & Be Social
Your brain needs social
20 Work Your Brain
They’re called brainteasers for a
2 Your Brain at Work
24 Feed Your Brain
Food for thought: diet matters
26 Stress Management
Relax! It’s only your brain we’re
30 Sleep, Rest Well
To sleep, perchance to retain new
36 How Can You Put It All
Enrich your life, enrich your brain
40 Summary: It’s Never Too
Late or Too Early to Begin
41 An Action Plan for Brain
Answer these questions, and read on to find out why your answers are
important, and where they put you on the continuum of brain health. At the
end of the book, you’ll get an action plan that will help you incorporate diet,
exercise, and cognitive stimulation into a healthier brain lifestyle.
1. How much did you move today? Include every time you were ambulatory,
from jogging on a treadmill to walking around your office. ____________
2. How many social interactions did you have today? Include contacts with
your co-workers. _______________________________________________
3. Did you practice any new skills on the computer at work today? Work a
crossword puzzle? Do an ordinary task in a new way? ________________
4. If you are like most people, you probably do three things at once. But do
you know what recent studies have revealed about multitasking? ______
5. Did you eat any blueberries today? Fish aside, do you know what foods
are brain-healthy? ______________________________________________
6. How much sleep did you get last night? Was it uninterrupted sleep? Do
you often feel drowsy during the day? _____________________________
Your Brain at Work 3
Meet Your Brain
Some of the brain areas involved in cognitive processes are shown
here (and described at right).
Credit information: Image courtesy NINDS/National Institutes of Health.
4 Your Brain at Work
If you don’t know your cerebrum from
your cerebellum, have no fear
n the past decade alone, neuroscience has revolutionized
our understanding of the normal structure and functioning of the brain, how it changes as we age, and what can
go wrong in neurologic or psychiatric disease states. At the
same time, the brain is truly one of the last frontiers in
biological science, still rife with mysteries about its inner
Cerebral cortex: the brain’s
heavily folded outer layer of gray
matter, critical to cognitive
Parietal lobe: perceives and
interprets bodily sensations such
as touch, pressure, pain, and
Sulci: the shallow grooves in the
cortex; the central sulcus divides
the two hemispheres
Temporal lobe: involved in
memory processing and
Gyri: the ridges on the cortex
Occipital lobe: seat of the
visual cortex, which detects and
interprets visual stimuli
movement, coordination, balance,
and posture, and appears to be
involved in some types of learning
Frontal lobe: controls higher
thought processes and executive
Hippocampus: part of the brain
that developed early in
evolutionary history; involved in
learning and short-term or
Motor cortex: part of the
cerebral cortex that controls
Your Brain at Work 5
What’s clear is that each of us has
a brain that is unique. The overall
anatomy and location of key brain
structures is similar across the
population, but the pattern of
connections among nerve cells —
the synapses by which brain cells
talk to one another — is the singular
product of our individual life
Each of our brains, no matter our
age, is a work in progress. It
responds and adapts and literally
rewires itself in accordance with
what we put into it — what we learn,
what we say, what we do, how we
interact with others, and even what
we eat. Scientists call this “plasticity.” It’s the reason we can affect
our cognitive function when we take
the steps to do so.
Take learning, for example. When we
learn something new, and we learn
it well, our brain literally creates a
particular pattern of synaptic connections for that learning. It’s as if
the phone number of your boss or
the route to your parents’ house
stakes out its own piece of real
estate in the brain — but it’s more
of a highway than a building lot.
6 Your Brain at Work
Each new experience we encounter,
if it is repeated often enough, will be
represented in the brain with its
own signature pathway of nerve
connections. These connections
interlink and may overlap with many
(sometimes many thousand) other
pathways that are in some way
associated with that experience.
This is why repeating something we
want to learn, or associating it with
other things that will jog our memory, can improve the “laying down”
and later recall of the thing we’re
trying to remember.
Synapses that don’t continue to be
activated fade away. If your boss’
number changes, or your parents
move, the associated neural real
estate will likely be up for sale, at
least after a while. This is the “use
it or lose it” concept.
Some things may be indelibly
carved into our neural circuits — like
real estate permanently designated
for a specific use. You may still
remember the phone number of the
home you grew up in, even if you
haven’t used it in years. So, too,
emotionally charged memories may
be especially strong and enduring.
Drive a Cab,
Expand Your Brain
A classic example from the
annals of brain science
showing how experience can
shape the brain is a 2000
study performed on London
cab drivers,1 who have highly
refined abilities for navigating a
large, complex city. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI),
researchers at University
College, London, found that cab
drivers’ hippocampuses — part
of the brain involved in spatial
memory and navigation — were
significantly larger compared
with those of other people. The
longer the taxi driver had been
on the job, the larger his hippocampus was.
A number of studies have documented changes in the part of
the brain’s motor cortex that
maps activity in the hand
among musicians who play
string instruments or the piano;
it is even possible to determine
what instrument an individual
plays by looking at the pattern
of structural change in the
motor cortex.2 Other studies
suggest that practicing a skill
in the mind’s eye only — visualizing a specific series of finger
movements, for example, rather
than actually performing them
— has a corresponding effect
on brain structure in the relevant region.
Such studies have become
classic examples of how one’s
life experiences literally shape
and reshape the brain.
Your Brain at Work 7
What Does It Mean to Be
Notes from the lab
Research studies in many countries have found four factors that
may predict maintenance of
1. Increased mental activity
2. Increased physical activity
3. Increased levels of social
4. Control of vascular risk by:
a. Controlling weight
b. Monitoring cholesterol
c. Monitoring blood pressure
d. Not smoking
It’s true after all: use it or lose it
veryone knows what a fit body looks like, but fit brains,
which don’t boast rippled muscles or six-packs, are
tougher to distinguish. Brain fitness is a state of mind in
which we are performing well cognitively and emotionally.
When we’re cognitively fit, we’re maintaining our mental
edge, staying sharp, aging successfully. Brain fitness is not
only the absence of disease, either Alzheimer’s or other types
of dementia; it is also the preservation of emotional and cognitive well-being throughout our working years and beyond.
Your brain at work is in a win-win
situation. Any cognitive stimulation
you receive in your workplace is
like a daily workout for your brain.
And the more fit your brain is, the
better prepared you are likely to be
to cope efficiently with the daily
challenges of life and work.
Developing a healthy brain attitude
and lifestyle has benefits at every
stage of life, in virtually every aspect
of our lives. The sooner we begin,
the better, but we can reap the
benefits regardless of when we
start, just as physical exercise can
improve physical health at any age.
Whether you are in your 30s or your
50s or even older, you may be able
to improve your cognitive vitality.
Your Brain at Work 9
The Fundamentals of
The basics of cognitive fitness lie in
fundamental healthy-brain practices,
such as physical activity, social
interaction, mental stimulation, a
brain-friendly diet, healthy sleep
patterns, and stress management.
Benefits from such practices range
from cellular and biochemical
changes at the level of neurons and
synapses to “whole-brain” changes,
such as denser neural networks or
more efficient neural processing.
These kinds of physiological alterations may be manifested as
improved cognitive functioning —
better memory, faster learning,
greater attention and focus — and
as emotional well-being.
The bottom line is that a brainhealthy lifestyle is a combination of
many factors, each of which has its
own benefits to the brain. When
combined, the benefits are likely to
be additive: The more brain-healthy
practices you follow, the greater the
Of course, no one can guarantee
that adopting a brain-healthy
lifestyle will absolutely ensure good
cognitive health until your dying day,
but the potential benefits of shaping
up your brain are increasingly welldocumented. In the following pages,
we’ll show you how to put these
scientific findings to work for you.
“If we maintain cognitive function over
time, then we are more likely to be
Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., Professor of Neurology and
Psychiatry, Director of Cognitive Neuroscience,
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
10 Your Brain at Work
Cognitive fitness is
a state of mind in
which we are
Attaining it entails
following healthybrain practices, such
as exercising the
mind and body,
and sleeping well,
and managing stress.
Your Brain at Work 11
Move Your BODY!
Notes from the lab
What if simple exercise could boost
the rate at which your brain makes
new neurons? Columbia University
researchers have found provocative
evidence that structured aerobic exercise does exactly that3 – and we’re
not just talking about rodents on a
Neuroscientist Scott Small and his
colleagues put 11 adults through 40
minutes of aerobics four times a week
for 12 weeks, then measured blood
flow in the participants’ brains.
Small’s team wanted to know whether
the exercise would help generate new
neurons in the hippocampus (a
process called “neurogenesis”), as
had previously been shown to occur in
Since there’s no way to measure neurogenesis directly in humans, the
researchers did a parallel study in
mice, examining their brains after they
were allowed to exercise freely for
two weeks (mice actually like exercise). They found blood flow changes
in the animals’ brains that correlated
with the degree of neurogenesis that
had occurred. Then they compared
these changes to those in the
The patterns matched closely, convincing scientists that they were seeing the first surrogate representation of increased neurogenesis in the human hippocampus. What’s more,
the blood flow changes in the brain correlated with both cardiopulmonary and cognitive
fitness. Conclusion: increased blood flow to the hippocampus may trigger or support new
neuron growth, which in turn may improve learning.
When you work out your body,
your brain benefits
f you haven’t yet heeded the message to get moving,
here’s one more good reason to do so: Increasing your
level of physical activity is one of the best things you can do
for your brain. You don’t have to run a marathon or develop
Popeye-like muscles; even a half-hour of moderate physical
activity (think: walking briskly) will help. Strive for that
much every day.
How Exercise Helps
The last few years have seen an explosion of scientific evidence for the brain
benefits of exercise, leaving little doubt that increasing physical activity is
Job No. 1 for everyone interested in maintaining cognitive function.
Studies in humans and animals have found that exercise:
Enhances memory and learning,
demonstrated by better performance on a range of cognitive
Improves mood and counteracts
depression. There is substantial
evidence for the antidepressive
qualities of regular aerobic exercise, and government-funded
clinical trials are underway to
investigate exercise as a treatment for depression, alone or in
combination with antidepressant
Enlarges blood vessels to pump
more blood and oxygen into the
Increases levels of brain-derived
neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a
growth factor that supports and
nourishes brain cells.
Ramps up the rate at which new
nerve cells are generated in the
hippocampus, and increases
the volume of the hippocampus.
Increases the number of glia,
brain cells that support neurons
and speed neural processing.
Your Brain at Work 13
How much exercise is needed?
The answer continues to be debated, but most experts agree that
striving for at least 30 minutes of
moderate exercise daily, four or
more days a week, is sufficient to
improve brain health. Most human
studies on the brain benefits of
exercise have had people doing aerobic exercise for 45 minutes to an
hour, three or four days a week, but
it’s important to keep in mind that
any exercise is better than none.
If you can’t find an hour to devote to
it, think piecemeal: Start with three
10-minute walks over the course of
the day. Aerobic exercise such as
swimming, cycling, or brisk walking
that raises the heart rate for a sustained period is best, probably
because it floods the brain with
“There is increasing research in human
and animal studies to suggest that physical
activity and exercise will protect your mind
and brain throughout your lifetime.”
Art Kramer, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology,
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
14 Your Brain at Work
No time in your workday for
Fit in a little exercise whenever you can,
even while at work. For example:
Use work breaks or lunch
times to go for a walk.
Stand up and walk around
while talking on the phone;
you can also do leg lifts,
extensions, or arm curls to
work your muscles.
Park your car a distance from
your workplace and hoof it.
If you work at home, walk
around the block.
Visit co-workers in person
instead of phoning or
Skip the elevator and take
Use the restroom that is
farthest from your desk.
Use commuting time to
practice deep breathing and
Your Brain at Work 15
Meet, Greet, & Be Social
Notes from the lab
What’s in a leader’s brain? What’s different about the brain of a visionary leader?
Can the characteristics of leadership be
defined and mapped onto the brain? If so,
can we change our own brains to resemble those of outstanding leaders?
That is the theory behind emerging neuroscience research driven largely by business management experts seeking new
ways to foster leadership skills.
Neuroscientist Robert Thatcher and
Arizona State University business professor Pierre Balthazard are among those
trying to harness the brain’s inherent
plasticity to build a better business leader.
Their idea is to map patterns of electrical
activity across brain regions to see how
leaders differ, then develop training programs targeted at those areas.
Subjects undergo psychological assessment to identify leadership attributes, then
answer questions while having an electroencephalography (EEG) scan. EEG uses
noninvasive electrodes to read brain electrical activity and translate it into a series
of spikes and squiggles on a printout.
Thatcher analyzes the data to identify
features that distinguish leaders. Based
on early results that have not yet been
published in a peer-reviewed scientific
journal, leaders seem to have “a more
highly developed right hemisphere” and
better-coordinated neuron firing there,
suggesting more efficient neural processing, according to Thatcher. Differences
were particularly pronounced toward the
back of the right brain, an area associated
with social skills, self-awareness, and
awareness of the subtleties of other people’s emotions. This suggests that “the
social side of leadership” may be critical,
The researchers recently scanned West
Point cadets to investigate whether military leaders are unique. And Balthazard
is working on training programs to help
people attain a more “leader-like” brain
through a combination of traditional leadership education and EEG biofeedback
Your Brain Needs Social Connections
umans are social animals. Study after study has shown
that staying socially connected — that is, spending time
with friends and acquaintances and participating in many
social activities — is one of the fundamental tenets of cognitive health. Conversely, being socially isolated is associated
with a host of health problems and shorter lifespan overall.
Think about it: When you’re actively
engaging with other people, you’re
using your brain (How can I get him
on my team?). When you’re meeting
new people, you’re using your brain
(What was her name?). People are
good for brain health because they
are unpredictable. They keep us on
our toes. And we can learn something from every person we meet.
How Social Interaction
Scientists don’t completely
understand how social interactions
contribute to cognitive fitness.
One theory is that social networks
help us manage stress better.
When you have a strong social
network, you are likely to have
people you’re looking out for, and
people who are looking out for you
— someone to lean on in times of
need. This gives us a sense of
purpose and belonging, and may
better equip us to cope with the
curve balls life sometimes throws.
Staying socially active, in the
office or in the neighborhood, is
also closely linked with feelings of
“self-efficacy,” the sense that what
we do in life makes a difference,
that our life has meaning. This is
another important component of
Your Brain at Work 17
Building Your Social Network
defined by social
are associated with
Conclusion from the
Chicago Health and Aging
Project, funded by the
National Institute on Aging
18 Your Brain at Work
If you’re working in anything
other than a one-person office,
you’ve probably got a fair
amount of social interaction
built right into your workplace.
Use this to your advantage.
Engage with co-workers outside of the office; schedule
weekly “coffeehouse” sessions
after work, or put together an
informal sports league, such
as bowling or softball, to get
people active and engaging
Some other ideas:
If you telecommute or work
in a field job, there are still
many ways to build in social
Volunteer with a local charity, school, or social organization. You’ll
meet new people and feel good about helping fulfill a need in your
Take a course or workshop that puts you in touch with other likeminded people.
Join a book club, garden club, professional association, or some
other kind of group to pursue professional affiliations or an
activity you enjoy.
Stay in touch! Look up friends you’d like to reconnect with.
Plan regular visits with your extended family or your circle of
friends — say, Sunday night potluck dinners.
Engage people — even if it’s the deli worker who serves you
coffee each day.
Greet the mail carrier or delivery person, and get to know
Find out who else in your neighborhood works from home and
plan regular get-togethers for coffee or lunch and celebrations,
such as holidays or birthdays.
Do your work at a local library or community workspace a few
times a week. Chances are you will meet other regulars and get
to know the librarians, too.
Your Brain at Work 19
Work Your Brain
Notes from the lab
Can training your brain really stave off cognitive decline? Spectacular claims abound, but
rigorous clinical trials are harder to come by. Some convincing scientific evidence for the
benefits of cognitive training comes from a large government-funded study known as
ACTIVE, or Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly.
In a 2006 report,4 ACTIVE researchers demonstrated that participating in a short-term but
structured cognitive training program significantly improved cognitive skills closely related
to the skill set targeted, and that the benefits persisted even after five years.
“The improvements seen after the training roughly counteract the degree of decline in cognitive performance that we would expect to see over a seven-to-fourteen year period among
older people without dementia,” the study’s lead investigator said.
ACTIVE included 2,802 adults 65 and older who were randomly assigned to participate in
one of three cognitive training programs that taught them strategies for improving memory,
reasoning, or speed of processing. A fourth group of “controls” received no training.
The training interventions involved up to 10 sessions over a six-week period. A proportion of
the study participants also received four “booster” sessions over the course of the five-year
study period. Each participant underwent cognitive testing before and after the interventions, and annually thereafter.
They’re called brainteasers for a reason...
t makes perfect sense that working your brain can help
keep it sharp. Brain research is beginning to support that
notion with solid scientific evidence.
One of the largest studies investigating risk factors for Alzheimer’s
disease (the Religious Orders Study,
whose participants are Catholic
nuns, priests, and brothers, age 65
and older), found that people who
engaged more frequently in activities involving significant information
processing — things like listening to
the radio, reading newspapers,
playing puzzle games, and going
to museums — had a much lower
incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.5
Similar results have been found in
More recently, a large clinical trial
investigated whether a structured
cognitive training program for older
adults could affect mental functioning. Participants were trained in
memory, reasoning, and speed of
processing. The majority did indeed
improve in the skill areas in which
they were trained. Moreover, the
improvements persisted long after
the training stopped, suggesting a
long-term benefit (see page 20).
How Mental Activity
How mental activity improves
cognition (and reduces dementia
risk in later life) is not entirely clear,
but a leading theory is that it sets
up a “cognitive reserve” in the brain.
Intellectual stimulation drives the
brain to develop denser synaptic
connections. This in effect makes
the brain more flexible, enabling it
to use alternate neural pathways to
adapt to changing demands and
possibly offering some measure of
protection from normal or diseaserelated cognitive changes.
“When we stimulate our brain by
actively thinking, we are sculpting
our own neural architecture.”
Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., Chief, Cognitive Neuroscience Section,
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Your Brain at Work 21
Brain to Work
Despite the infant state of research in this area, “brain training” gimmicks and gadgets abound. But be careful: Very few of these products
or services have been subjected to rigorous scientific studies.
Brain scientists who have spent years (or decades) studying cognitive
improvement strategies tend to be conservative. The database is growing, but there’s much more to be learned, including which types of activities are most beneficial and why. Based on what is known, it’s possible
to formulate a few general principles. One is to engage in activities that
stimulate and challenge you. Hopefully, those activities include your job.
At home, your options are more varied. If Sudoku challenges you, do
Sudoku. If reading a fascinating novel does, read a novel.
22 Your Brain at Work
Some other tips
Find ways to put your brain to work every day, such as balancing
your checkbook without a calculator or using a map to figure out
directions, rather than getting them online.
At work, learn a new software program or volunteer for a new
The brain loves novelty, so seek out something new: a new hobby
or craft, a new language, or a subject you’ve never been exposed
to before. Adult education courses are good places to start. Many
employers now offer online training on many topics. Take a selfdirected class and learn a new skill.
Break out of your normal routine. This can be as simple as using
your nondominant hand to eat your dinner or taking a different
route to work — anything that gets your brain off autopilot.
Play challenging games like Scrabble®, Concentration, or Bridge.
Take up a musical instrument and either teach yourself to play or
obtain some professional instruction.
Explore new places and/or cultures, whether they are nearby or
Surround yourself with stimulating people and situations; visit
museums and art galleries; attend concerts and sporting events.
Your Brain at Work 23
Diet and Nutrition
Feed Your Brain
Here’s some food for
thought: diet matters
t’s notoriously difficult to
determine which components of our abundant, varied
Western diets are healthful
and which are not, as evidenced by the conflicting,
shifting dietary advice promulgated by an ever-changing
array of experts. This is an
area in which the science is
continuing to emerge —
meaning that what we know
today may change tomorrow.
Still, there are some general
guidelines that most experts
in this area agree on.
24 Your Brain at Work
“Do what your mother told you to do:
Eat all those healthy fruits and vegetables!”
Claudia Kawas, M.D., Associate Director of the Institute for
Brain Aging and Dementia, University of California, Irvine
In a large government-funded study, women in their 60s who ate
more green leafy and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, or cabbage) did
much better on cognitive tests6 10 years later. The women who ate the most of
these vegetables were mentally “younger” by one to two years than those who ate
Fatty fish Certain fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to
have beneficial brain effects. Best sources are salmon, tuna, and mackerel. Some
manufactured foods are now fortified with omega-3 fats.
Whole grains A diet rich in whole grains, such as brown rice and whole wheat
bread or pasta, supports overall cardiovascular health, which is closely linked to
Blueberries This fruit is a potent source of antioxidants, which counteract celldamaging “free radicals” throughout the body. Other sources of antioxidants are
most berries, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pomegranates, ginger, legumes, and colorful
vegetables. Antioxidant supplements have not been proven to offer the same health
benefits as antioxidant-rich foods.
Red wine Many studies have shown that alcohol, used in moderation (up to1–2
glasses a day), may be beneficial to the brain.
Your Brain at Work 25
Notes from the lab
Meditation is a proven stress management technique, and has been shown to
improve cardiovascular health and even
boost immune function. But what can it
do for your brain? Landmark studies with
Tibetan Buddhist monks uncovered
Richard Davidson and colleagues at the
University of Wisconsin showed that
“expert meditators” have a higher level of
the brain waves associated with advanced
mental activity such as attention, learning,
and conscious perception.7 The distinct
rhythms persisted even when participants
were not actively meditating, suggesting
that long-term meditation alters baseline
Other research indicates that regular
meditation can actually change the structure of the brain in areas associated with
attention and sensory processing. A brain
imaging study led by Sara Lazar 8 at
Massachusetts General Hospital showed
that areas of the cerebral cortex, the
outer layer of gray matter in the brain,
were thicker in participants who were
experienced in a practice called insight or
“mindfulness” meditation. The thickening
was most pronounced in older subjects,
suggesting that meditation could reduce
the thinning of the cortex that typically
occurs with aging.
It’s only your brain we’re talking about
one of us can expect to do away with stress entirely
in our lives. But we can learn to manage it and take
positive steps to blunt its impact.
Often, we feel stressed when we
lose a sense of control over our
lives. In today’s global economy,
Americans are working harder and
longer than ever before. Our daily
work requires relentless multitasking, and we face constant change as
companies adapt to fierce competition and advances in technology.
Navigating the demands of our work
and our personal lives leaves many
of us feeling like we are not particularly successful in either. Taking
action to regain control — or choosing to let go of control — is the first
step. This may require taking a hard
look at what’s going on in our lives,
assessing where we give up control,
and deciding how much we need to
have control, in any particular area.
Then we can prioritize, and we can
either try to change the underlying
situations that leave us feeling out
of control or accept that there are
some things in life that we simply
have no control over.
One thing we can exert some control over is attitude. No matter what
is going on around us, and how
much chaos seems to surround us,
we can still choose to focus on the
positive aspects of a situation and
minimize the negative.
Your Brain on Multitasking
Multitasking has become a way of
life — and work — for many of us. We
check email while on a conference
call. Review slides during a meeting.
Talk on a cell phone while we’re
driving. Doing two or three things at
once may have become so secondnature we don’t even realize we’re
doing it. We may not be able to
imagine how we would get through
our day if not for this capacity
Your Brain at Work 27
It may surprise you to learn that
multitasking is not the most efficient use of brain power. A series of
studies in recent years has used
brain imaging to understand how
the brain handles discrete tasks
that are performed simultaneously.
The results suggest that multitasking has a cost in terms of efficiency,
learning, and neural activity devoted
to each task.
One of the most recent studies,
from Vanderbilt University,9
suggests that the brain’s executive
control center in the frontal lobes
is incapable of processing two decision-making operations at once,
effectively creating a bottleneck in
information processing that delays
the execution of the second task
until the first one is complete.
Separately, researchers at the
University of California – Los
Angeles reported a 2006 study10
finding that multitasking adversely
affects the brain’s learning systems.
Study participants, who were all in
their 20s, learned a task in two
28 Your Brain at Work
ways: without any distractions and
with the distraction of a series of
beeps that they were asked to
count silently. Learning the task
with the distraction created a less
robust memory of the task, reducing
participants’ subsequent knowledge
when questioned about the task
at a later time.
Earlier published studies show that
switching from one task to another
costs the brain time — the more
complex the tasks, the more time it
takes the brain to switch — and that
when the brain engages in two
tasks simultaneously, it devotes less
neural activity to each task, essentially dividing its processing power
rather than doubling it.
The bottom line from these studies
is that multitasking is inefficient at
best, at least from a brain-processing
point of view. Focusing on one task
at a time is likely to produce better —
and faster — results.
Good Stress/Bad Stress
Stress is a double-edged sword
in terms of its cognitive impact.
On one hand, mild stress — like an
approaching deadline — tends to
improve cognitive performance,
focusing our attention on the task
at hand. But when stress becomes
chronic or unmitigated, it can damage the brain and impair memory.
That’s because when we are faced
with a serious stressor, the brain
triggers the adrenal glands to
release powerful stress hormones
such as cortisol and adrenaline.
Repeated or long-term exposure
to these hormones — as happens in
chronic stress or conditions such
as post-traumatic stress disorder —
is toxic to nerve cells in the
Stress Managment Techniques
• Deal with situations directly.
Instead of complaining, focus on
finding a solution.
• During stressful moments like
work deadlines or commuter traffic jams, take a series of deep
breaths. With regular practice, this
technique may help you relax during stressful situations.
• Spend time with co-workers away
from work. Getting friendly may
make working together easier.
• Take a break from stress. Walk
around the block or have lunch
away from work – in a park or at a
nearby restaurant. Whether you
are alone or with a friend, that
time may help reduce the tension
• Try to be objective when dealing
with difficult people, situations,
or decisions. Remind yourself that
it’s not personal, it’s business.
• Listen to calming music. If you can
bring in an iPhone, do it.
• Avoid caffeine – coffee, tea,
chocolate, etc. Caffeine can make
you jittery and increase your
• Control what you can in your work
environment. Start each day by
making a plan. Set up systems to
stay on top of email and voice
mail. Reduce noise with headphones. Get rid of desk clutter.
Make a to-do list. Getting organized may make you feel more in
control at work.
• If your workload is unmanageable,
ask your manager to help you set
Your Brain at Work 29
Notes from the lab
The idea that sleep is necessary to consolidate what we
learn into long-term memories
has gained significant ground
in recent years, despite the
difficulty of proving the
hypothesis. While it’s clear
that people remember better
if they have a full night’s
sleep, why this is so has
remained largely a mystery.
Recent work by Brown
offers fresh clues.11,12 Mayank
Mehta and colleagues recorded electrical activity from the
brains of mice anesthetized to
mimic the deepest sleep
states of humans, when memory storage is believed to
occur. (The hippocampus is
responsible for new learning,
but scientists believe that
long-term memories are
stored in the cortex, and that
a “filing” process happens
while we sleep.)
Mehta’s team captured
a startling “dialogue” of
between the cortex and the
hippocampus, in which the
cortex initiated a pattern
of nerve firing immediately
echoed by hippocampal
neurons (see image at right).
The work demonstrates a
novel dialogue between the
hippocampus and cortex during sleep, which the authors
believe plays a key role in
Surprisingly, the cortex
seemed to be driving this
dialogue, as if it were phoning
a subordinate to order up the
files it anticipated needing
later. Mehta speculates that
this is the brain’s way of
wiping clean the white-board
of the hippocampus to make
way for the next day’s new
To sleep, perchance to retain new information
etting a good night’s sleep — 7 to 8 hours for most adults —
is essential to performing at our best. If you find yourself
regularly having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, there
are some things you can do to address the problem.
How Sleep May Help
What the brain does during sleep is
one of the enduring questions in
neuroscience research, and we
don’t have all the answers yet. But a
growing body of evidence suggests
that a full night of restful sleep is
critical for memory consolidation
and retaining information. In studies, people who are deprived of
sleep generally score significantly
worse on memory and cognitive
tests — and the deficits may not
be reversible even after the participants are allowed to sleep.
If, after a week or two, you still can’t
sleep, see your doctor. You could
have a sleep disorder, such as
obstructive sleep apnea or restless
legs syndrome. Identifying and
treating the cause of your sleep disturbance can help get you back on
the road to a good night’s sleep.
While you were sleeping… experiments in sleeping mice show a
remarkable degree of synchronization between patterns of nerve firing in the brain’s cortex (blue trace)
and hippocampus (red trace), with
hippocampal activity immediately
following cortical oscillations. In the
background is a hippocampal neuron of the type from which data
were recorded. This study was
undertaken by Brown neuroscientist
Mayank Mehta, in collaboration
with Thomas Hahn and Bert
Your Brain at Work 31
These tips can
help you get
a good night’s sleep
Go to bed and get up at about the same
time every day, even on weekends.
Don’t eat or drink large amounts
Avoid nicotine and caffeine.
Make your bedroom cool, dark,
quiet, and comfortable.
32 Your Brain at Work
Sticking to a schedule helps reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle
and can help you fall asleep better at night.
Eat a light dinner about two hours before sleeping. If you’re prone to
heartburn, avoid spicy or fatty foods, which can make your heartburn
flare and prevent a restful sleep. Also, limit how much you drink before
bed. Too much liquid can cause you to wake up repeatedly during the
night for trips to the bathroom.
These are addictive stimulants that can keep you awake. Smokers
often experience withdrawal symptoms at night, and smoking in bed is
dangerous. Avoid caffeine for eight hours before your desired bedtime.
Your body doesn’t store caffeine, but it does take many hours for it to
eliminate the stimulant and its effects.
Regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercise, can help you fall
asleep faster and make your sleep more restful. Don’t exercise within
two hours of your bedtime, however. Exercising close to bedtime may
keep you awake longer.
Create a room that’s ideal for sleeping. Adjust the lighting, temperature, humidity, and noise level to your preferences. Use blackout curtains, eye covers, earplugs, extra blankets, a fan, a humidifier, or other
devices to create an environment that suits your needs.
Continued on page 34
Your Brain at Work 33
a good night’s sleep
Continued from page 33
Sleep primarily at night.
Choose a comfortable mattress
Start a relaxing bedtime routine.
Go to bed when you’re tired, and turn
out the lights.
Use sleeping pills only as a last resort.
Source: Mayo Clinic (www.mayoclinic.com)
34 Your Brain at Work
Daytime naps may steal hours from nighttime slumber. Limit daytime
sleep to less than one hour and don’t nap later than 3 p.m. If you work
nights, keep your window coverings closed so that sunlight, which adjusts
the body’s internal clock, doesn’t interrupt your sleep. If you have a day
job and sleep at night but still have trouble waking up, leave the window
coverings open and let the sunlight wake you up.
Features of a good bed are subjective and differ for each person. But
make sure you have a bed that’s comfortable. If you share your bed, make
sure there’s enough room for two. Children and pets are often disruptive,
so you may need to set limits on how often they sleep in bed with you.
Do the same things each night to tell your body it’s time to wind down.
This may include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, or listening to soothing music. Relaxing activities done with lowered lights can
help ease the transition between wakefulness and sleepiness.
If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up and do something else.
Go back to bed when you’re tired. Don’t agonize over falling asleep.
The stress will only prevent sleep.
Check with your doctor before taking any sleep medications. He or she
can make sure the pills won’t interact with your other medications or with
an existing medical condition. Your doctor can also help you determine
the best dosage. If you do take a sleep medication, reduce the dosage
gradually when you want to quit, and never mix alcohol and sleeping
pills. If you feel sleepy or dizzy during the day, talk to your doctor about
changing the dosage or discontinuing the pills.
Your Brain at Work 35
How Can You Put It All Together?
Notes from the lab
Even if life sometimes feels like a rat race, people as a rule are a bit more evolved than
rodents. But at the most fundamental levels of brain function – the dance of molecules,
proteins, and electrical signals that drive cell-to-cell communication in the brain – we’re not
so different from our four-legged friends. It’s reasonable to presume that generally, what’s
good for their brains is good for ours as well.
So what can we learn from decades of animal research chronicling the brain benefits of
“enriched environments” that we can put to use in our lives? If we could create the perfect
enriched environment in which to work, what would it include?
Think about how you can adapt your own work-style (and life in general) to incorporate principles of good cognitive health in each of these areas:
• Working more physical activity into your day, including aerobic exercise, stretching, and
moving your body whenever possible.
• Stimulating and challenging the mind by learning something new and seeking out novel
experiences or different ways of doing routine things.
• Maintaining plenty of interaction with other people, including meaningful social engagement and connections with friends and loved ones.
• Managing stress and finding positive ways of coping with high-stress periods.
• Being mindful of your diet and sleep habits, working in brain-healthy foods on a daily basis,
and giving your brain the sleep it needs to stay alert and attentive.
Enrich Your Life, Enrich Your Brain
If you had your own personal cognitive fitness trainer,
what kind of a training program would he/she put you on?
learly, cognitive fitness is multidimensional. It’s
more than physical activity. It’s more than mental
stimulation. And it’s more than social interaction, diet,
stress management, or adequate sleep. Each of these
factors is important, but even more important is putting
them all together.
Just as taking care of your body
involves more than exercise
alone, taking care of your brain
demands a multifaceted
approach. The more you do to
take charge of brain health, the
more you are likely to benefit.
The good news is
that by making simple
changes in your
day-to-day life, you
can reap the benefits
of cognitive fitness.
The Team Approach
to Brain Health
While no single activity is going to
give you total cognitive fitness,
activities that combine physical
exertion with new learning and
social engagement are likely to
offer additive benefits beyond
activities that focus on only one
of these factors.
Your Brain at Work 37
A number of studies have
suggested that participating in
group dance lessons improves
cognitive functioning. For example,
researchers at McGill University in
Montreal presented data at a 2005
scientific meeting showing that
older adults who learned Argentine
tango dancing experienced improvements in cognition and day-to-day
task performance. Tango combines
social integration (dancing with a
partner; participating in a group
class) with mental challenge (learning complicated dance steps) and
physical exercise requiring balance
One of the largest studies to look
at the benefits of combining
various factors known to affect
cognitive fitness is a clinical trial by
Johns Hopkins University called
38 Your Brain at Work
Experience Corps,13 which recruits
older adults as volunteer mentors
for elementary-school students
in13 cities across the country. The
volunteers play roles designed to
have a high impact on children’s
educational outcomes, providing the
participants an opportunity to make
a real difference in a child’s life. At
the same time, Experience Corps
increases the volunteers’ social,
cognitive, and physical activity.
Preliminary results from the study
show that the older adults participating in Experience Corps scored
significantly better on cognitive
tests than a group of control subjects who did not participate. They
also got physically stronger, had
higher levels of physical activity, and
expanded their social networks.
Such studies extend a long history of research examining animals
that are raised in so-called
enriched environments — cages
that are filled with toys, running
wheels, and tunnels, and that are
shared with other animals. Mice
or rats who are exposed to such
stimulating environments, which
give them ample opportunity for
exercising voluntarily, playful
exploration, and interacting with
others of their species, show significant benefits over animals
raised in standard cages without
the extra stimulation.
Specifically, they learn to run a
maze faster and more accurately
and to better remember the best
path through the maze.
When researchers look at the
brains of animals raised in these
complex environments, they find
increased numbers of synapses,
larger blood vessels, higher levels of neuron-supporting brain
chemicals, and other physiological changes indicative of
improved neural functioning.
Enrichment of this sort even
boosts the number of new neurons that are generated in the
hippocampus, a phenomenon
that is associated with better
Your Brain at Work 39
It’s Never Too Late
or Too Early to Begin
When should you start training your brain?
s cognitive fitness research progresses and expands, we can
expect more specific guidelines on just what types of work and
leisure activities are most beneficial, how often to do them, and why
they affect brain health. In the meantime, it is encouraging to know
that, just by making simple changes in your day-to-day life, you can
take control of your brain health and reap the benefits of cognitive
It’s never too late or too early to begin. And the sooner you start,
the more you stand to gain.
We hope this booklet has helped you identify goals for making your brain
fit for life – by spending more time on such brain-boosting activities as
exercise and socializing, or even learning something new. Now let’s focus
on steps to help you reach those goals. You will find a convenient action
plan format at the end of this discussion. Fill it out by using the following
40 Your Brain at Work
Your Cognitive Fitness Strategy
An Action Plan for Brain Health
Write it down.
Putting your goals in writing makes
them more meaningful. Adding why
you want to achieve each goal is a
Take baby steps.
You’ll feel overwhelmed if you try to
address every aspect of brain health
at once. Set priorities.
Give yourself a timeframe.
And remember: That implies giving
yourself enough time to work at and
master your goals.
People who try to do too much too
soon often get discouraged and give
up altogether. Don’t be a victim of
your own ambition. If your goals
seem impossible, revise them.
Now, determine your baseline. Think
about how you measure up against
the healthy brain practices below.
• Who did I see today, and for what
• What did I do to reconnect with
someone I care about today?
• How many minutes did I walk
today, including around the office?
• How did I work exercise into my
• Did I “walk and talk” at work,
rather than emailing or phoning?
• What did I learn today?
• What routine task did I approach
• Did I challenge my mind? Did I do
anything just for fun?
• I ate ___ servings of fruits and vegetables today.
• 3 brain-healthy things I ate today
• How was my stress level today?
• What caused me the greatest
stress today? What triggered it?
• How did I cope? How did I relax?
• How well did I sleep last night?
How long? Did I awaken during
• If sleep was poor, do I know why?
• Did I feel drowsy during the day?
• Did I nap?
How you answer these questions
may help you determine which
areas of brain health you need to
focus on as you map out your cognitive fitness plan.
Your Brain at Work 41
Your Action Plan for Brain Fitness
Action steps: ____________________________________________________
Timeline (when you will assess your progress): ________________________
Revise goals or set new ones: ______________________________________
Whatever your cognitive fitness focus turns out to be – more exercise, more
stimulation, more social contact – you can pursue your goals at work as well as
at home. Use these ideas to fill your work week with brain-boosting activities.
Monday Conduct a “walking meeting”
at the office, rather than a sit-down
session with a colleague.
Thursday Card games are a great way
to exercise your brain. Challenge a
colleague at lunch.
Tuesday Shake things up! Volunteer to
collaborate on a project you don’t
know much about, or learn a new software program.
Friday Sharpen your communications
skills by answering your emails with a
phone call instead of pushing the
Wednesday Bring a bag of blueberries
to enjoy during a coffee break.
Additional resources about cognitive fitness and healthy brain practices.
You’ll find suggestions for additional reading at the end of this booklet. They can
help you gain a deeper understanding of the many issues raised here, or help
you find out more about what actions you can take to improve your brain at
work and keep it fit for life.
42 Your Brain at Work
Alzheimer’s disease (page 9): a degenerative
brain disease of unknown cause and the most
common form of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease
usually starts in late middle age or in old age as
memory loss involving recent events, then progresses over the course of five to ten years to a
profound intellectual decline characterized by
dementia and personal helplessness.
Antioxidant (25): A substance, such as vitamin E,
vitamin C, or beta carotene, thought to protect
body cells from the damaging effects of oxidation.
Cardiovascular (25): of, pertaining to, or affecting
the heart and blood vessels.
Cognitive function (1): a general term pertaining
to functions of the brain, including thinking, perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, judging, sensing,
reasoning, and imagining.
Dementia (9): general mental deterioration from a
previously normal state of cognitive function or
psychological factors (not to be confused with
mental retardation or developmental disability).
Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia.
Dendrites: short nerve fibers that project from a
nerve cell, generally receiving messages from the
axons of other neurons and relaying them to the
Glia [glial cells] (13): the supporting cells of the
central nervous system, which protect and nourish
neurons and are increasingly believed to be directly involved in the modulation of nerve signaling.
Hippocampus (7): structure located deep in the
brain and involved in memory and learning.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (7): A brainimaging technique that measures metabolic activity in neurons and constructs an anatomical image
based on the data. Functional MRI is an adaptation
of the technique that can identify which areas of
the brain are active during specific tasks, thereby
providing data on brain function in addition to
central nervous system, neurons are responsible
for the transmission of nerve impulses. Unlike any
other cell in the body, neurons consist of a central
cell body as well as several threadlike “arms”
called axons and dendrites, which transmit nerve
impulses. Scientists estimate there are more than
100 billion neurons in the brain.
Neuroscience (1): the study of the brain and nervous systems, including their structure, function,
and disorders. Neuroscience as a discipline has
emerged only in the last few decades.
Obstructive sleep apnea (31): recurring interruption of breathing during sleep because of obstruction of the upper airway by weak or malformed
pharyngeal tissues. It occurs especially in obese
middle-aged and elderly men, and results in hypoxemia and in chronic lethargy during the day.
Plasticity (6): in neuroscience, refers to the brain’s
capacity to change and adapt in response to developmental forces, learning processes, or aging, or in
response to an injury in a distinct area of the
Restless legs syndrome (31): feeling of uneasiness and restlessness in the legs after going to
bed (sometimes causing insomnia); may be
relieved temporarily by walking or moving the legs.
Self-efficacy (17): an individual's estimate or personal judgment of his or her own ability to succeed
in reaching a specific goal.
Synapse (6): the junction where an axon
approaches another neuron or its extension (a
dendrite; see definition above); the point at which
nerve-to-nerve communications occurs. Nerve
impulses traveling down the axon reach the
synapse and release neurotransmitters into the
synaptic cleft, the tiny gap between neurons.
Transcendental meditation (26): a technique,
based on ancient Hindu writings, by which one
seeks to achieve a relaxed state through regular
periods of meditation during which a mantra is
Neurons (10): nerve cells. The basic units of the
Your Brain at Work 43
The following individuals and groups contributed
extensively to the production of this guide.
The Conference Board
Mature Workforce Initiative Team
Linda Barrington, Ph. D.
Diane Piktialis, Ph. D.
Mary Young, Ph. D.
Your Brain at Work
Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives
Learn more about this nonprofit organization of
more than 265 pre-eminent neuroscientists,
including ten Nobel laureates, dedicated to
advancing education about the brain.
The Dana Alliance for Brain
Barbara E. Gill
Brenda Patoine, writer
Katherine L. Bick, Ph. D., scientific advisor
Download a copy of Met Life’s Ten Tips for
Maintaining a Healthy Brain.
National Institutes of Health
Links to all of the NIH websites, and a list of
web-based health resources, listed by topic.
The Brain Center
Your gateway to the latest research on the human
National Health and Wellness Bureau
Information on Employee Wellness programs.
Brain Information and Brain Web
Visit this section to access links to validated sites
related to more than 25 brain disorders.
National Heart Lung and Blood Institute
A quiz on the role of exercise in heart and overall
Brain Resources for Seniors
Older adults and caretakers can find a central
bank of sites about brain health, education, and
National Sleep Foundation
General information on the importance of good
sleep and tips and resources.
Brain Awareness Week
Learn more about this international event organized by the Dana Alliance.
44 Your Brain at Work
My Pyramid (the United States Department of
Customize your own “food pyramid” and get tips
for healthy eating.