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The Six Brain Functions
From: Building Mental Muscle

The Brain

Brain Basics   Brain Glossary


Creative Visualization:
Your visuo-spatial ability is in fact many different kinds of ability, ranging from picking out details, to perceiving the arrangement of those details into patterns, to fitting those patterns into a knowledge base so you know what to do with them.

Like your other faculties, your visuo-spatial intelligence can be maintained or left to deteriorate. Visual close-ups can challenge you to project those details onto a larger pattern, thus exercising your right-brain-dependent holistic-imaging skills. Familiar patterns with a subtle detail or two out of place can test your attention to objective minutiae. And tasks demanding mental rotation of three-dimensional visual objects can be a real brain-buster, until you learn to get the hang of it.

Memory & Learning:
Memory is a partner in developing all other mental skills. The key to learning is the brain’s ability to convert a current experience into code and store it so, later, the experience can be recalled for your benefit. The brain codes some kinds of inputs from the senses permanently with no conscious effort on your part. It can also store other kinds of data because you consciously pass that data through a rehearsal loop repeatedly — which, incidentally, can also take place during sleep.

Executive Planning:
The front part of the cortex (the wrinkled outer covering of the brain) allows you to foresee goals and take the steps necessary to execute your plans. As the most recently-evolved part of the brain, the frontal lobes also house the most fragile parts of our identity, and support the faculties that require the most conscious effort and practice if you want to maintain them.

The flip side of the fragility of executive functions is that they are also the most malleable and improvable with practice. The best way to be an expert at organizing information and using it to your advantage is to work at it. Because your frontal-lobe functions are so consciously accessible, this is an easier matter — as long as you’re willing to make the effort — than, say, learning to adjust your brain-stem-governed body rhythms.


Language & Math:
Our acquisition of language in infancy is so instinctual and automatic that we sometimes take it for granted. Recent evidence shows us that a life-long willingness to push the envelope of our linguistic abilities helps keep our brain cell’s dendritic branches from atrophying, and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s.

Almost all of us fall within the same range of basic mathematical ability. Why, then, do so many of us avoid mental arithmetic calculations and math-games with the excuse that we’re just “not good at math”? But those of us who think of math as something we’re simply not good at tend to leave the mental calculations to others. By allowing ourselves to settle into this kind of pattern, we allow our mathematical acuity, and general mental alertness, to slip. This is, in fact, exactly why most of us who really are “not good at math” have become this way — because we’ve become comfortable thinking of ourselves this way.

Emotional Response:
Neuroscience is revealing the loci in the brain of our emotional faculties, and the neural pathways linking emotion to the “intellectual” functions of the mind. Emotion is intimately linked to cognition, and to the maintenance of the health of our brain cells as well as our body’s immune system.

Social Interaction:
Social interaction is a skill you may not think of as “mental,” but you really can’t ignore it if you want to boost your brainpower and maximize the effectiveness of your other mental skills. Some of the most interesting recent brain research has shown us ways that social skills are tied to all the other traditional measures of intelligence. A person may have a razor-sharp logical acumen and yet be unable to use that skill to make logical life decisions, or even to engage in productive social interactions. Social interaction is also one of the three pillars of a so-called “enriched environment,” along with mental stimulation and physical exercise. That’s the kind of environment that serves to keep all cognitive skills sharp, to boost the production of new brain cells, and even to lower Alzheimer’s risk.

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©2009 Allen D. Bragdon Publishers