Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons
There is not one single master key to sustaining mental agility. The photo shows keys in an Australian youth hostel.
Source: Dinkum via Wikimedia Commons

What keeps us mentally agile?  Can we train ourselves to be more mentally flexible?  

There is continued debate on whether more narrowly focused forms of “brain training” on specific tasks are actually beneficial.  Often the training simply enhances performance on the trained-on task itself, with little effect carrying over to unrelated tasks.  And some claims for the benefits of narrowly focused brain training are exaggerated and misleading.  However, it’s not all pessimistic.

There is growing hope, based on a wide range of theoretical and empirical findings in humans (e.g., Karr et al., 2014) and other animals (e.g., Kempermann, 2012) that creatively combining different types of cognitive training can work — especially if the training includes novelty and variety.     

Creativity packets

Consider what seems to be a relatively simple and straightforward task.  You are given a few dozen multi-colored pipe cleaners, and asked to use them to create a small vase filled with flowers.

When we asked participants to try their hand at this task, what surprised us as researchers was just how much ingenuity and sheer persistence were needed to successfully construct a simple vase and flowers out of pipe cleaners.  It wasn’t lack of time or envisioning that proved so challenging; it was the encounter with that obstinate force gravity, which despite their best efforts would again and again topple their featherweight vases.  The capsizing flower vessels required participants to adjust their plans and their strategies in order to generate less top-heavy, more aptly balanced structures.

Lesley Tranter and Wilma Koutstaal
Pipe cleaner vase made by one of our experimental participants.
Source: Lesley Tranter and Wilma Koutstaal

We discovered this as part of an experiment from my lab (among the first such multimodal intervention studies, published in 2008), when we recruited men and women between the ages of 60 and 75 who were healthy, active, and living independently.  We randomly assigned them to take part in one of two series of events over the course of the next 10 weeks.

One group was our comparison group.  They were invited to come twice to our lab and socialize together over tea in small groups. 

The second group was our experimental group and they were invited to our lab five times.  Every two weeks they were given a “creativity packet” specially developed in our lab by then-graduate student Lesley Tranter.  Besides constructing a freely and securely self-standing vase of flowers using pipe cleaners, other activities in the creativity packets included identifying objects in ambiguous mystery photos, solving math puzzles, and creative drawing.  On three of their visits, participants came to our lab for team activities such as making a marble run with cardboard tubes, tape, and marbles, and constructing a tower using newspapers, string, and plastic pulleys.

Both before and after the 10-week session the participants took several standardized tests that measured their ability to think on the spot and to work through novel visual-spatial reasoning problems. 

The performance of the control group on these on-the-spot tests of problem solving largely stayed flat across the 10 weeks. 

In contrast, the creativity packet group showed significant improvement in the tests of their adaptive mental flexibility.  They were more adept problem-solvers on challenges that were unrelated to the creativity-packet activities. 

Periodically engaging for only a few months in novel and continuing multi-faceted creative exploration and problem-solving skills carried over into new problems they had not encountered before.  

Challenging ourselves in different and novel ways

Let’s now turn to the results of a 2014 study by Elizabeth Stine-Morrow and colleagues that randomly assigned older adult participants to one of two kinds of novel activities over 16 weeks, or rather to a “nothing-new” control group placed on a waitlist.  All of the participants were given an extensive battery of thinking and problem-solving tests before and after the 16 weeks. 

In the first novel activities group (the “cognitive engagement” group), participants joined teams of 5 to 7 people in activities that encouraged both spontaneous “on-the-fly” problem solving and longer-term more extended problem solving.  Extended problem challenges could involve, for instance, planning and building a weight-bearing structure out of balsa wood that met specific constraints, or creating a retelling of an historical event that met particular performance or narrative requirements.   

The second novel activities group (the “cognitive training” group) involved individually performed problem-solving activities.  These took place at the participant’s home and required them to notice patterns and to logically infer the next steps in sequences of shapes, sounds, or letters.  The activities varied in difficulty and, each week, participants returned their completed puzzles to the lab, checked their answers, and were given new ones that were appropriately challenging.   

It was found that the cognitive engagement group significantly outperformed both the cognitive training group and the waitlist control group on measures of divergent thinking (such as generating alternative uses for common objects) — showing gains on an important contributor to flexibly creative thinking. 

The cognitive training group also benefitted but not on divergent thinking.  Compared with both the cognitive engagement and the control groups, they showed significant gains on measures of reasoning that required identifying patterns in a series of numbers or letters or determining which items did not fit with a pattern.

So, both cognitive engagement and cognitive training yielded benefits — but in different ways.  

The finding that improvements were observed on tasks that were not themselves specifically trained is important.  It shows that there can be carry-over benefits to never-before experienced activities.  However, the findings also suggest that we should not ask for too much from any one activity.  Rather, we may want to have a variety of activities, that challenge us in different and novel ways — inviting us to both “think hard” and “play hard.”  

Three questions to think about

  • What might be your “pipe cleaner vases” that unexpectedly challenge or surprise and stretch you?  How could you puncture a familiar habit with welcome newness?
  • Are there ways to keep you newly deploying your senses (smell, taste, touch, vision, and so on) and inviting novel ways of moving and meeting the physical and symbolic world? 
  • There is not one single master key to sustaining mental agility, but many are needed to open different rooms and options for us:  What keys might you be overlooking?

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