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Cognitive function is a process and idea so embedded in the human experience that we rarely stop to think about what it is or the fact that we’re using it. Just as you can take control of your breathing and suddenly realize that you’ve been breathing all day without thinking about it, it is possible to temporarily lock into cognitive functions, though they are literally constantly happening in the background.
This could be as simple as paying attention to something or as complex as using reasoning, judgment, and decision making to act based on a varied set of inputs. As time passes, human cognitive function declines as a result of aging, injuries, and lack of use.
Fortunately, new research fields have indicated that there are foods, activities, and treatment options that can restore or improve cognition. Here’s a look at what human cognitive function entails and how you can improve it, whether you’re feeling slow or just looking to stay on your A-game.
Cognition is a broad label that covers several aspects of the subconscious human experience. The primary idea of cognition is that it encompasses all of our information processing functions, both conscious and unconscious, concrete and abstract, intuitive and conceptual.
Humans are unique in their ability to learn from example, intuition, and instruction, as well as their complex mastery of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Everything from reading a book to “reading a room” falls under the label of cognition, as do processes like memory, association, conceptualization, language, attention, perception, problem solving, processing speed, and pattern recognition.
There is even emerging research that suggests our emotions are a branch of cognition, and that emotional responses are perhaps more ‘intelligent’ than scientists once realized.
What’s more, there is another field called “metacognition” that is the scientific equivalent of taking control of your breathing or noticing you’re counting things while looking around a room. We are aware of our own awareness, and the implications of that are still very much being discovered.
These emerging fields also explore the relationship between biology and cognition--that is, how influenced our cognition is by chemical and structural processes within the brain as opposed to the mysterious and revered thing known as “the human conscious,” which is often referred to as the “soul” or “spirit.”
The most interesting questions this work raises are how scientists can create artificial intelligence using computers to best imitate the fundamentally mysterious, complex, and unpredictable human consciousness and, more pertinently, whether our cognition is largely influenced by certain chemical and structural factors that may be improved by supplements or other treatment approaches.
Unfortunately, our levels of cognition don’t remain the same throughout our lives.
One of the first difficulties that many people notice with cognition is declining processing speed or attention. This can manifest itself in a number of ways and due to a number of causes, but the feeling of being ‘scatterbrained’ or ‘moving a bit slower’ is a common complaint as people age, sustain head injuries, or perhaps suffer cognitive deficits associated with diet, stress, or lack of routine mental exercise.
There are a number of potential causes for cognitive decline, and that field alone is a major research area that scientists are ardently studying. This field runs the gamut from basic cognitive decline to diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. While cognitive decline is not fully understood, much progress is being made in the realm of restoring cognitive function, especially in cases of studying Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is a structural defect that impairs brain activity through lesions that interfere in neurons’ ability to communicate. While the cause of this defect is not well understood, the effect of it on brain function and cognition is better known.
In one experiment on lab rats, focused therapeutic ultrasound waves had a dramatically measurable effect on restoring the memory function of 75% of the rats tested on. The ultrasound waves essentially jump-start the brain’s microglial cells into acting even against the tenacious interferences caused by Alzheimer’s, thus enabling the body to heal itself from one of the most ruthless degenerative diseases.
While there are promising experimental breakthroughs in treating severe degenerative cognitive diseases, the rest of us are interested in changes we can make right now to improve our cognition even if all we’re experiencing is a bit of slowness or dullness.
In that case, a few lifestyle and diet changes have shown real potential to help with cognitive function. Some of the treatments are remarkable in their simplicity and results, while others are more holistic and anecdotal. All of them shed light on some of the myriad factors that affect our cognition and other processes.
A recent study of adults with hearing loss reveals some startling effects on cognition and mental health. Human cognition is impacted by all of the senses and our ability to perceive the world around us. In the study group, cochlear implants reduced instances of patient depression by nearly 20%, while as soon as six months after implants, nearly every participant demonstrated improved cognitive scores across the board, not just in auditory tests.
This speaks to the notion that our sense of self and our brains’ functionality are directly tied to a wide range of cognitive factors that allow us to engage with the world; something as simple but dramatic as hearing can impact focus, visual memory, and even depression, a misunderstood psychological condition that stems from a number of factors.
While healthy eating is known to contribute to overall well-being, many people are surprised to learn the direct correlation between healthy foods and cognitive function. While researchers may not have determined the full breakdown between chemical, structural, and psychological factors that impact cognitive function, some correlations have been discovered to a degree that suggests healthy eating does more than impact cardiovascular health, muscle mass, and BMI.
Many foods produce antioxidants known to combat stress hormones or contain healthy fatty acids like Omegas 3-6-9 that provide ‘fuel’ for brains and reduce stress’ damaging effects on mood, concentration, and inflammation. Plus, low-quality food sources that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates create ‘spikes’ of energy and subsequent crashes that are as rough on cognition as they are on the body’s energy level.
Of all the easy changes that can make a drastic impact on cognition and mood, perhaps none is stronger than diet and exercise. Not only does it impact how your physical body feels and performs, thus leading to a general happiness and self-esteem increase, the same power foods that fuel cardiovascular performance offer numerous benefits for the mind.
The cochlear implant study is one of many that demonstrates the profound connection between bodily function, happiness, and cognition; numerous studies on depression, reaction time, recovery, and focus are centered on different foods, diets, and lifestyles.
While putting all your eggs in one basket (metaphorically or literally!) when it comes to superfoods is never a good strategy, identifying a general diet and lifestyle that is considered beneficial to mind and body and works with your personal taste and allergies can have a dramatic impact on energy level, attention span, and even memory or test-taking performance.
Lastly, sleep is perhaps the most important contributing factor to cognitive decline in otherwise healthy adults. The effects of sleep deprivation on cognition and motor skills have been measured to be as bad (or worse) than drunk driving.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the difference between a good night’s sleep and constantly burning the candle at both ends can be felt and observed through any number of cognition tests. Plus, sleep-deprived people are known to become more reliant on caffeine, which offers some short-term cognitive benefits when used as an occasional aid but quickly contributes to cognitive struggles when relied upon as a substitute for healthy sleep schedules, diet, and exercise.
When it comes to cognition, there are truly no shortcuts. It’s good to understand what all factors contribute to its decline (or improvement!) and to act accordingly before it’s too late. And, just like other muscles in the body, the brain is very much a case of ‘use it or lose it.’ Brain puzzles, crossword puzzles, chess, and other challenges have been shown time and again to improve cognitive function in adults who engage regularly.
So take control of your brain and take control of your cognition.
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