How to Problem Solve Creatively for a Better Life

Over focusing reduces problem solving with Dr. Srini Pillay.

If you’re a goal-oriented, ambitious person, the path to problem-solving and high effectiveness may seem counterintuitive: mix in periods of “unfocus.” In this episode, Dr. Srini Pillay—a psychiatrist, executive coach, brain imaging researcher, and Renaissance man—shares his strategic techniques for focusing less. Learn how you can tap the power of your unconscious to increase your creativity and tackle your goals from new angles.

Episode Intro

Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. Today I’m here with Dr. Srini Pillay and we are going to be talking about the importance of—to term it loosely—boredom and why too much focus or overly trying to focus yourself might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Srini, welcome to the show.

Dr. Srini Pillay, MD: Thanks so much for having me. It’s lovely to be here.

[Continue reading below]

Dr. R’s Fast Facts Summary

Too much focus is bad

  • The brain needs time to turn off so it can make connections while it’s at rest otherwise known as the Default Mode Network

Cognitive rhythm activities/techniques

Napping

  • 5-15 min of napping gives you 1-3 hrs of greater clarity
    • A few times per week, is a powerful technique to engage the default mode network
    • 90 minutes gives you greater creativity

Doodling

  • Increases memory by 29%
  • Doodle for 15 minutes

Positive constructive daydreaming

  • See the 3 steps to constructive daydreaming in the transcript below

Walking

  • Walking a curved path will increase your creativity

Psychological Halloweenism

  • Creatively problem solve by taking on the identity of a person who would be successful at a given goal
  • Think of someone inspires you

Placebo

  • Placebo itself can change the brain

Imagery can activate the motor cortex

  • Often used in sports
  • Want to improve your confidence?
    • Imagine overcoming adversity
    • Imagine yourself being successful at the thing you want to do

Supplements

  • See list of helpful supplements depicted in the transcript below

Quality of relationships

  • Very important for longevity and helps to prevent loneliness

 Where to learn more?

In this episode…

Episode Intro … 00:00:40
Creativity Requires Periods of “Unfocus” … 00:03:08
Unfocus Allows the Unconscious to Work … 00:08:42
Techniques for Unfocusing … 00:12:15
Research on Unfocusing … 00:25:07
Do Brain Games Help with Creativity? … 00:31:32
Supplements for Cognition … 00:35:29
The Importance of Relationships in Health … 00:38:02
Episode Wrap-up … 00:41:22

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Hey guys, this is Dr. Ruscio with a huge favor I’d like to ask you. If you could take literally 15 to 20 seconds and fill out a survey that we’re running to help better understand you, our audience, I would deeply, deeply appreciate it. If you’re on the go and you’re just listening to your podcast player conveniently, the link to the survey is located in the description on your podcast player. It’s also of course located in the transcript associated with this sphere if you’re reading this and if you want to know what the direct link to the survey is, it’s DrRuscio.com/survey. This is super short. Five-ish questions will take you 15 to 20 seconds, but it’s very helpful in allowing me to better understand our audience and better serve you guys. So if you would take just a moment, I promise it is super short, super quick, super easy, but it will be very helpful for me. So if you could do that, I would really appreciate it.

Again, the link is in the podcast description on your players. It’s also embedded on the website with the transcript post, and it’s directly accessible through DrRuscio.com/survey. Okay. Thanks.

DrMR:   It’s great to have you here. Can you tell us a little bit about your background before we jump in?

DrSP:   Sure. I trained as a psychiatrist. I’ve been seeing patients for a little more than two decades now. I’m also a brain imaging researcher, and have studied functional brain imaging. And I’m an executive coach as well. I pioneered a field called transformational neurocoaching that combines brain science with principles from cognitive psychology and psychodynamic psychology.

But I do a lot of other things as well. I work in biotechnology across medicine. I have a few early stage tech startups. I’ve just finished writing a musical, so I’m interested in a lot of different things.

DrMR:   Quite a broad interest there. I guess that’s the mark of a healthy mind, right?

DrSP:   Well, I have a curious mind at least.

DrMR:   Sure. So where do you want to launch into this conversation? Because, of course, there’s a lot here that we can dig into. Where do you like to start this topic?

Creativity Requires Periods of “Unfocus”

DrSP:   Well, maybe I’ll start with a story. So I’m originally from South Africa, and then I came from South Africa straight to Harvard. And when I came here, I wanted to do particularly well. So I did what I thought a good student would do. I was in my residency, so I stayed in the ward all day and all night. I read everything, I went to every seminar. At the end of the first quarter I thought, there’s no way my feedback is not going to be great.

The very first person who gave me feedback said, “We’re very pleased that you are as engaged as you are in the program and that you’re going to everything. And you definitely know more information than anyone else in your class. But we’re worried about you.”

I said, “What are you worried about?” I loved what I was doing, I was doing everything.

They said, “Well, we see you going to everything, but we don’t see you taking time off. We don’t see you on the benches and on the hospital grounds. We don’t see you going off to Walden for swim. You go to 100% of your didactics. That doesn’t really show discernment.”

And I looked at them and said, “What do you mean?”

They said, “Well, to tell the truth, the kinds of minds that we want to develop are the kinds of minds that have time off, so that there is time to be creative and time to change the world in that way. If you just keep doing everything the whole time and filling your time, you’re never going to give yourself a chance to do that.”

I think that particular story really impacted my life. It made me very aware that, in reality, in order for us to function at our optimum, we really have to combine periods of focus with unfocus. We wouldn’t be using a car all day without refueling the car. So why would you be using your brain without refueling your brain?

So that—together with my broad interest in a number of things—got me thinking, why don’t I write a book that will help people realize why their brains work in that way? Specifically, what they can do in order to strategically unfocus.

I have a deep respect for focus. I think we all realize that we’ve got to focus. But most people live their lives so that, from the time they get up to the time they sleep, it’s focus, focus, focus, fatigue. And what I wanted people to understand is why they needed to change that pattern from focus, focus, focus, fatigue to focus, unfocus, focus, unfocus.

Every time you unfocus, you can actually refuel your brain, which is why I wrote Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. I wanted to help people understand what was going on in the brain and what they could do to strategically unfocus.

DrMR:   Yeah, I think that makes a ton of sense. This is something that, in our clinicians newsletter, I’ve encouraged clinicians to do. And I would say at a minimum—you could certainly exceed this, but trying to set the bar at least at a starting point—take one approximately three-hour block per quarter, in this case, to reflect on their practices and really have nothing scheduled. You’re not trying to do anything, you’re just trying to sit there and reflect. Let your mind wander.

For me it’s been a very insightful exercise, just as you’re saying, to take some time away from listening to a podcast, watching a video, reading an article, always having something occupying your mind. Just stepping away, letting my mind clear. Then looking again at my life in whatever aspect, and trying to figure out where things are working, where things aren’t working.

And I’m framing this more in a utilitarian way, in terms of solving problems in one’s life. But I do think we’re at this crossroads, where we have so much information that the problem now isn’t so much needing more knowledge. It’s sometimes just being able to use knowledge to problem-solve. And sometimes that’s more a function of weaving together a bunch of the information that you know in a creative fashion in order to solve a given problem. It sounds like we’re in very strong agreement that you need that empty non-focused time to spawn some of that creativity.

DrSP:   Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the work of the brain is actually done by the unconscious, as well as the conscious brain. So if you look at the brain, it’s pretty small. It occupies something like 5% of the body’s volume. But it actually takes up 20% of the body’s energy when it is at rest. So you might ask, “What is the brain doing when it’s at rest?” When you’re chilling or unfocusing, isn’t the brain just on no energy? Well, no. The puzzle pieces that you are discovering in the course of your day, your brain is actually putting together when you are at rest. So what’s really important is what I call cognitive rhythm, helping yourself build these strategic times.

Cognitive Rhythm Activities/Techniques

Napping
  • 5-15 min gives you 1-3 hrs of clarity
  • 90 minutes gives you greater creativity
Doodling
  • Doodle for 15 minutes
  • Increases memory by 29%
Positive constructive daydreaming
3 steps:
  • Schedule it into your day
  • Do this during low key activity
  • Let your mind go into something positive or wishful
Walking
  • Walking a curved path will increase your creativity
Psychological Halloweenism
  • Solve a creative problem by taking on the identity of a person who would be successful at a given goal

I usually say, you can start off with 15 minutes when your brain would be in a natural slump. So whether it’s after lunch or the middle of the afternoon or the end of the day, do one of these activities that will engage the default mode network to put these puzzle pieces together. The default mode network is the DMN, which we used to think of as the do-mostly-nothing network! But in reality, this network is actually doing a lot of work trying to put these puzzle pieces together.

Unfocus Allows the Unconscious to Work

The other thing that I think we don’t realize is—because probably more than 90% of what’s going on in the brain is unconscious—if we restrict ourselves to conscious strategies and conscious focus, we’re not allowing the unconscious brain to have time to put the stuff together.

If you think about some major discoveries in the world… Kary B. Mullis discovered PCR, which is a way of making synthetic DNA. His lab assistants and his lab colleagues actually really didn’t like him, because he didn’t follow a strict linear process. He was driving from Berkeley to Mendocino one day with his girlfriend in the car. He had had a little bit of wine and was going up this curvy road. Suddenly, he just had this realization that came to him as his mind was wandering, and this led to a very major discovery.

Albert Einstein, when he talks about the theory of relativity, talks about the fact that it was like a musical perception. I think Steve Jobs talked about the fact that you can’t join the dots moving forward, but you can join them looking backwards. And Steve Jobs himself took time off, and then came back and founded Apple, and Apple took off.

So there are a lot of examples in the world where people build this unfocused time into their days in order to move forward. What I say to people is, “Try to think about how you want to strategically unfocus.” The other part of it is that the brain, in order to come up with ideas, has to put together the puzzle pieces of memory. And focus can only allow you to retrieve certain kinds of memories. So when you’re focused metaphorically, it’s like picking up certain parts of your identity, like your LinkedIn profile. “This is what I do,” like all the stuff I said I do. That gives you a sense of the titles and the field. But it doesn’t really give you a sense of who I am.

And in order for us to know who we are, we have to metaphorically move beyond just using the fork to pick up information in our brains. We also need chopsticks to make connections across the brain. We need a spoon for the delicious melange of flavors, like the scent of your grandmother or the smell of pumpkins during the fall. And you also need something like a toothpick, to dig in all the nooks and crannies in your brain, so that you can unearth memories that are hidden, or you can unearth fragments of memory.

It’s the subtle information that becomes really important, so you can learn how to solve problems in life. And the reason I recommend the number of things that I do in the book is that I feel like by trying to understand how to build unfocus, people can actually use these techniques—and I’m happy to discuss some of them—to be able to metaphorically activate these other utensils, so they have a more complex sense of who they are.

DrMR:   Well, definitely very excited to get into some of the techniques. Just one question first. It seems a bit counterintuitive to me that you’d want to do this when you feel like you’re in a natural slump time. Is there a certain motivation behind that? Or is that because it might be easier for someone to commit to this when they’re saying, “I don’t really feel like working, so now’s a good time to take a break and do some of these cognitively engaging exercises”? What’s the rationale here?

DrSP:   Well, I think when I tell you what the techniques are, you’ll realize why they’re perfectly suited to it.

DrMR:   Sure, let’s launch in then.

Techniques for Unfocusing

DrSP:   Well, the first is napping. So, five to 15 minutes of napping gives you one to three hours of clarity. I can’t tell you how many people I know who feel like they’ve got to just make it through the day. So even if they’re dragging after lunch, they’re forcing themselves to focus because they have to get something done. What they don’t realize is that they’re really working with the brain that’s not properly fueled. So you may be able to get the task done, but you’re not getting it with optimum brain resources.

So just taking five to 15 minutes and saying, “I’m going to put my head down, I’m going to just nap and then I’m going to get up, and I can get one to three hours of clarity,” can make a huge difference.

A lot of businesses are actually beginning to learn that napping helps people become more productive. So companies like Google, for instance, have napping pods at work. Companies like Zappos have the same. Some companies are even buying napping beds for people. And that might sound counterintuitive because you’d say, “I want people to be working.” Well, you want them to be working, but you want them to be working optimally. So the first thing I say is, try to build a nap into your day. The one caveat about napping is that if you want to create clarity, you can sleep for five to 15 minutes. But if you want greater creativity, you need a full 90 minutes to nap. And I would say that that’s pretty impractical in the course of a workday, just to take 90 minutes and to have a snooze. Maybe not at siesta time in Europe, but I think given a lot of our work culture in the US, 90 minutes to nap would be a long time.

But that’s the kind of thing I think you can do on the weekends. The second thing I would say is that I advise napping just a couple times a week, once or twice a week. Because napping can also disrupt your sleep. And when it disrupts your sleep, it can stress your body out and as a result lead to cardiac problems. So you want to make sure that you just nap for five to 15 minutes for the clarity. On occasion when you need it for creativity, you can nap for 90 minutes, but don’t make a habit of just napping every day, because you don’t want to disrupt your sleep cycle. That’s the first technique.

The second technique is also pretty simple. It’s doodling. And I hope that people who are listening to this feel free to doodle as well. Jackie Andrade and her colleagues found that doodling improves memory by 29%.

DrMR:   Wow.

DrSP:   Which is really interesting. I think the theory behind that is that just simply scribbling on a piece of paper—how we might draw faces if we’re listening on the phone or little shapes—can actually make the brain metaphorically less stiff so that it can absorb information. And if you have a brain that is spongier and not that tightly wound, you can actually absorb information more easily.

Now with that, and pretty much with every technique I’m recommending, I would say, being a researcher, these are frameworks. Not every technique works for every person. In fact, there are some studies that show that in certain instances, doodling doesn’t work. So one of the things that I hope makes people trust me is that I often will say, I both believe and don’t believe everything I’m saying.

DrMR:   I like that. I’m gonna steal that from you!

DrSP:   Often everything and its opposite is true. So what I’m really presenting are just frameworks that can work, and that have some research behind them, so people can try them out when they feel like they’re stuck for alternatives.

DrMR:   And is there a minimum time to doodle? Is five to 15 minutes of a window there also viable?

DrSP:   Yeah, I think 15 minutes is a good time to start. I would say that you can try it on a conference call or when you’re listening to a podcast as well. Why not try that? So that’s the second technique I would talk about.

The third one is actually one of my favorites. It’s called positive, constructive daydreaming. And immediately that sounds sort of absurd. Like, how could you be constructive and daydreaming at the same time? Jerome Singer did a lot of research in the 1950s, and what he found was that if you daydream by just sitting at your desk, that’s not helpful. If you’re just sitting at your desk and your mind is wandering, it’s not that helpful. If you are daydreaming so that you are ruminating over the prior night’s indiscretions, like maybe you had a little bit too much to drink and you did stuff you wished you hadn’t, that kind of rumination is not helpful.

But if you are daydreaming and you use positive, constructive daydreaming, it can be really helpful. It can help your brain feel re-energized and more creative too. There are three steps that I would actually write down, in order to implement positive, constructive daydream. Number one, you have to schedule it into your day. That’s the paradox, scheduling daydreaming. Because if you don’t schedule it, you’re just going to keep going through your day. So choose one of those times in the day, a 15-minute period as well.

The second thing is, studies have shown that it’s more effective if you do positive, constructive daydreaming while you are doing some kind of low-key activity. So if you have a low-key activity, like knitting or gardening or if you’re at work, even if you just go walking… Then you do the third step, which is, you let your mind go into something positive and wishful, so maybe lying on a yacht, lying on the beach, or going for a run through the woods with your dogs.

So we do those three things. Number one, choose a time. Number two, do something that is not demanding. And number three, let your mind go. Then your mind starts to wander. And what people don’t realize is that even when your mind is wandering, there is a part of the prefrontal cortex, which is the overt thinking part of the brain, that is guiding the wandering mind as well.

So it’s not always just random mind wandering. Sometimes we wander into solutions. So I strongly recommend those things. I would also say, with regard to walking, that if you want to increase your creativity, walking on a curved path will increase your creativity more than just walking around the block. Part of that is that when you’re walking in this kind of unpredictable way, your brain is then essentially getting stimulated to put two and two together and to put these ideas together.

Then the fourth one I’ll mention—and then I’ll stop, and there are a bunch more in the book as well—is also a fun one. It’s called psychological Halloweenism. It’s a term that I coined, based on a study that showed that when they gave people a creative problem, and they asked them to solve it, the people who actually took on the identity of an eccentric poet were much more likely to solve that problem than people who took on the identity of a rigid librarian.

Even when the same people exchanged identities, they were unable to solve the problems as effectively when they were a rigid librarian. And so I do this a lot with leadership teams. I work with them, and say to them, “You can try it not just here. You can try it at the dinner table. You can try it with your kids.” It’s a fun exercise to do. You can try it on a date. I always specify, maybe not at a first date. But I think it’s a fun exercise. You can do it with your creative teams. Simply say, who is the person you think you would like to embody?

And by embody, it’s not just play-act. You take on the identity of the person, and you take on exactly who they are. So I did an exercise once for an insurance company that was going through a transition. They were in the United Kingdom and they were distressed because they were becoming disconnected from the Asia contingent. That meant the opportunities would be limited, and they wanted me to come in and help them shift their mindset so that they could feel more positively. So they used this exercise, psychological Halloweenism.

And when they used this exercise, different groups came up with different people. One group said, they were just thinking, what would the Buddha do, if the Buddha were this distressed about the absence of certainty, of moving forward. And they said, what the Buddha would have is radical acceptance. So they decided that embodying that personality led them to the idea of radical acceptance of uncertainty.

The second group then said that they thought of Madonna. They thought that Madonna would reinvent herself. So even when something is taken away from you, learning to reinvent yourself can be helpful. And that inspired them.

The third group actually thought of Steve Jobs, and they said, Steve Jobs said, you can’t join the dots moving forward. You can just do it backwards. When you’re actually moving forward, you’ve got to believe in something. In his words, “God, Karma, life, destiny, whatever.” So just by using these techniques, people were able to feel more hopeful about their futures as well.

So those four techniques; napping; doodling; positive, constructive, daydreaming; walking. Then the fifth one is psychological Halloweenism. All unfocused techniques that you can build into your day, so that you can allow your mind to wander, so that you can activate the unconscious, and you can allow your brain to put two and two together in its off stages.

DrMR:   I really like that. That last one with the psychological Halloweenism reminds me of a thought process I’ve gone through where I try to not be shackled by the limitations of my field.

I’m always trying to come up with novel ways of helping our patients who have various gastrointestinal ailments. It’s easy to get pigeonholed into thinking that you’re inundated by by your colleagues and party lines of the field. And I always try to just step outside of that and entertain a thought, no matter how radical it may seem.

But I have done something similar, so I totally see the merit in it. If you can think through a problem via a different perspective, it may free you from some of the limitations that are somewhat imposed, based upon what everyone else is doing or thinking. So I will vouch for that. Personally, I didn’t realize I was doing that, but I’ve definitely found that helpful.

DrSP:   Yeah, absolutely. I think—to the point of gastrointestinal ailments—to me, one of the most fascinating connections is the connection between the gut and the brain. There’ve been a number of studies that have shown this connection with regard to depression, anxiety, and trauma and stress as well. So another perspective shift for people. So, for example, in posttraumatic stress disorder, there are a bunch of studies that have shown that posttraumatic stress disorder is associated with obesity, and may in fact be a metabolic syndrome that can affect your gut function as well. You can get irritable bowel syndrome.

So when you’re asking people to think about their posttraumatic stress disorder, you can ask them to change their perspectives and start to ask themselves, “What should I be eating?” There’ve been studies, for example, that showed low glutamine diets may actually help people with posttraumatic stress disorder. But it’s coming out completely from left field, because you’re talking about a mental state. And you’re saying if you can change what you’re eating that that can actually be different. So I feel like perspective shifts in general can come when you build these kinds of off times into your day.

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Research on Unfocusing

Agreed. Now, some facets of the audience are kind of research buffs. You’ve alluded to some of the research. Have there been any other novel publications in this area, or any interesting case studies that you’d want to share with some of the science buffs in our crowd?

DrSP:   Yeah. There are a lot of different techniques that I think are particularly helpful. One is something that I call possibility thinking. I think a lot of us live our days in this very stressed period, with this slight knot in our stomachs.

And in fact, I’m working on a concept right now called existential confidence with Jim Selman, who’s an executive coach. We’re trying to come up with a different way of thinking about managing anxiety, rather than just focusing on the anxiety. This has led us to realize that people usually live their lives with a sense of anxiety and angst, and with the sense that there’s some despair and something negative just lurking around the corner. And by moving into possibility thinking, taking time off to be able to allow your mind to be in a possibility zone,

Too much focus is bad! Napping, doodling, and daydreaming have proven to increase clarity, creativity, and memory. Click To Tweet

you can change your brain and change the way in which you move forward as well.

So, for example, possibility thinking is largely connected to placebo studies. If you look at a large number of placebo studies, you see that the placebo itself can change the brain. A particular study I can tell you about is a study in which they gave people the same cream in three different tubes. One tube they marked lidocaine, the second tube they marked capsaicin and the third tube they marked neutral. Lidocaine is something that causes pain relief, capsaicin is the active ingredient in chili, and neutral is neutral.

What they found was—and these are all the same cream—when people took the cream that was labeled lidocaine, they reported feeling much calmer. They reported feeling this pain relief. When they took the tube labeled capsaicin, a lot of people thought that it stung. And when they took the neutral cream, they just said it was neutral. When you looked into their brains, you saw that if they expected something to have a positive effect, then it activated the reward center in the brain, the dopaminergic pathways. And if you expected something to be painful, it activated the pain pathways in the brain.

This explains why placebos sometimes work up to a particular point, because placebo does two things. Firstly, it increases opioids in the brain. So it allows you to feel calmer. And it also increases dopamine in the reward pathways in the brain. It allows you to feel more motivated. So in these states we can begin to anticipate a future.

The first set of studies I would refer to as a set of studies on placebo, indicating the placebo is not nothing, it’s something. And it indicates that belief matters. The second set of studies that I would connect to that, that I think are pretty interesting, are the studies that look at imagery.

Often we think of images as just being some hopeful thing, like The Secret or something like that. But the reality is that imagery can warm up the action brain. It can activate the motor cortex. We know from a lot of sports studies that when sports people practice imagery, they are more likely to be able to conquer their fears. And they’re more likely to be able to reach their goals. If we talk about imagery in general, we know that imagery can activate and warm up the action brain. We know that for elderly people who can’t walk, for example, studies have shown that we often assume that they can’t walk just because they are infirm. But in reality, if you teach an elderly person to imagine walking more effectively, they’re able to walk more effectively. Similarly, if you have people with a stroke or people with a hemiplegia, motor imagery can help. Not just physiotherapy, but imagery, just imagining, can improve knee flexibility and can improve their walking ability as well. So we know that imagery can help people move and we know it can warm up the action rate.

What we also know is that in the sports’ category, there are different kinds of things you can imagine. You can imagine yourself winning, for example, like holding up a trophy. You can imagine yourself coming from behind. You can imagine yourself deeply relaxing. You can imagine yourself being totally jazzed. You can imagine a strategy on a particular screen, so you’re mapping it out. Or you can imagine a specific thing like the serve in tennis. And you can say, I want to just imagine my action being more fluent. What studies show is that if you want to improve your confidence, just two kinds of images are actually particularly helpful. The first is coming from behind or overcoming adversity, and the second is cognitive specific, the kind of imagery that’s specifically related to the task at hand.

So if, for example, you want to think about losing weight, you can imagine that you are at a certain weight, and you can imagine your weight coming down correlated with particular days. If you think that something in particular is difficult for you, like maybe you snack too late at night or you’re snacking on unhealthy snacks, you can imagine going to the kitchen and then choosing fruit instead of an unhealthy food. Or going to the supermarket and resisting buying something. Just simply implementing those imagination procedures can also help you develop more confidence. And from a lot of brain imaging studies, we now know that there are specific ways that you can imagine to activate your brain. And I’m happy to go into those processes as well.

But I was just wanting to answer your question: are there any other studies about unfocusing? Well, if you take time off to imagine yourself into the possibility of what could be—and if you commit to that possibility in an all-in full-bodied way, so that you believe that something is possible—you can bring that possibility into the here and now, and then try to figure out what’s missing. So your brain can navigate toward that state. One of the ways you can navigate toward that state is by using imagery, in some of the ways that I talked about.

Do Brain Games Help with Creativity?

DrMR:   Sure. Shifting gears for just a moment, I’ve recently been looking into the merits of various brain games. Is this something you’ve looked into? Do you have any thoughts about the merit of brain games for cognition or creativity or anything else positively, in the realm of brain that these games could affect?

DrSP:   In fact, I’m about to publish something about this in Harvard Health Blog. So I have reviewed this recently. And the one thing we know is we can’t make a general statement. We can’t say they don’t work or they do work. It depends on what the specific game is. Some things have no data, some things have data. Secondly, it depends on what the meaning of the data are. If I tell you a brain game worked for 88 out of a hundred people, and if I tell you a brain game didn’t work for 88 out of a hundred people, you have no idea whether you’re a part of the 88 or part of the 12. So you have to assess, at a personal level, whether you want to try out that that game and then assess the risks and benefits as well.

There’s a particular research game that’s being studied right now called Neuroracer that helps the elderly multitask. By doing multiple things at the same time on screen, you can actually multitask more effectively. You have people in their seventies and eighties who are beginning to behave like people in their twenties simply by learning these tasks. So I think, for sure, brain games as a whole are offering a lot of hope and promise. I think they should be examined.

The guidelines that I would offer are, number one, do you have any data? Number two, is there a way to personalize it? Number three, can you work with your doctor to see what the pros and cons are of those games and whether they actually affect you? I think if you can use that as a basic guideline, it will help you figure out which games help and which games don’t.

DrMR:   Yep, that seems agreeable to me. Just for our audience, we have two upcoming podcasts with… I guess you could call them the chief medical officers of two different brain companies. We’re going to look into the research, as you said, just to see what kind of benefits may be achieved. Are these benefits only achieved in very old populations? Are the benefits perhaps mathematically significant but not really clinically meaningful? Are there good data? Definitely some questions I want to explore with some of these experts.

DrSP:   Yeah, and from my perspective, one of the things to remember is that the gold standard for good research right now is what we call the double-blind placebo controlled trial. Which means you compare the game to some neutral comparison that has to look a lot like the game, so that it’s an adequate comparison. But double-blind trials only tell us what’s good for an entire group. They don’t tell us what’s good for individuals. So in an era of technology, I think that personalization is key. That’s going to give us a whole other level of data, so that we can guide our patients with regard to these games as well.

DrMR:   Agreed. And that’s what’s interesting about some of these games, having experimented with some of them myself. They give (termed loosely) a cognitive score, and then you get a breakdown of different facets. It seems that some of the training partitions you towards games that you’ve scored relatively lower in. But the big question I have is the improvements. Are you getting better at doing the game? Or is that transferable into other life tasks? So I agree. I think there are a lot of interesting things happening here, but I’m definitely curious to dig into some of the details and see what the research continues to show as it evolves.

DrSP:   Yeah, I think it’s super fascinating and really hopeful as well.

Supplements for Cognition

DrMR:   One other question that I just want to ask. Not that I think we need to bring supplements into the mix… I love the fact that these things are all essentially free, the five steps that you outlined. I think that’s fantastic. But I know our audience does have an interest in dietary supplements. And I’m wondering if you feel any of these are effective, or maybe if there are a few that have been shown to be ineffective that people should also know about.

Supplements

  • Omega 3 can be helpful for depression, anxiety, PTSD
  • Curcumin with Black Pepper (active ingredient in Turmeric) – helpful for depression
  • Saffron – helpful for depression

DrSP:   Yeah. I mean, I do believe that diet can influence cognition. And I think that diet can also influence the way the brain works in general. So for depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder, we do have some basic guidelines that are helpful. For example, for all of them, high fat diets are often found to be not that helpful, if they’re just sort of generic fat. But we do know that supplements with omega-three fatty acids, for example, can be particularly helpful for depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. So that’s an example.

I would say things like curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is a supplement that can be helpful for depression. Except that when you are taking that supplement you actually need to have black pepper, which has piperine derivatives as well. And it’s the combination of turmeric and black pepper that will help you absorb that. It’s difficult to take that purely from the spice, cause you’re gonna need to use so much. So often the studies show that the supplements can work as well.

I would say that there are other things like saffron, for example, in depression. At least seven double-blind placebo controlled trials that show that saffron can be really helpful. Actually I’m not sure that all of them are double-blind or placebo controlled, but there are a bunch of trials that show saffron can be helpful for depression. So yes, I do think that supplements can be helpful.

I also think that you need to measure that against your lifestyle and in terms of what you think you truly need. Because I think so many people, for example, would say… I think I do some of these things myself. I like food too much to follow what I know is right. So I think we have to really consider lifestyle overall when it comes to cognition. My answer with regard to supplements is that I think they can be very helpful, and there are a bunch of studies that are pretty helpful as well.

The Importance of Relationships in Health

The next thing I would say is that it’s curious to me that in an 80-year-old Harvard study, it says the quality of your relationships is probably the strongest determinant of how long you will live, even more than cholesterol. If that’s the case—and I think eighty years is a long time to be studying this longitudinally—I think paying attention to the quality of our relationships, which often sounds like such a soft factor, is actually really important if we want to live longer as well.

DrMR:   Do you think part of that—outside of the obvious of you’re likely going to be hopefully a bit happier if you just have people around, you’re not gonna be lonely—is there’s an underappreciated degree of cognition that’s required to interface with other people? Reading certain social cues, body language cues, facial cues, vocal inflection cues? And is that perhaps a pretty rich version of cognitive stimulus that you just don’t get unless you have relationships and contact other people?

DrSP:   Yes. I think social cognition is a really critical variable when it comes to brain training. Just being able to interact with people and being able to understand perspective shifts, for example. Emotional empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling. Cognitive empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes so you understand what’s happening. The fact that you can practice that in relationships, I think, can be really helpful. I also think that relationships help prevent loneliness because if you are in a satisfying relationship, it can make you less lonely. This doesn’t mean you have to be married to the person or living with the person. It’s just a satisfying relationship. We also know that loneliness is associated with a decrease in immunity.

If your loneliness is being alleviated, then probably your longevity is being affected by an improvement in your immunity. We also know that things like depression can cause heart disease. And we know that heart disease can kill people. So if the depression is precipitated by loneliness and not having a strong social support, then this leads to medical conditions as well. So I think there are a lot of reasons that eventually translate to the body that have to do with relationships protecting you and allowing you to live longer as well.

DrMR:   Yep. Makes a lot of sense.

View Dr. Ruscio’s Additional Resources

Episode Wrap-Up

Srini, this has been a fantastic conversation. I really appreciate you taking the time and really appreciate the fact that there are these simple free techniques. Essentially, it doesn’t have to be anything exotic. You don’t have to buy equipment, expensive supplements, or what have you to have hopefully a really measurable positive impact on one’s brain and on one’s creativity. So I think this conversation has just been fantastic and hopefully the audience will find it as useful as I think it will be.

Will you remind people of your website, your book, provide them anywhere else you’d like to steer them on the Internet if they wanted to hear more from you? And then if you have any closing thoughts, I’d be curious to hear them.

DrSP:   Sure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a real delight to be able to share this information, to be able to invite criticisms, invite thoughts and reflections as well. And as I said, I don’t think there’s one right thing. My website is DrSriniPillay.com. If you Google me, you’ll find me on Facebook as well. I also have a site that is called NBGcorporate.com. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram and on Twitter with the same name. And I’m on Linkedin as well.

So I would be delighted to connect with people, and I write pretty frequently and reference everything that I write with research. Also, as you can see, I don’t believe just having the research makes it the truth, but it gives you a framework to reflect on. I think my parting thought would be that I believe that one of the most overlooked capacities in human beings is ingenuity. Everybody has incredible intrinsic intelligence. I think sometimes our education covers that over.

There was a project called One Laptop per Child where they dropped laptops in rural Ethiopia and they thought, what would the kids do? They’ve never seen technology before. Would they eat it, sit on it? What they found was that within a few hours they found the on-off button. Within a few days they were singing ABC songs and playing with apps, and within a few months they’d hacked Android. These are kids who’ve never seen anything before. And I just think, so often, we forget that if we can allow ourselves to be curious, if we can allow ourselves to explore, and if we can allow our education to provide frameworks but not to take over our innate intelligence, we will probably lead happier and more curious lives and solve more of our problems as well.

DrMR:   Well, that’s terrific thoughts to end on and I agree. And I again, as I said before we started the recording, with the double-edged sword of the abundance of readily available information that we are currently confronted with, I see these reminders are just needed.

And I find that they’re needed for myself. I believe I came across your book a few months ago or maybe a lecture that you had given, and it just brought me back to, “Okay, I’ve got to bridle the natural propensity that I have to always be listening to a podcast or watching a video or reading an article.” While that seems to be advancing whatever agenda I’m trying to advance forward, done in an unfettered fashion, it may hinder my creativity and my ability to apply the information I actually have rattling around in my working memory.

So yeah, I think this is a message we just can’t hear enough, and really appreciate the time, Srini.

DrSP:   Thank you very much for having me. It’s lovely to talk to you.

DrMR:   Thank you.

What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.

Discussion

I care about answering your questions and sharing my knowledge with you. Leave a comment or connect with me on social media asking any health question you may have and I just might incorporate it into our next listener questions podcast episode just for you!

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