Personal wellness has become a very hot subject over the last decade. The majority of interest in this subject area is focused on physical wellness, mostly of the body. Thankfully, more and more people are realizing the importance of brain wellness. There is a growing interest in maintaining a healthy brain and cognitive “sharpness.” The latter refers to mental or cognitive acuity.
Thus, there is more and more buzz about such subjects as cognitive or mental acuity. Brain performance, cognitive vitality and general brain wellness are becoming more commonplace subjects of interest to larger audiences. What used to be the domain of biohackers is rapidly moving into mainstream.
Everyone likes to feel good and to be sharp. Maintaining healthy brain function is imperative, if you’re going to remain competitive and competent in the workplace, business, sports and creative endeavors. It is no less important in personal aspects of life and in supporting good quality of life overall. If you want to be sharp, you need to take care of your cognitive acuity.
What is Mental Acuity, or is it Cognitive Acuity? (Potato — Pot[a]to)
The terms mental acuity and cognitive acuity refer to the same functions and abilities of the human brain. Therefore, they are two different ways to name the same thing. While mental acuity is a more commonly used term, cognitive acuity is the preferred term in the scientific community.
Cognitive or mental acuity is one of those terms that everyone seems to understand, but few really know what it actually means. So, what exactly is cognitive acuity? Let’s shed some light on this subject and define it.
If you were to search for “cognitive acuity” on Google, you would quickly notice that there isn’t a great deal of information available on the subject. That’s because cognitive acuity isn’t a thing in and of itself. Instead, it’s a cluster of mental processes that we, as humans, rely on for optimal brain function and performance. Consequently, cognitive acuity refers to the following brain functions:
Your brain’s capacity to process information is its most important function. The brain has the ability to store, manipulate, and record information that you gather from your environment. You need to be able to sort through all that information in order to make sound and logical decisions with speed and accuracy. (Loftus, G. 2019. Human Memory: The Processing of Information). This process of “sorting” is called information processing and is a major factor contributing to cognitive acuity.
Your ability to store memories is directly related to your ability to process sensory information. In your everyday life, you are constantly bombarded by various forms of information. You have a great deal of visual information coming in, along with auditory and sensory information (touch, taste, and smell).
Your brain needs to discern which information is relevant and important, and which information should be ignored. Relevant information is further processed into memories, and that isn’t an easy process. Memory storage, whether it’s short-term or long-term memory, is fraught with problems.
Recording and storing memories depends on our capacity to process information quickly and accurately. All information processing in a human brain is fallible to a certain extent. Inevitably, some information gets lost or distorted, as it is coded into a memory. Efficient memory storage relies on sound information processing and on an efficient attentional system. (Loftus, G. 2019. Human Memory: The Processing of Information).
Attention is the brain’s ability to focus on one task or a single sensory stimulus. More importantly, the brain does it despite the presence of other sensory stimuli competing for your attention. The ability to pick out one thing from your environment and apply concentrated focus to it is a special ability. It is also an ability that can be improved with training.
Most people find it hard to do two things at the same time. Dividing your attention can lead to performance errors and faulty memory coding. To enhance cognitive acuity, it’s best to avoid distractions and practice focused attention. Such practice will improve your brain’s information processing and allow you to have more effective situational judgement: a skill that is crucial for problem solving. (Pashler, H. 2016. Attentional Limitations in Dual-task Performance).
According to Peter Leeds, a Behavioral Scientist from the University of Baltimore, effective cognitive or mental acuity plays a direct role in our ability to detect the correct response in any given situation. Making sound decisions that have optimal outcomes is a very important and desired skill. The capacity to make sound decisions depends upon the ability to pay attention to the sensory information coming in and judging how to choose the right response.
Situational judgement is particularly important in fast-paced environments, where split-second decision making is required. This quality relies on the other skills associated with cognitive acuity, specifically, information processing, memory, and attention, as discussed above. (Leeds, P. 2017. Behavior Research Methods).
Speed and accuracy of the brain response and information processing
as a measure of cognitive or mental acuity
To reiterate, cognitive or mental acuity is effectively a measure of the brain’s ability to respond to a stimulus. It accounts for the speed of a response and the quality and relevance of the response. Oftentimes, such measures of response are defined in layman terms as the “sharpness” of the human mind.
To assess an individual’s state of cognitive acuity, one would need to measure the speed of the individual’s brain responses. This can be done on biochemical and biophysical levels, which are very complex processes.
Alternatively, the speed of the brain response can be measured by cognitive tests. These specialized tests examine a number of factors relevant to cognitive or mental acuity. More specifically, these factors can be broken down to responses associated with cognitive focus and concentration, memory, and understanding. In measuring these four categories, it is possible to assess how well the brain performs relative to a benchmark or a baseline.
The sharpness of mind — the speed and the quality of brain responses
We can break down these factors further and add clarity to the definitions, as well as to the subject mater itself. Let’s take a look at what constitutes the speed and the quality of responses, as well as the sharpness of the mind.
It is important to note that cognitive or mental acuity can have an effect on intellectual abilities of an individual. However, although it can affect one’s ability to retrieve knowledge, it does not constitute a measure of one’s intellectual capacity. In more simple terms, the assessment of your mental acuity does not measure how smart you are.
Mental acuity and intellectual capacity: crystalized and fluid intelligence
Thus, cognitive acuity has to do with some of the aspects of brain’s physiological functions affecting fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason and think flexibly, and to solve problems. Information processing and situational judgement are the factors that support this category.
Mental acuity has less to do with longer-term intellectual capacity, although it can influence crystalized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, and skills that are acquired throughout life and the ability to recall and use that knowledge. Memory storage, as discussed earlier, is a relevant factor for this category.
How do benchmarks and baselines help to measure cognitive acuity?
Benchmarks themselves can represent the brain’s capacity to perform a specific task in a given state. For example, there are benchmarks to help estimate cognitive acuity of a healthy brain. Other benchmarks allow assessment of the current state of individual’s mental acuity based on the brain with abnormal functions.
Such abnormalities can range from very mild, to heavily pronounced or severe. The former can occur when a person is tired, for example. The latter can be seen in individuals with complex neurodegenerative disorders. People with neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias, score very poorly on cognitive acuity tests. As a result, the more progressed the disease is, the lower is the score on the cognitive acuity test.
Fluctuations in cognitive acuity and cognitive vitality
Individuals with healthy brains can experience drops in the levels of their cognitive acuity. This can happen due to exhaustion, fatigue, stress or illness, among other factors. Such fluctuations in cognitive acuity can be recorded reasonably easily by way of analysis using standardised testing and personal benchmarking.
The records of such analysis can help individuals to better understand what leads to declines in their cognitive acuity. Knowing the cause can help to eliminate or avoid it. If neither is possible, one can elect a therapy to remedy the effects of such cause on the brain and on cognitive acuity.
What is important in assessing cognitive acuity and cognitive vitality?
The reason benchmarks and baselines are important is because they help to assess an individual’s cognitive acuity based on relevant criteria. Numerous factors can be of consideration in establishing the appropriateness of cognitive acuity tests. Thus, age, level of physical fitness and activity, diet and other lifestyle factors can influence cognitive (mental) acuity.
For example, it would make little sense to assess the normal state of mental acuity of an average sixty-year-old and an average sixteen-year-old based on exactly the same criteria. However, some criteria can and will overlap in different age groups, although, the expected performance benchmarks will be different.
How does age affect cognitive acuity?
Studies and empirical data show that, on average, an individual adult’s cognitive acuity deteriorates with age. Notably, numerous factors like lifestyle and diet, fitness and general health can contribute to fluctuations, changes and declines in cognitive acuity.
On average, as is the case with all organs, the brain’s ability to perform its tasks and duties usually deteriorates over time. Therefore, older people are more susceptible to deficiencies in cognitive acuity. Manifestations of such deficiencies can include forgetfulness, decreasing ability to focus and more.
Many of you have heard or even used the phrase, “I am not as sharp as I used to be.” It is a colloquial expression that often refers to a recognition of a decline in mental acuity with age. Importantly, it points to the fact that an individual is capable of recognizing such a decline on his or her own.
What factors contribute to a decline in cognitive acuity?
Numerous factors can contribute to a decline in mental acuity. Among them are environmental factors, lifestyle factors, circadian rhythm factors, factors related to blood oxygenation and blood circulation, genetic factors, and drug-related factors.
The factors affecting cognitive acuity and cognitive vitality can be environmental, like air and water quality, and exposure to sunlight. Numerous studies support this hypothesis.
The factors affecting cognitive acuity can be personal lifestyle-related factors like physical activity, diet, education, professional and leisure activities.
Duration and quality of sleep also contribute to cognitive acuity and cognitive vitality. The actual effect of lifestyle factors on cognitive vitality remains a subject of ongoing studies and debates. (Arthur F. Kramer et al, 2004, Environmental Influences on Cognitive and Brain Plasticity During Aging).
Blood circulation and blood oxygenation effects on mental acuity
Poor blood circulation and blood oxygenation can be contributing factors to declines in cognitive (mental) acuity. They can also be effects of an unhealthy lifestyle and poor dietary choices. If you are concerned with your blood circulation and blood oxygenation, it may be a good time to reassess your lifestyle. You can make healthier choices and pay more careful attention to your physical activity routine and your diet.
Circadian rhythms factors
Activity-rest patterns and circadian rhythms can contribute to the variations in mental acuity. Circadian rhythms are regulatory cycles in the brain. They manage your alertness and sleepiness on 24-hour cycles. Your brain will react to changes in the environment based on this 24-hour circadian rhythm cycle. This is a very important and complex regulatory mechanism that developed in mammals over a long period of time.
If your circadian rhythm is off, it may not trigger timely and appropriate responses to the environmental changes from your brain. Thus, you may suffer from insufficient sleep and poor physical recovery, further inhibiting your mental acuity.
Moreover, genetic factors can play an important role in changes in cognitive or mental acuity and cognitive vitality. If you have dementia or neurodegenerative diseases somewhere in your family tree, you may be more susceptible to such disorders. It is hardly possible to change genetic predispositions, at least at this point in time. However, healthy lifestyle choices may help to decrease the probability of or postpone the onset of neurological disorders.
Drugs related factors
As well, some drugs, both medical and illegal, can be contributors to your mental acuity decline. Various illegal drags can have detrimental effects on your brain’s ability to function normally, and, therefore, on your mental acuity.
Unfortunately, some prescription medications can also have negative effects on your mental acuity. Most commonly, these could occur as side effects of a medication. It is prudent to speak to your physician about the possible side effects and dangers of the medications that you are taking. You can also inquire about remedies to help to mitigate such side effects.
Curiously, some of the contributing factors can also be those that can help to mitigate the changes in mental acuity. This can be possible because an individual can make changes to some of those factors. For example, you can improve your diet, sleep more, exercise better, and the list goes on. These facts have prompted growth of new movements that advocate and promote healthy and natural wellness choices. Biohacking is one of them, and it is gaining popularity worldwide.
New Neuro Modulation Technology Can Help to Improve Mental Acuity
As attention to brain wellness and mental acuity has grown, so has innovation in the space of brain wellness technology. Creative minds in science and technology are cooperating to develop new tools to help you take better care of your brain. Non-invasive neuro modulation is one area of such research and cooperation, and improving mental acuity is one of its goals.
Creative new technologies utilize light, sound, electromagnetic energy and visual stimuli to stimulate your brain. Moreover, new wearable and smart devices can help train your brain and to improve your mental acuity. Some of them are non-invasive and have no side effects. This is only the beginning of a new era of personal neuro-modulation technology for home use. Stay tuned for more.