Empowering Elderly Minds Through Cognitive Training

Katharina Stenger talks about her doctoral thesis, which involves designing a cognitive training program for the elderly that focuses on shifting attention—concluding on our ability to take control of our minds and shift our attentions.

Taking the wheel of our well-being

Nick: Before we dive in into ikigai and self care, let's touch on your academic history. When you did your doctoral thesis, you studied the human brain, and you actually designed cognitive training for the elderly focusing on shift attention.

That's interesting, because ikigai in Japan, they do have all these volunteer services or government sponsored ventures focused on the elderly to help them find ikigai. So probably the work you did all those years ago, might resonate with some of what these local governments in Japan are doing to help the elderly find ikigai in Japan.

So maybe we'll find that out. Would you like to touch on that history and how it relates to ikigai?

Rina: Yeah, that's very interesting. And you have you have a great memory on what my doctoral thesis was about. But yes, in my doctoral research, I studied the human brain of the elderly—so 65 years old and plus.

I designed cognitive training to see if we could train the ability to actively switch attention, which gets significantly harder as we grow older; we get more slow, we make more errors when shifting attention between different tasks around us.

And it's not about sharing attention, we all know that multitasking is no good. It's about actively shifting your attention from one thing to another, which gets more difficult with age. And you can also see that in the brain using EEG to make the brain activity visible.

An EEG is where you put on this fancy little cap with all the wires on your head. So you can see that there is lower and slower activity of certain event-related potentials. You can imagine that as part of a brainwave in the older people compared to younger adults in their 20s.

So we compared the brain activity between young and old. And we also compared brain activity in older adults before and after the training, the training period was four weeks long, they came in twice for a session, twice per week per session. And we had about 100 participants—it was a big study.

But what I found is that we can influence our focus of attention by training, simply speaking. Of course, this is not an easy task to do, and change inside our brain is not limitless. So your brain needs the right training, it needs consistency, it needs of course, patience.

Nevertheless, learning how to shift your attention is possible, you can become faster and more precise in detecting something. And this can be a really good thing. For example, when we return to our everyday life outside of the laboratory, you are able to train your mind to become more aware of positive things or just things that make you feel safe or loved or joyful.

It's all the things that make your life worth living, right. Especially those small things we tend to overlook, especially when we're not feeling well. So that was the revelation for me after putting together this thesis, that there's neural and cognitive evidence that we can take the wheel of our well-being. Because a lot of change starts in the mind, in the brain, before it even becomes an action such as maybe new habit, or even a routine. So it all starts here.