Healthbeat Report: Acting on memory

May 21, 2009 Acting 101 for the novice seems to give the mind a workout unlike anything else.

It may sound strange. But there's local research so compelling about this approach to memory enhancement the federal government is putting up the cash to learn even more.

There are high tech computer games, old fashioned word puzzles and other exercises for the mind and body. But here's an approach to keeping your brain sharp you've probably never considered.

It's not an exercise in being rude. Some seniors are taking to the stage to help their memory.

At Elmhurst College, Tony and Helga Noice are studying how acting can help improve brain function.

"Every exercise is designed to give them the feeling of really affecting their partner, not trying to look and sound like I am doing this but to really get through to the other person and that's very stimulating to the brain," said Tony Noice, actor & researcher, Elmhurst College.

Tony is an adjunct professor and an actor. His wife Helga is a psychologist. The program they've devised takes seniors through exercises similar to those in a basic acting class.

"The first thing you have to know about actors is actors never pretend," Noice told his students.

For eight sessions over four weeks they move about and use body language and facial expressions. There's memorization of some lines and mini performances, complete with conflict and comedy.

So why would this affect the brain in ways other exercises don't? No one's really sure but researchers say doing an activity like a cross word puzzle activates just one part of the brain. With acting several different parts of the brain seem to be engaged all at once -- and that may make the difference.

Rush neuropsychologist Robert Wilson helped with the research.

"It's mentally stimulating, it's emotionally involving, it's socially engaging and it's physically active. They've actually shown in two separate studies that it actually improves thinking and memory skills and so they are quite a bit ahead in the field," said Robert Wilson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, Rush University Medical Center.

The National Institutes of Health is behind the acting research which among other things has shown a 52 percent improvement in problem solving skills among participants.

"We were certainly pleased by the results. I think at this point we all agree novelty is the key," said Helga Noice, Ph.D., cognitive psychologist, Elmhurst College.

At Friendship Village of Schaumburg, participants have been "acting out" for a several weeks.

"It seemed a strange concept but as we've worked at it you could see where this could be possible and we have a lot of fun doing it and if it does help our memory…that's a plus," said Conroy Erikson, resident, Friendship Village.

A third grant from the NIH will now help the Noices share what they have learned. The goal is to see if others who don't have formal theater training can also teach these acting exercises. The idea is to make the intervention cheaper and potentially more widespread.

For more information on the program at Elmhurst College, you can call 630-617-3033 or visit their Web site:

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