Flavanols Found in Cocoa, Fruits and Vegetables Shown to Boost Cognition and Brain Oxygenation

This study shows the benefits of good nutrition.

The brains of healthy adults recovered faster from a mild vascular challenge and performed better on complex tests if the participants consumed cocoa flavanols beforehand, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports. In the study, 14 of 18 participants saw these improvements after ingesting the flavanols.

Previous studies have shown that eating foods rich in flavanols can benefit vascular function, but this is the first to find a positive effect on brain vascular function and cognitive performance in young healthy adults, said Catarina Rendeiro, a researcher and lecturer in nutritional sciences at the University of Birmingham who led the research with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychology professors Monica Fabiani and Gabriele Gratton.

“Flavanols are small molecules found in many fruits and vegetables, and cocoa, too,” Rendeiro said. “They give fruits and vegetables their bright colors, and they are known to benefit vascular function. We wanted to know whether flavanols also benefit the brain vasculature, and whether that could have a positive impact on cognitive function.”

The team recruited adult nonsmokers with no known brain, heart, vascular or respiratory disease, reasoning that any effects seen in this population would provide robust evidence that dietary flavanols can improve brain function in healthy people.

The team tested the 18 participants before their intake of cocoa flavanols and in two separate trials, one in which the subjects received flavanol-rich cocoa and another during which they consumed processed cocoa with very low levels of flavanols. Neither the participants nor researchers knew which type of cocoa was consumed in each of the trials. This double-blind study design prevents researchers’ or participants’ expectations from affecting the results.

About two hours after consuming the cocoa, participants breathed air with 5% carbon dioxide — about 100 times the normal concentration in air. This is a standard method for challenging brain vasculature to determine how well it responds, Gratton said.

The body typically reacts by increasing blood flow to the brain, he said.

“This brings in more oxygen and also allows the brain to eliminate more carbon dioxide,” he said.

With functional near-infrared spectroscopy, a technique that uses light to capture changes in blood flow to the brain, the team measured oxygenation in the frontal cortex, a brain region that plays a key role in planning, regulating behavior and decision-making.

“This allows you to measure how well the brain defends itself from the excess carbon dioxide,” Fabiani said.

Researchers also challenged participants with complex tasks that required them to manage sometimes contradictory or competing demands.

Most of the participants had a stronger and faster brain oxygenation response after exposure to cocoa flavanols than they did at baseline or after consuming cocoa lacking flavanols, the researchers found.

“The levels of maximal oxygenation were more than three times higher in the high-flavanol cocoa versus the low-flavanol cocoa, and the oxygenation response was about one minute faster,” Rendeiro said.

After ingesting the cocoa flavanols, participants also performed better on the most challenging cognitive tests, correctly solving problems 11% faster than they did at baseline or when they consumed cocoa with reduced flavanols. There was no measurable difference in performance on the easier tasks, however.

“This suggests that flavanols might only be beneficial during cognitive tasks that are more challenging,” Rendeiro said.

Participants varied in their responses to cocoa flavanols, the researchers found.

“Although most people benefited from flavanol intake, there was a small group that did not,” Rendeiro said. Four of the 18 study subjects had no meaningful differences in brain oxygenation response after consuming flavanols, nor did their performance on the tests improve.

“Because these four participants already had the highest oxygenation responses at baseline, this may indicate that those who are already quite fit have little room for improvement,” Rendeiro said. “Overall, the findings suggest that the improvements in vascular activity after exposure to flavanols are connected to the improvement in cognitive function.”

Research: Kindness to Employees Improves Worker Performance

There’s thus good evidence that mean employers devalue companies. Someone ought to mention this to the highest level of management in the economy — there are too many of these employers, as workers generally know quite well.

Want the best results out of your employees? Then be nice to them.

New research from Binghamton University, State University at New York finds that showing compassion to subordinates almost always pays off, especially when combined with the enforcement of clear goals and benchmarks.

“Being benevolent is important because it can change the perception your followers have of you,” said Chou-Yu Tsai, an assistant professor of management at Binghamton University’s School of Management. “If you feel that your leader or boss actually cares about you, you may feel more serious about the work you do for them.”

[…]

They surveyed nearly 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and almost 200 adults working full-time in the United States, and looked at the subordinate performance that resulted from three different leadership styles:

  • Authoritarianism-dominant leadership: Leaders who assert absolute authority and control, focused mostly on completing tasks at all costs with little consideration of the well-being of subordinates
  • Benevolence-dominant leadership: Leaders whose primary concern is the personal or familial well-being of subordinates. These leaders want followers to feel supported and have strong social ties.
  • Classical paternalistic leadership: A leadership style that combines both authoritarianism and benevolence, with a strong focus on both task completion and the well-being of subordinates.

The researchers found that authoritarianism-dominant leadership almost always had negative results on job performance, while benevolence-dominant leadership almost always had a positive impact on job performance. In other words, showing no compassion to your employees doesn’t bode well for their job performance, while showing compassion motivated them to be better workers.

They also found that classical paternalistic leadership, which combines both benevolence and authoritarianism, had just as strong an effect on subordinate performance as benevolent-dominant leadership. Tsai said the reason for this phenomenon may extend all the way back to childhood.

“The parent and child relationship is the first leader-follower relationship that people experience. It can become a bit of a prototype of what we expect out of leadership going forward, and the paternalistic leadership style kind of resembles that of a parent,” Tsai said.

“The findings imply that showing personal and familial support for employees is a critical part of the leader-follower relationship. While the importance of establishing structure and setting expectations is important for leaders, and arguably parents, help and guidance from the leader in developing social ties and support networks for a follower can be a powerful factor in their job performance,” Dionne said.

Because of the difference in work cultures between U.S. employees and members of the Taiwanese military, researchers were surprised that the results were consistent across both groups.

“The consistency in the results across different cultures and different job types is fascinating. It suggests that the effectiveness of paternalistic leadership may be more broad-based than previously thought, and it may be all about how people respond to leaders and not about where they live or the type of work they do,” Yammarino said.

Tsai said his main takeaway for managers is to put just as much or even more of an emphasis on the well-being of your employees as you do on hitting targets and goals.

“Subordinates and employees are not tools or machines that you can just use. They are human beings and deserve to be treated with respect,” said Tsai. “Make sure you are focusing on their well-being and helping them find the support they need, while also being clear about what your expectations and priorities are. This is a work-based version of ‘tough love’ often seen in parent-child relationships.”

Doing Math With Better Posture Improves Performance, Study Finds

The research has implications for other areas of performance too.

If you’ve ever felt like a deer in the headlights before taking a math test or speaking before a large group of people, you could benefit from a simple change in posture. As part of a new study by researchers at San Francisco State University, 125 college students were tested to see how well they could perform simple math — subtracting 7 from 843 sequentially for 15 seconds — while either slumped over or sitting up straight with shoulders back and relaxed. Fifty-six percent of the students reported finding it easier to perform the math in the upright position.

“For people who are anxious about math, posture makes a giant difference,” said Professor of Health Education Erik Peper. “The slumped-over position shuts them down and their brains do not work as well. They cannot think as clearly.” Before the study began, students filled out an anonymous questionnaire asking them to rate their anxiety levels while taking exams and performing math; they also described any physical symptoms of stress they experienced during test taking.

According to co-author Associate Professor of Health Education Richard Harvey, slumping over is a defensive posture that can trigger old negative memories in the body and brain. While the students without math anxiety did not report as great a benefit from better posture, they did find that doing math while slumped over was somewhat more difficult.

Peper and Harvey say these findings about body position can help people prepare for many different types of performance under stress, not just math tests. Athletes, musicians and public speakers can all benefit from better posture prior to and during their performance. “You have a choice,” said Peper. “It’s about using an empowered position to optimize your focus.”

That empowerment could be particularly helpful to students facing the challenge called “stereotype threat,” said Lauren Mason, one of the paper’s authors and a recent SF State graduate. A first-generation college student, Mason can identify with such students, who experience fear and insecurity because of a belief by others — which can become internalized — that they won’t do as well at math. Mason said she has benefitted personally from using a more empowered posture before taking difficult tests, including math. She believes that adopting a more confident posture could help other first-generation students as well as women entering science and math, who often battle stereotype threat, too.

“I always felt insecure about my math abilities even though I excelled at other subjects,” said Mason, who helped design the experiment in the study. “You build a relationship with [math] so early — as early as elementary school. You can carry that negative self-talk throughout your life, impacting your perception of yourself.”

Mason said the study results demonstrate a simple way to improve many aspects of life, especially when stress is involved: “The way we carry ourselves and interact in space influences not only how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves.”

Even Minor Dehydration Can Make Thinking More Difficult

If climate change leads to increased temperatures throughout the world, people will sweat off water faster, meaning that they will become dehydrated more quickly. This has clear implications for possibly reducing the average level of decision making among humans.

If you’re finding it hard to get your thoughts straight, dehydration could be to blame. An analysis of previous research has found a link between dehydration and poor performance in tasks that need serious focus or advanced mental processing.

While we know that staying hydrated is good for us for all kinds of reasons, this new meta-study was designed to take a closer look at exactly which brain processes might be affected and at what level of dehydration.

It turns out that at just a 2 percent level of body mass loss due to dehydration – so losing about a litre of water through sweat – the mental imbalance starts. That underlines how crucial it is for us to keep up our water intake, and how damaging it might be to the mental agility we all rely on if we don’t.

“We find that when people are mildly dehydrated they really don’t do as well on tasks that require complex processing or on tasks that require a lot of their attention,” lead researcher Mindy Millard-Stafford, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Allison Aubrey at NPR.

Millard-Stafford and her colleague Matthew Wittbrodt looked at 33 previous studies linking dehydration with mental performance. In total, the studies covered a total of 413 individuals experiencing between 1 percent and 6 percent of body mass loss through dehydration.

That 2 percent point seems to be the tipping point when it comes to staying mentally sharp. According to the experts, it would maybe take an hour’s hike to get to that level.

What’s more, it’s a level of dehydration that we might not actually notice through triggers like increased thirst: so mental performance could decline even when we don’t feel like we need to take on any water.

The analysis backs up previous research suggesting that dehydration impairs some mental processes more than others, with attention, executive function, and motor coordination particularly hard hit. Lower-level tasks like reaction time aren’t as badly affected, the meta-study shows.

While it’s different for every individual, experts recommend that women get up to 2.7 litres or 95 fluid ounces (11.5 cups) of water every day, and men up to 3.7 litres or 130 fluid ounces (15.5 cups).

The body as a whole is 60 percent water, which it leverages for jobs like transporting nutrients around the body and lubricating our eyeballs.

When there isn’t enough water available – it’s regularly lost through sweating and urination – these vital functions start to break down. We become thirsty, start to feel nauseous, and become more likely to feel exhausted.