Mental Acuity, Memory, Attention, and Situational Judgement

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Mental acuity is about how well your brain responds to your environment in the moment. It’s a complex measure of brain performance that includes how you process information, recall memories, and respond to external stimuli.

In this article we’ll explain what ‘mental acuity’ means. We’ll also explain how mental acuity can decline with age, how brain and gut health are connected, and how lifestyle and light can support mental acuity.

What Is Mental Acuity?

Mental acuity is a general term referring to a person’s sharpness of mind. It’s about how effectively your brain operates, not a measure of how smart you are. Intelligence is more about your brain’s ability to acquire and use knowledge over time [1].

Think of a computer analogy: mental acuity is how quickly and accurately the computer responds to a command. Intelligence would be how much information is stored on the computer, and how much new information it can save to be used over time.

Mental acuity encompasses a set of overlapping brain functions, like information processing, memory, attention, and situational judgement.

4 Primary Components of Mental Acuity

Information Processing: The brain’s primary function is to be the command center that processes information in all its forms. Every sensation has to be contextualized by your brain for you to be able to make sense of it. When your brain is able to interpret complex information more efficiently, you can respond better and faster to the world around you.

Memory: Memory is closely tied to information processing. Our memories are like vast file systems of previous information, and our brains have to quickly decide what’s most relevant in a given situation. A big part of mental acuity is how efficiently our brains sort and recall memories.

Attention: Attention is how well we can focus on a given task, or isolate a single sensory stimulus when it’s advantageous. There’s always sensory competition for your brain: external sounds, sights, and smells, in addition to your internal thoughts. It takes mental acuity to cut through less relevant sensory information and focus on what’s most important.

Situational Judgement: The combination of information processing, memory, and attention all come together when we make a decision. Situational judgement is how we react to our environment in the moment. It’s the external result of our internal information processing. How we interact with other people, and how we react to the world as we drive a vehicle, are two major examples of situational judgement.

For many people, the goal of working on mental acuity is to make better, clearer decisions.

Mental Acuity and Age-Related Cognitive Decline

Our brains age and decline over time, like other body parts. As we age it can get more difficult to process and recall complex information. Deterioration in cognitive acuity can come in the form of mild cognitive impairment, to more severe forms like dementia. [2]

Outside Factors Contribute to Cognitive Decline

Aside from the effects of normal aging, there are a host of contributing factors that can lead to a decline in cognitive health and mental acuity. These are some of the most important:

Lifestyle: Living a balanced, healthy lifestyle is one the best (and most controllable) ways to maintain mental acuity. Other lifestyle factors like chronic stress or a sedentary lifestyle can accelerate cognitive decline. Prolonged night shift work and irregular sleep schedules can lead to increased migraines and other chronic health complications. [3] Excessive alcohol and drug use can have a major negative impact on mental acuity and how well a person’s brain ages and maintains attention and memory.

Circadian Rhythm: A circadian rhythm is a natural bodily process that happens roughly every 24-hours. It’s a cycle, like sleeping and waking, or eating and digesting [4]. If these processes are misaligned or inconsistent, you may feel foggier and have more difficulty with recall or situational judgement. Circadian rhythms can get disturbed by poor sleep, or irregular sleep.

Circulation: Our circulatory system and blood flow affects nearly every aspect of our health, and mental acuity is no exception. Poor circulation or poor blood oxygen levels could be a contributing factor that leads to a decline in mental acuity over time [2]. You can read more about the importance of circulation here.

The Gut-Brain Axis: Clinical research is pointing to links--both physical and biochemical--that show how your gut can affect your brain and vice versa. The technical term for the communication network that connects your stomach and brain is the gut-brain axis. [5] The physical connection between the gut and the brain is called the vagus nerve, which oversees a vast array of crucial bodily functions, including control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate. [6]

Your gut and brain are also connected via the immune system. Your gut and gut microbes impact your immune system, which in turn can affect your body’s inflammatory response. [7] Inflammation and high levels of lipopolysaccharide (an inflammatory toxic made by certain bacteria that can pass from the gut into the blood) have been associated with brain disorders including expression, dementia, and schizophrenia. [8]

How Light Affects Mental Acuity

Light is one of the sensory stimuli our brains are always processing, and light intake plays a central role in the biological processes that affect our mental acuity, especially sleep and other circadian rhythms.

Light, Sleep, and Mental Acuity

Sleep is essential for high-functioning mental acuity, and light is crucial for sleep. Essential sleep-regulating hormones like cortisol and melatonin are also directly tied to a person’s light intake. [9] Light orients the brain to the time of day and dictates our circadian rhythms and natural sleep cycle. The brain interprets light as a sign of when to be awake and when to be asleep.

For example, if you take in a lot of bright blue light from screens in the evenings, your brain can get the impression it’s time to be wide awake. It won’t produce cortisol and melatonin at the right times for your sleep schedule. This can lead to chronic sleeping problems that ultimately decrease your mental acuity.

Disrupted sleep can throw off other circadian rhythms too. Daily cycles like metabolism and digestion are timed by the brain and affected by when you experience light, and what kinds of light. In short, if you’re not getting healthy light and sleep everyday, your body can fall out of balance and run inefficiently, with a greater risk of declining mental acuity.

Cellular Energy: Cells need light to make the ATP energy that powers our entire body. If you’re not getting enough light, you may be underperforming because of oxidative stress, or chronic inflammation.

Red Light Therapy and Mental Acuity

Treatments using near infrared (NIR) wavelengths is one way to improve biological balance, strengthen cellular function, and increase energy production. When shined on the head, NIR wavelengths can reach brain cells and stimulate the mitochondria in the body’s processing center. [10] This can improve cellular energy production, enhance blood flow, help heal and regenerate damaged tissues, and support better mental acuity.

What is Light Therapy? Light therapy uses a simple, non-invasive device that delivers healthy wavelengths of red and near infrared (NIR) light directly to the skin and cells. You can learn more about the basics of red light therapy here.

Red Light Therapy Improves Balance and Promotes Mental Acuity

A sharp mind requires a balanced body. For the best memory, attention, and judgement, you need a balanced cellular environment across your body. When a person is making and using energy efficiently, getting good sleep, and living a healthy lifestyle, their brain can thrive and perform near its peak. Light therapy is one way to ensure you get the healthy light you need for cellular balance, healthy sleep, and the best possible mental acuity.

Light therapy can also promote healthier sleep. The color temperature of red light is much lower than blue light, and doesn’t cause the same disruptions to circadian rhythms. Joovv has also pioneered the use of ambient light features in our devices to support healthy sleep cycles. Getting good sleep every night and waking up well rested is one of the most important ways to support memory and mental acuity.

Conclusion: A Balanced Lifestyle Supports Better Mental Acuity

Mental acuity is a measure of how your brain performs. It includes information processing, memory, attention, and judgement. Factors like aging, poor sleep, and lifestyle can decrease mental acuity over time. Good nutrition, exercise, sleep, and cellular balance can help support stronger mental acuity and graceful aging. Light is a key ingredient for sleep and mental acuity, and light therapy is a good way to ensure you get the healthy light you need every day, right in your home.


Sources and References:


[1] Voss RM, J MD. Mental Status Examination. StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Copyright © 2020, StatPearls Publishing LLC.; 2020.

[2] Barnes JN. Exercise, cognitive function, and aging. Advances in physiology education. 2015;39(2):55-62

[3] Leso V, Gervetti P, et al. Shift Work and Migraine: A Systematic Review. Journal of Occupational Health. 2020 Mar.

[4] The Nobel Prize. 2017 Press Release.

[5] Mayer E, Tillisch K, Gupta A. Gut/brain Axis and the Microbiota. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2015 Mar.

[6] Breit S, Kupferberg A, et al. Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain-Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2018 Mar.

[7] Rooks M, Garrett W. Gut Microbiota, Metabolites and Host Immunity. Nature Reviews, Immunology. 2016 May.

[8] Kelly J, Kennedy P, et al. Breaking Down the Barriers: The Gut Microbiome, Intestinal Permeability and Stress-Related Psychiatric Disorders. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience. 2015 Oct.

[9] Figueiro M and Rea M. The Effects of Red and Blue Lights on Circadian Variations in Cortisol, Alpha Amylase, and Melatonin. International Journal of Endocrinology. 2010 Jun.

[10] Hamblin, Michael. Shining light on the head: Photobiomodulation for brain disorders. ScienceDirect. 2016 Sept.