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11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth about Brain Training

Last Monday, NPR (very good US-based radio station) had a program on “do brain training programs work?” that reflected very old-fashioned thinking. In short, the guest speakers talked and talked about the importance of nutrition and physical exercise (both very important, as we have covered in this blog multiple times), and expressed skepticism about the concept of exercising our brains to improve attention, memory and other skills…I guess it takes a while to change old mental paradigms (And yes, some programs work better than others).

Neuroscientists have finally debunked that old thinking that our brains decline inexorably after a certain age with little each of us can do to “exercise” or “train our brains”. But don’t trust me. During the last year I have had the fortune to interview 11 cutting-edge neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists on their research and thoughts. Here are some of my favorite quotes (you can read the full interview notes by clicking the links):

Judith Beck “Today, thanks to fMRI and other neuroimaging techniques, we are starting to understand the impact our actions can have on specific parts of the brain.”- Dr. Judith S. Beck, Director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, and author of The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person. Full Interview Notes.

James Zull“Learning is physical. Learning means the modification, growth, and pruning of our neurons, connections called synapses and neuronal networks, through experience…When we do so, we are cultivating our own neuronal networks. We become our own gardeners – Dr. James Zull, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry at Case Western University. Full Interview Notes.

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg“Exercising our brains systematically is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”.- Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, neuropsychologist, clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and disciple of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Full Interview Notes.

Picture of Daniel Gopher “What research has shown is that cognition, or what we call thinking and performance, is really a set of skills that we can train systematically. And that computer-based cognitive trainers or“cognitive simulations are the most effective and efficient way to do so. – Dr. Daniel Gopher, Director of the Research Center for Work Safety and Human Engineering at Technion Institute of Science. Full Interview Notes.

Yaakov Stern“Individuals who lead mentally stimulating lives, through education, occupation and leisure activities, have reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. Studies suggest that they have 35-40% less risk of manifesting the disease- Dr. Yaakov Stern, Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Center at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York. Full Interview Notes.

Go Hirano“It is hardly deniable that brains enchant Japanese people. We love brain training. Dentsu, the biggest advertising agency, announced the No.1 Consumer-chosen 2006 Product was game software and books for brain training.“- Go Hirano, Japanese executive, founder of NeuWell. Full Interview Notes.

Picture of Brett Steenbarger “Elite performers are distinguished by the structuring of their learning process. It is important to understand the role of emotions: they are not “bad”. They are very useful signals. It is important to become aware of them to avoid being engulfed by them, and learn how to manage them. – Dr. Brett Steenbarger, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, SUNY Medical University, and author of Enhancing Trader Performance. Full Interview Notes.

torkel_s.jpg“We have shown that working memory can be improved by training…I think that we are seeing the beginning of a new era of computerized training for a wide range of applications.  Dr. Torkel Klingberg, Director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Karolinska Institute. Full Interview Notes.

Bradley S. Gibson, Ph.D.Training is very important: attentional control is one of the last cognitive abilities to develop in normal brain development…I can easily see the relevance in 2 fields. One, professional sports. Two, military training.  Professor Bradley Gibson is the Director of the Perception and Attention Lab at University of Notre Dame. Full Interview Notes.

Arthur LavinI don’t see that schools are applying the best knowledge of how minds work. Schools should be the best place for applied neuroscience, taking the latest advances in cognitive research and applying it to the job of educating minds. – Dr. Arthur Lavin, Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western School of Medicine, pediatrician in private practice. Full Interview Notes.

David Rabiner“Cognitive training rests on solid premises, and some programs already have very promising research results. Some of the most are promising areas are: neurofeedback, which as a whole is starting to present good research results, and working memory training. – Professor David Rabiner, Senior Research Scientist and the Director of Psychology and Neuroscience Undergraduate Studies at Duke University: Full Interview Notes.

There is much we can do everyday to literally exercise our brains. No matter our age. So much to Learn…so Good to Learn! Let’s see when this story makes it into NPR.

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25 Responses

  1. James Torrence says:

    So, you’re saying that a 25 year old brain needs not be any more efficient or functional than a 55 year old brain?

    Or are you saying something more, like through developing techniques we will soon be able to do things as adults that we assumed previously were only available to children, like mastering a musical instrument? You should clear up what you’re saying.

  2. NanoStuff says:

    It’s a misleading idea. Don’t be fooled, there are cognitive/memory tasks for which there is little apparent resolution. Brains to decline with age, this is fact, however as has been suggested, there are things you can do to reduce some of the effects.

  3. Nick says:

    As a cognitive neuropsychology researching this area it is suprising and frustrating how many suggestions and products are targeting the idea of use-it-or-lose it.

    It is true that on the whole previous research has indicated that people who are more cogntiviely active tend to show less cogntivie decline. However, closer inspection will show that the majority of research has methodological flaws which attenuate their conclusions.

    The fact is differences in cognitive deline are mostly due to uncontrollable individual differences and very early life experiences, not later activities in middle age.

    Unfortunately there is very little that one can do about healthy cognitive decline except maintaining physical fitness.

  4. ieclectic says:

    My personal experience is definitely a “slowing down” in terms of mental gymnastics. Ideas, creativity, seem a bit harder to come by, darn it. That “inner child” is farther away. I humbly recommend the Eclectic Guide to Ideation for a little exercise.

  5. Other than engaging in a profession that constantly stimulates the mind, what other techniques / exercises do doctors recommend?

    Robert H. Goretsky
    Hoboken, NJ

  6. Alvaro says:

    James: what I am saying is that 1) we should pay as much attention to brain exercise (rich in novelty, variety and increasing levels of challenge) as we do pay to nutrition and physical exercise, and that that component is often misunderstood/ neglected (how many people belong to gyms, or go jogging or hiking, or keep a diet,…vs. how many people care about what specific actions can they take to refine their minds continually), 2) that targeted mental exercise can help us improve, or reduce the rate of decline, our cognitive skills.

    NanoStuff: brains evolve with age. They get better in some areas, like pattern recognition and emotional self-regulation. They get worse at others, like processing speed and problem-solving in novel situations. The point is simply that we can improve, through well-directed exercise, on each of those areas. Yes, my abdominals will probably tend to decline as I age…but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t exercise, right?

    Nick, I encourage you to talk to more neuroscientists and neuropsychologists, many of whom would tell you otherwise based both on research and their own clinical experience (usually with stroke and TBI rehab patients, and with mild cognitive impairment). You will also enjoy reading the interviews above with Daniel Gopher and Bradley Gibson. A few great books are The Executive Brain, The Brain That Changes Itself, and Train Your Mind Change Your Brain.

    ieclectic: I am sure you are getting better at other areas. Will take a look at that guide, thanks.

    Robert: it depends on the specific situation and goals. As general guidelines, good “brain exercise” is that which presents novelty, rich variety, and grows in difficulty level. Think of it as cross-training your mind-and your brain has many different areas and cognitive skills. You can change profession every 10 years…or try to master complex activities such as taking on new sports or musical instruments, or use some of the computer-based programs coming to market, or better, all of them that you can do in a meaningful way. Please take a look at the interview with Elkhonon Goldberg.

  7. Johan says:

    I think one of the big ironies of the “brain training” controversy is that the companies marketing brain training devices offer such laughable products. Really, my brain’s capacity is supposed to be better improved by spending an hour tapping away at a tiny Nintendo DS screen, rather than just having a spirited conversation with friends, reading a book, writing a paper, solving soduku? One might imagine that any of these natural activities would be far more stimulating.

    I’m not convinced by the evidence either, but that’s another story. With a few noteworthy examples, few of the quotes above actually cite any supporting evidence that brain training works. It’s easy to spin a tale on how/why brain training MIGHT work, but I think the first order of business ought to be establishing conclusively that it does in fact work.

    And not just that, it ought to work better than the traditional “brain remedies” outlined above to offer any genuine value. After all, who wouldn’t prefer reading a book or chatting with friends over slaving away at a brain training program?

  8. Alvaro says:

    Hello Johan,

    Thanks for your comment. I enjoy your blog.

    Please note that none of those scientists is even talking about Nintendo.

    Why don’t you read the full notes of the interviews with Daniel Gopher, Torkel Klingberg, Bradley Gibson, they explain their own peer-reviewed research on specific programs, one for peripheral vision and attentional control for pilots, the other for working memory training for kids with attention deficits. The interviews include specific literature references. Please don’t judge a field based on some quotes which, by design, intend to invite people to read the interview. And they don’t present the full view.

    The point is that the field is WAY broader than meets the eye.

    Have you read books like Train Your Mind Change Your Brain, or The Brain That Changes Itself? Either of them would, I think, help change your mindset: we are not talking about about doing those exercises instead of talking with friends. (Maybe instead of (the average American watching 5 hours TV per day?). The key principles for mental stimulation are 1) novelty, 2) variety, 3) constant challenge. Computer-based exercises can be a very efficient vehicle for that-the same way you may choose to go to the gym is you want to train specific areas. You could also walk with friends, couldn’t you?

    Finally, please ask any neuropsychologist you may know what training they do with patients who have some form of brain injury. And why.

    Will prepare a follow-up with a summary of scientific literature, for a more scientific audience.

  9. apclik says:

    They get better in some areas, like pattern recognition and emotional self-regulation. They get worse at others, like processing speed and problem-solving in novel situations. That right there is the key!

  10. As commentors have all noted, myth debunking involves connecting the dots in scientific research and a willingness to rethink applied areas like “aging” and “education.”

    I’m particularly interested in speaking to those who note the speed and agility issue, especially in light of prescribing “exercise” as if that term speaks to all movement behaviors.

    May I suggest: a cross-cultural age comparison with respect to cognitive and motor learning, e.g., looking at the neuro-somatic benefits of Chinese martial arts like Tai Chi, as fluid practices that increase perceptual awareness, tonify joints and augment one’s sense of balance.

    Connect the dots — Fluid, locomotive movement patterns engage the embodied brain in a different manner than the biomechanics of linear movement.

    For more thoughts on that, feel free to write to me. As well see the Blakeslee’s book: The Body has a Mind of Its Own.

    Dr. G./M. A.
    The George Greenstein Institute for the Advancement of Somatic Arts and Science

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