Oct 30, 2007
By: Alvaro Fernandez
The Harvard Business Review just published (thanks Catherine!) this article on cognitive fitness, by Roderick Gilkey and Clint Kilts. We are happy to see the growing interest on how to maintain healthy and productive brains, from a broadening number of quarters. Without having yet fully read the article…it seems to provide a reasonable introduction to brain science, yet could have more beef regarding assessment, training and recommendations. In such an emerging field, though, going one step at a time makes sense. What really matters is thet fact itself that it was published.
Recent neuroscientific research shows that the health of your brain isn’t, as experts once thought, just the product of childhood experiences and genetics; it reflects your adult choices and experiences as well. Professors Gilkey and Kilts of Emory University’s medical and business schools explain how you can strengthen your brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities, and prevent functions such as memory from deteriorating as you age. The brain’s alertness is the result of what the authors call cognitive fitness–a state of optimized ability to reason, remember, learn, plan, and adapt. Certain attitudes, lifestyle choices, and exercises enhance cognitive fitness. Mental workouts are the key. Brain-imaging studies indicate that acquiring expertise in areas as diverse as playing a cello, juggling, speaking a foreign language, and driving a taxicab expands your neural systems and makes them more communicative. In other words, you can alter the physical makeup of your brain by learning new skills. The more cognitively fit you are, the better equipped you are to make decisions, solve problems, and deal with stress and change. Cognitive fitness will help you be more open to new ideas and alternative perspectives. It will give you the capacity to change your behavior and realize your goals. You can delay senescence for years and even enjoy a second career. Drawing from the rapidly expanding body of neuroscientific research as well as from well-established research in psychology and other mental health fields, the authors have identified four steps you can take to become cognitively fit: understand how experience makes the brain grow, work hard at play, search for patterns, and seek novelty and innovation. Together these steps capture some of the key opportunities for maintaining an engaged, creative brain.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
May I quote this Los Angeles Times article and say that
- “I see this as a new frontier of fitness overall,” says Alvaro Fernandez, founder and chief executive of the website SharpBrains .com, which tracks the business and science of brain-training. Americans already understand the value of physical fitness as a means of preserving the body’s proper function and preventing age-related diseases, says Fernandez.
- He predicts that cognitive fitness will become a goal to which Americans equally aspire as we learn more about aging and the brain.
Pretty easy prediction, given what we are seeing and doing every day.
Now, the real merit goes to neuroscientists like Dr. Goldberg and many other pioneers who have been saying so for the last 10 years, and doing the hard work. And, of course, for each of us who try our best every day to keep our brains and minds healthy and productive, and do more than wait for a magic pill to arrive.