Feb 21, 2008
By: Alvaro Fernandez
Physical fitness. Cognitive/ brain fitness. Both require novelty, variety and challenge. Professor Schlomo Breznitz, a scientific and business leader in the cognitive fitness field, explains why, eloquently, below. Perhaps “we want change” really means “we need change”. Enjoy!
Why are everyday life challenges not sufficient to keep our brains fit?
— By Prof. Shlomo Breznitz
Often, when describing the benefits of MindFit to brain health, I am asked by people in the audience whether this software is really needed. After all, so they argue, life provides continues cognitive challenges, which should suffice for ensuring brain fitness. From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep our brains have to attend to complex stimuli, plan many activities, some of them quite complex, and carry us through whatever the day offers. These tasks should provide sufficient “brain exercise” without the need to engage in specific mental workout.
This line of argument sounds oddly familiar, since it is an exact duplication of claims made in the recent past against the need for physical exercise. One jumps into the car and from the car and perhaps even climbs a few stairs before sitting in the chair, which should be enough to burn the calories and keep fit.
It took us a few long years to realize that the movements called for by ordinary everyday life tasks are far from sufficient to keep us physically fit and unless we engage in deliberate workout we are bound to gain weight and suffer the consequences. The balance sheet in this case is quite simple; even a superficial comparison to the activities of people with less sedentary lifestyles indicates that we are not moving enough. By contrast to our forefathers who lived as hunters-gatherers (and this is the most valid comparison since we are physically the same) we are practically immobilized by comforts.
Like in the case of physical fitness, cognitive fitness requires deliberate exercising. The main reason for this rests on the fact that our brains are basically lazy. There are in principle two very different modes of activity that our brains engage in whenever faced with a problem:
a) Analysis of the situation and of the possible alternative actions and their consequences. This mode requires significant resources of attention, takes time and is mentally effortful.
b) Alternatively, we can search for similar experiences in the past and evoke a similar solution. This mode does not require attention, is very fast and automatic. Furthermore, searching one’s database for prior experience is easy and there is little or no mental effort involved.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the brain prefers by far the automatic mode to the effortful one whenever possible. This has many obvious advantages, as well as some disadvantages. Chief among them is the danger that the degree of similarity between past experience and the present problem would be sacrificed for reasons of convenience. This can lead to neglect of important situational features that render the old, familiar solution, inadequate.
This preference and reliance on experiential precedents feeds directly into our tendency to develop routines. After doing something a few times the activity, any activity, becomes gradually a routine one, requiring less attention and less effort. There are many things we do well precisely due to their becoming increasingly more automatic in terms of the cognitive work involved. Driving is a particularly familiar example. Safe driving requires on the average two years of driving experience, during which time the brain develops helpful routines to deal with familiar challenges on the road. However, the tendency to develop routines is by no means relevant exclusively to motor activities.
Thus, word recognition in reading becomes automatic and allows us to attend to meaning rather than the process of decoding each word from its constituent letters and syllables. As we gain experience, even highly complex intellectual activities become routine over time.
Routines make things easier, but for that same reason they become less challenging. Thus, as we go about the tasks of living we become more experienced and those very tasks lose their ability to challenge our brains. Moreover, old people have too much experience. They have seen almost everything, heard almost everything and faced most situations in the past. It is for this reason that everyday life experiences cannot ensure brain fitness any more than they can assure physical fitness. The analogy does not stop here and just as we need physical workout we need cognitive workouts as well.
The above analysis points to activities holding the greatest promise of healthy challenge to the brain. Namely, they have to be novel. Reading a new book, visiting new places, trying new foods, learning to play a musical instrument, or best, learning a new language, these are the activities that brain fitness is made of. And on top of it, engage in quality cognitive training exercises that cover the broad spectrum of cognitive skills and maximize the cognitive value per unit of time spent.
— Prof. Schlomo Breznitz is the Founder and President of CogniFit. Previously, he served as the Lady Davis Professor of Psychology and the founding director of the Center for Study of Psychological Stress at the University of Haifa. He has also been visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Berkeley, Stanford, and National Institutes of Health.