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Does brain training work? Yes, if it meets these 5 conditions

brain exerciseIn a mod­ern soci­ety we are con­fronted with a wide range of increas­ingly abstract and inter­con­nected prob­lems. Suc­cess­fully deal­ing with such an envi­ron­ment requires a highly fit brain, capa­ble of adapt­ing to new sit­u­a­tions and chal­lenges through­out life. Con­se­quently, we expect cross-training the brain to soon become as main­stream as cross-training the body is today, going beyond unstruc­tured men­tal activ­ity and aim­ing at max­i­miz­ing spe­cific brain func­tions. The goal of our new book is to help you nav­i­gate the grow­ing land­scape of lifestyle and brain train­ing options to enhance brain health and per­for­mance across the lifespan.

 How is brain train­ing dif­fer­ent from men­tal stimulation?

Any­thing we do involv­ing nov­elty, vari­ety, and chal­lenge stim­u­lates the brain and can con­tribute to build­ing capac­ity and brain reserve. For instance, learn­ing how to play the piano acti­vates a num­ber of brain func­tions (atten­tion, mem­ory, motor skills, etc.), which trig­gers changes in the under­ly­ing neu­ronal net­works. Indeed, musi­cians have larger brain vol­ume in areas that are impor­tant for play­ing an instru­ment: motor, audi­tory and visu­ospa­tial regions. How­ever, we need to rec­og­nize that such an activ­ity may take thou­sands of hours before pay­ing off in terms of brain fit­ness. It con­sti­tutes a great and plea­sur­able men­tal effort, and helps build cog­ni­tive reserve, but it is dif­fer­ent by nature from more tar­geted, effi­cient, and com­ple­men­tary brain train­ing inter­ven­tions. To take an anal­ogy from the world of phys­i­cal fit­ness, it makes sense to stay fit by play­ing pickup soc­cer games and also by train­ing spe­cific mus­cle groups and capac­i­ties such as car­dio endurance, abdom­i­nal mus­cles, and thigh mus­cle. It is not one or the other.

Under what con­di­tions can brain train­ing work?

This is the mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion. Evi­dence is grow­ing that brain train­ing can work. The ques­tion remains, how­ever, how to max­i­mize the like­li­hood of trans­fer from train­ing to daily life.

Why do we still often hear that brain train­ing does not work? Because of the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of what “brain train­ing” and “work” mean. A machine to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles prob­a­bly won’t “work” if what we mea­sure is blood pres­sure. A “plane” won’t fly if it wasn’t a plane to start with, but a donkey.

The most crit­i­cal fac­tor in deter­min­ing whether a brain train­ing method or pro­gram works is the extent to which the train­ing effects “trans­fer” to ben­e­fits in daily life. We know from com­mon expe­ri­ence that prac­tice usu­ally trig­gers improve­ment in the prac­ticed task. Based on our analy­sis of doc­u­mented exam­ples of brain train­ing tech­niques that “work” or “trans­fer,” we pro­pose that these five con­di­tions must be met for any kind of brain train­ing, from med­i­ta­tion to technology-based pro­grams, to trans­late into mean­ing­ful real world improvements:

  1. It must engage and exer­cise a core brain-based capac­ity or neural cir­cuit iden­ti­fied to be rel­e­vant to real-life out­comes, such as exec­u­tive atten­tion, work­ing mem­ory, speed of pro­cess­ing and emo­tional reg­u­la­tion, as well as oth­ers dis­cussed through­out the inter­views with sci­en­tists in this book. Many sup­posed “brain train­ing” games fail to pro­vide any actual “brain train­ing” because they were never really designed to tar­get spe­cific and rel­e­vant brain functions.
  2. It must tar­get a per­for­mance bot­tle­neck – oth­er­wise it is an exer­cise in van­ity sim­i­lar to build­ing the largest biceps in town while neglect­ing the rest of the body. A crit­i­cal ques­tion to ask is: Which brain func­tion do I need to opti­mize? With phys­i­cal fit­ness, effec­tive train­ing begins with a tar­get in mind: Is the goal to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles? Biceps? Car­dio capac­ity? So it goes for brain fit­ness, where the ques­tion becomes: Is the goal to opti­mize driving-related cog­ni­tive skills? Con­cen­tra­tion? Mem­ory? Reg­u­lat­ing stress and emo­tions? The choice of a tech­nique or tech­nol­ogy should be dri­ven by your goal. For instance, if you need to train your exec­u­tive func­tions but use a pro­gram designed to enhance speed of pro­cess­ing, you may well con­clude that this pro­gram does not “work.” But this pro­gram may work for some­body whose bot­tle­neck is speed of pro­cess­ing (as often hap­pens in older adults).
  3. A min­i­mum “dose” of 15 hours total per tar­geted brain func­tion, per­formed over 8 weeks or less, is nec­es­sary for real improve­ment. Train­ing only a few hours across a wide vari­ety of brain func­tions, such as in the “BBC brain train­ing” exper­i­ment, should not be expected to trig­ger real-world ben­e­fits, in the same way that going to the gym a cou­ple times per month and doing an assort­ment of undi­rected exer­cises can­not be expected to result in increased mus­cle strength and phys­i­cal fitness.
  4. Train­ing must adapt to per­for­mance, require effort­ful atten­tion, and increase in dif­fi­culty. This is a key advan­tage of com­put­er­ized “brain train­ing” over pen-and-paper-based activ­i­ties. Think about the num­ber of hours you have spent doing cross­word or Sudoku puz­zles, or mas­ter­ing any new sub­ject for that mat­ter, in a way that was either too easy for you and became bor­ing or way too dif­fi­cult and became frus­trat­ing. Inter­ac­tive train­ing has the capac­ity to con­stantly mon­i­tor your level of per­for­mance and adapt accordingly.
  5. Con­tin­ued prac­tice is required for con­tin­ued ben­e­fits. Just as you wouldn’t expect to derive life­long ben­e­fits from run­ning a few hours this month, and then not exer­cis­ing ever again, you shouldn’t expect life­long ben­e­fits from a one-time brain train­ing activ­ity. Remem­ber that “cells that SharpBrainsGuide_3D_compressedfire together wire together” – while the min­i­mum dose described above may act as a thresh­old to start see­ing some ben­e­fits, con­tin­ued prac­tice, either at a reduced num­ber of hours or as a peri­odic “booster,” is a final con­di­tion for trans­fer to real-world ben­e­fits over time.

–This is an adapted excerpt from the new book “The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages). This user-friendly and thought-provoking how-to guide cuts through the clut­ter of media hype about the lat­est “magic pill” for bet­ter brain health, offer­ing proven, prac­ti­cal tips and tech­niques that any­one can use to main­tain and enhance brain func­tion through­out life and even ward off cog­ni­tive decline.

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