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Different types of brain training

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy (CT) was founded by Dr. Aaron Beck. It is based on the idea that the way people perceive their experience influences their behaviors and emotions. The therapist teaches the patient cognitive and behavioral skills to modify his or her dysfunctional thinking and actions.

CT aims at improving specific traits, behaviors, or cognitive skills, such as planning and flexibility, which are executive functions, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phobias. It has been shown effective in many studies and contexts such as depression, high levels of anxiety, insomnia. The interview with Lee Woodruff (Chapter 1) describes the spectacular recovery of her husband who suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in Iraq. CT was part of this recovery and was used to improve speech and language skills.

Recently, Dr. Aaron Beck’s daughter, Dr. Judy Beck, has successfully used CT to help dieters acquire new skills in order to achieve their goals (see Dr. Beck’s interview at the end of this Chapter). According to Dr. Beck, the main message of CT and its application in the diet world is that problems losing weight are not the dieter’s fault. These problems reflect the lack of skills that can be acquired through training. What skills is Dr. Beck talking about? Mostly executive functions: the skills to plan in advance, to motivate oneself, to monitor one’s behavior, etc.

Recent evidence supports the efficiency of CT. For instance, Stahre and Halstrom (2005) conducted a randomized controlled study testing the effect of CT on weight loss. Nearly all 65 patients completed the program and the short-term intervention (10-week, 30-hours) showed a significant long-term weight reduction, even larger (when compared to the 40 individuals in the control group) after 18 months than right after the 10-week program.

Neuroimaging has also been used to show the results of CT on the brain. Let’s take the example of spider phobia. In 2003, Paquette and colleagues showed that before the cognitive therapy, the fear induced by viewing film clips depicting spiders was correlated with significant activation of specific brain areas, like the amygdala. After the intervention was completed (one three-hour group session per week, for four weeks), viewing the same spider films did not provoke activation of those areas. Dr. Judith Beck, explains that the adults in this study were able to “train their brains” which resulted in reducing the stress response triggered by spiders.

Meditation

You may be wondering what meditation has to do with brain training. In fact, meditation has been shown to improve specific cognitive functions such as attention. As such it can be considered as a brain training technique.

A number of studies have compared people who practice meditation to people who do not. The problem with these studies is that people in both groups can be very different. Thus the benefits observed in the group practicing meditation could be due to other things.

Recently, a more controlled study was conducted that showed a specific effect of meditation on attention, one of the main brain functions described in Chapter 1. In this study, Posner and his colleagues (2007) randomly assigned participants to either an Integrative Body-Mind Training (IBMT) or to a relaxation training. Both trainings lasted 5 days, 20mn per day. IBMT is a meditation technique developed in China in the 1990s. It stresses a balanced state of relaxation while focusing attention. Thought control is achieved with the help of a coach through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balance. The results of this study showed that after training, participants in the IBMT training group showed more improvement in a task measuring executive attention than the control group. The IBMT training also helped reduced cortisol levels caused by mental stress.

Styles of meditation differ. Some technique use concentration meditation, mantra, mindfulness meditation, while others rely on body relaxation, breathing practice and mental imagery. It is not known so far what aspects of meditation or which techniques are the best to train one’s brain. Scientists are researching what elements of meditation may help manage stress and improve memory. For instance, Dr. Andrew Newberg (whose interview can be found at the end of the present chapter) is currently conducting a study where 15 older adults with memory problems are practicing Kirtan Kriya meditation during 8 weeks. Preliminary results in terms of the impact on brain functions seem promising.

Biofeedback

Biofeedback hardware devices measure and graphically display various physiological variables such as skin conductivity and heart rate variability, so that users can learn to self-adjust. It has been used for decades in medicine. Recently, this technology has emerged in reasonably-priced applications for consumers who want to learn how to manage stress better.

Neurofeedback is a subset of biofeedback relying specifically on electrophysiological measures of brain activity. Using Electroencephalography (EEG) biofeedback to measure brain waves gives the user feedback on different “mental states” like alertness.  Neurofeedback is still a tool mostly useful in research and highly specialized clinical contexts, not for mainstream healthcare and/or consumer applications, so we do not cover it in this guide.

Dr. Steenbarger, whose interview can be found at the end of the present chapter, recommends the use of relaxation coupled with biofeedback programs to improve trader’s performance. These programs provide real-time visual feedback on a “trader’s internal performance”. You may be wondering how this may help a trader improve his or her performance? It is because of the close relationship between emotion and cognition. Emotion strongly affects cognition. Stress, as we mentioned earlier, can be very detrimental to performance. Thus, in jobs that are very emotional like trading, it is very important to learn how to self-regulate emotionally in order to improve one’s cognitive performance According to Dr. Steenbarger, biofeedback programs can tell the traders whether they are in optimal conditions to learn and perform or whether they are becoming too stressed.

Computer-based software

For many years, neuropsychologists have helped individuals suffering from traumatic brain injuries relearn how to talk, walk or make decisions, etc.  Among other tools, cognitive exercises (including computer-assisted strategies) have been used to retrain abilities. However these tools are not available to the public and not everybody can afford a neuropsychologist or needs to see one. Things are changing as a variety of commercial programs is now making brain training available to the public. The challenge is to make informed decisions on which tools may be appropriate for specific needs and goals.

Since the launch of the original brain exercise hand-held computer game Brain Age (2005 in Japan, 2006 in the USA and Europe), Nintendo has proven that there is a large demand for mentally stimulating video games. These games can be seen as the next step in the chain after the traditional paper-based games such as crosswords and sudoku puzzles.

As of the end of January 2008, Nintendo has sold 17 million copies of brain exercise games worldwide since the launch of Brain Age in June 2005, with sales in the US trailing those in Japan and Europe. This success has attracted many imitation products from other gaming companies such as Sega (which released their own brain game in Japan before Nintendo, without comparable success), Majesco and Ubisoft.

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This new online resource is based on the content from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.

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