The first question anyone interested in evaluating products should ask is: Which brain functions do I (or my loved-one or my client) need to train? The answer to this question depends a lot on the situation and goals of the person who will use the training product.
The reasoning is the same as with physical fitness: it is obvious that one need to start training with the goal in mind.Â Is the goal to train abdominal muscles? Biceps? Cardio capacity? Overall maintenance workout?
If the intended user wants general guidelines to maintain his or her brain health, the overall priorities should be the 4 pillars of brain maintenance: balanced diet, stress management, physical exercise and brain exercise. Novelty, variety and challenge should be incorporated in daily life in a variety of ways.
Age has to be taken in the equation when one wonders what skills need to be trained. As you know the brain changes as we age. Some brain areas, such as the frontal lobes, may need extra workout to increase neuroprotection. The frontal lobes support what scientists call executive functions, which cover abilities such as adapting to new situations and planning. The pathways connecting the frontal lobes to the other brain lobes are very slow to mature and they are typically among the first areas to decline with age. As a consequence, depending on one’s age, the training focus may shift from one set of skills to another.
If the intended user is a busy executive, he or she may want to focus on both stress management and train specific brain functions that are part of the skills necessary to accomplish his or her work efficiently. For instance, in the financial domain, Dr. Steenbarger differentiates between short-term and long-term traders. The cognitive abilities needed for both types of traders in order to be successful are different. The goal of short-term traders is to be able to process large amounts of information and quickly see patterns in order to make effective decisions. The underlying cognitive functions are then speed of processing and working memory. In contrast, for long-term traders, analytical skills are the most important.
Useful computer-based brain fitness programs have an initial assessment to determine a current baseline and where it makes most sense to start exercising. From there, the computer constantly checks and updates performance to adjust the level of challenge to ensure that the user is pushed a bit each time.
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.