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Brain Training and “Brain-ism” in Japan

Go HiranoToday we are trav­el­ing to Japan. Go Hira­no is a ser­i­al Japan­ese entre­pre­neur who has been explor­ing neu­ro­science-based oppor­tu­ni­ties in Japan, hav­ing recent­ly cre­at­ed the com­pa­ny NeuWell (neu­ro­science for well­ness).

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Key take-aways:

- Peo­ple in Japan devour any prod­uct with brain-relat­ed claims

- But there has been a recent back­lash against chil­dren videogames, so game devel­op­ers have start­ed to focus on old­er audi­ences with (most­ly unproven) brain-health-improv­ing games

- The mar­ket is ripe for pro­grams with proven research and tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits

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AF: Hira­no-san, tell us a bit about your­self and how you became inter­est­ed in applied neu­ro­science.

GH: after help­ing launch one of the first DSL providers in Japan, I start­ed to won­der what the next big­ger val­ue for soci­ety would be. I have always been fas­ci­nat­ed by brain research, so I start­ed to explore oppor­tu­ni­ties to help bring to mar­ket neu­ro­science-based pro­grams to help stu­dents do bet­ter in exams, and adults age in brain-friend­ly ways.

AF: what is the state of Brain Fit­ness and Brain Train­ing in Japan? what are the most pop­u­lar appli­ca­tions so far?

GH: I think peo­ple under­stand the con­cepts of Brain Fit­ness and Brain Train­ing. If one method or product/service sounds a bit sci­en­tif­ic there are peo­ple who would try it for fun and curios­i­ty. How­ev­er, major­i­ty of the peo­ple know that many exist­ing ones have low returns on efforts and time. So far, the most pop­u­lar appli­ca­tion was anti-aging, and prod­uct was Dr. Kawashima’s book of cal­cu­la­tions and oral read­ing for adults since it made peo­ple to get the con­cept of brain train­ing.

AF: Japan population’s aver­age age is get­ting old­er prob­a­bly at the fastest speed on earth, and peo­ple there have been exposed to videogames for a long while. How do peo­ple in Japan react towards pro­grams and games that make brain-relat­ed claims?

GH: In any book­store, there always is a sec­tion for brain books where you can find names like Takeshi Yoro, Takashi Tachibana, Ryu­ta Kawashima, Tony Buzan, Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachan­dran and so on. TV vari­ety shows reg­u­lar­ly come up with Brain spe­cials. It is hard­ly deni­able that brains enchant Japan­ese peo­ple. We love brain train­ing.

Long before Dr. Ole­sen, Dr. West­er­berg and Dr. Torkel Kling­berg pub­lished their very-well-received paper about work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing (titled Increased pre­frontal and pari­etal activ­i­ty after train­ing of work­ing mem­o­ry), brain-train­ing ser­vices had been avail­able here. “Speed Lis­ten­ing” adver­tise­ments say “Why haven’t we come up with this idea before?”, and the idea is that by lis­ten­ing 2x speed, your brain works 2x faster. I believe it was there from the 70s and, even now inside the paper bag from book­shop you can find its brochure when you buy books. World pop­u­lar speed-read­ing has its Japan­ese ver­sion of pro­pa­gan­da that it not only speeds up your read­ing but also your brain and even “acti­vates” your right brain. This is not based on actu­al research, but many peo­ple believe it.

There were two times of “brain boom” in the past and Brain Imag­ing cre­at­ed a third one most recent­ly. Dr. Kawashima claimed cal­cu­la­tions and oral read­ing are good to devel­op kids’ brains in the book for chil­dren “Jibun no Nou wo Jibun de Sodateru (Devel­op your own brain)” in 2001. In the book, gam­ing was said to reduce pre­frontal acti­va­tion and have bad or no ben­e­fit for kid’s brain. He com­pared the fMRI image of some­one doing sim­ple cal­cu­la­tions and play­ing games, and appar­ent­ly the image of the for­mer showed more activ­i­ties. To see the activ­i­ties inside the brain was fresh for peo­ple, but the method­ol­o­gy and log­ic was not reviewed by any sci­en­tif­ic pub­li­ca­tion. It was pub­lished by a com­pa­ny that pro­vides a fran­chised chain of learn­ing class­es. The com­pa­ny main­tained books at book­stores to cre­ate a boom and was very suc­cess­ful. Then they came up with adult ver­sion of train­ing book, and sold more than 2 mil­lion. Adults and senior peo­ple were seri­ous­ly did addi­tion and sub­trac­tion of 1 dig­it num­bers for count­less times believ­ing it will main­tain and even enhance their brain­pow­er.

This then became the basis for the Brain Age video game (AF’s note: this is a game that is sell­ing very well in Europe and the USA). More recent­ly from him, cook­ing became good for brain since cook­ing demands plan­ning and mul­ti­ple tasks. They demand pre­frontal cor­tex acti­va­tion, and he showed image of a brain when cook­ing. A gas com­pa­ny that wants to sell more gas ranges and ovens helped spon­sor the research.

AF: we have heard there has been a back­lash recent­ly. Is it more of a sci­en­tif­ic, or con­sumer one?

GH: Sci­en­tif­ic for adults’ games, con­sumer for kids’ ones. In 2001, anoth­er researcher, Dr. Akio Mori wrote an arti­cle called “Gemu(=Game) Nou(=Brain) no Kyofu (The Fear of Game Brain)”. He cre­at­ed his own EEG machine and gath­ered the data of peo­ple who fre­quent­ly play games and peo­ple who do not. He found the “beta-wave” from fre­quent game play­ers that are “same as senior peo­ple with demen­tia”. That, he said, is because of lack of activ­i­ties in their pre­frontal cor­tex, and that means more prob­a­bil­i­ties for low­er aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance and crime. Though his equip­ment was not ver­i­fied, and he was said to get con­fused about alpha and beta wave of EEG, par­ents and edu­ca­tion author­i­ties like munic­i­pal edu­ca­tion com­mit­tees loved his book and invit­ed him for lec­tures and con­fer­ences. His new book in 2006 became the rec­om­mend­ed book of the year from the Nation­al PTA Com­mit­tee.

The sales of soft­ware on home game machines have declined from its peak of 533 bil­lion yen in 1997 to its 53%, 315 bil­lion yen in 2005. Dr. Mori’s book and phe­nom­e­na was the fin­ish­ing blow to the indus­try, espe­cial­ly for kids’ games. There­fore game com­pa­nies had to find new tar­gets who had nev­er played game machines, like mid­dle-aged group and women. Brain Age was pre­ced­ed by a Sega’s game box that was the nat­ur­al next step after the book from Dr. Kawashima I men­tioned.

For women, games on Eng­lish train­ing, lan­guage sup­port for trav­el­ing, cook­ing, com­mon sense and eti­quette are pro­vid­ed. These new sort of seri­ous games not only helped the hand­held game machine stay always out of stock and reach mul­ti-mil­lion sales, but also suc­cess­ful­ly gave the image that games are, depend­ing on the soft­ware, good for the brain and edu­ca­tion. Fun­ny it is that the author­i­ty back­ing the cam­paign is the same Dr. Kawashima who orig­i­nal­ly rec­om­mend­ed kids to cal­cu­late rather than to play games for the ben­e­fit for brains.

No won­der, author­i­ties from the aca­d­e­m­ic and med­ical soci­eties of the neu­ro­science field start­ed crit­i­ciz­ing sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly unproven or no evi­dence-based prod­ucts, books and opin­ion mak­ers. This year, neu­ro­science researchers start­ed a group called “Nou wo Ika­su (Make the best out of Neu­ro­science)” and have fre­quent meet­ings of researchers where peo­ple can join. I vis­it­ed one of those and saw par­tic­i­pants were busy not only crit­i­ciz­ing them but also hint­ing that autho­riza­tion cri­te­ria by neu­ro­sci­en­tists are being pre­pared.

How­ev­er, adult con­sumers keep devour­ing such games. Dentsu, the biggest adver­tis­ing agency announced the No.1 Con­sumer-cho­sen Choice of the Prod­uct 2006 was game soft­ware and books for brain train­ing. So far, appar­ent­ly the demands went far out before the real neu­ro­science comes to fill. Between the bal­ance of body and brain, Japan­ese peo­ple are one of the extreme that is most brain-ism ori­ent­ed, to the brain side, says Dr. Yoro. It seems we, brain-ism extrem­ists, can­not wait the real neu­ro­science to come.

AF: what would you sug­gest that non-Japan­ese com­pa­nies do if they want to bring their pro­grams to Japan?

GH: I would sug­gest to define and attack from a tar­get where you can pro­vide very tan­gi­ble val­ue based on sci­en­tif­ic facts. If you already have actu­al results in US or your mar­ket, they will work. Peo­ple are tired of “just for fun” prod­ucts and wait for results that is worth effort and time based on sci­ence. Since the demands are mount­ing, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and good research is all what mat­ters. Since neu­ro­sci­en­tists are ner­vous about “Far Out” prod­ucts, prod­ucts’ research back­ground will be asked more than past.

AF: what are some spe­cif­ic neu­ro­science-based pro­grams that you think may find a mar­ket in Japan?

GH: We are very excit­ed about the poten­tial to intro­duce Cogmed Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing here in Japan, where the ADD/ ADHD prob­lem is becom­ing more acknowl­edged. Also, giv­en that being stu­dent here is very stress­ful, we think biofeed­back-based pro­grams for peak per­for­mance and stress man­age­ment may be very help­ful to improve over­all learn­ing and test per­for­mance. Not only for stu­dents, but also for traders-we are fol­low­ing with great atten­tion Sharp­Brains’ series of inter­views and posts based on Brett N. Steenbarger’s research on Trad­er Per­for­mance and The Psy­chol­o­gy of Trad­ing.

AF: Go, thanks for updat­ing us on what is going on in Japan. Please keep us informed.

GH: I will hap­pi­ly do so. We will soon have ready an Eng­lish web­site and blog.

AF: We will glad­ly let our read­ers know when those are ready.

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11 Responses

  1. alexandra says:

    I’d like to add a new twist to the brain game con­ver­sa­tion. How about brain teasers that include sweat­ing! What good is train­ing one’s brain if it doesn’t include get­ting the body to move. I think the rea­son so many peo­ple are couch pota­toes is because they haven’t engaged their brains first in activ­i­ties that make their bod­ies want to fol­low. I have been involved in a fit­ness activ­i­ty for the past 15 years that “teas­es” my mind first and I become so engaged with learn­ing that the next thing I know I am sweat­ing and have just got­ten a healthy, anti-aging (check out my pho­tos on the web­site and guess how old I am)fun work­out. Get off the couch and start mov­ing your brain.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hi Alexan­dra,

    Most­ly agreed. We have men­tioned many times that phys­i­cal exer­cise is impor­tant. Now, what many peo­ple don’t know is that the brain also needs exer­cise-and as of today the best research-based brain train­ing pro­grams hap­pen to be com­put­er-based and need full atten­tion, so they need to be done on their own.

    In the future, we will be able to com­bine men­tal exer­cise with phys­i­cal one. Feel free to share more infor­ma­tion on how specif­i­cal­ly that pro­gram includes the “teas­ing” ele­ment. Thanks

  3. Dr. Kawashima’s book ‘Train Your Brain’ posi­tions his brain train­ing approach as a rem­e­dy for Alzheimers. That claim seems sus­pect, and doubt­less were his claims real­is­tic, there would be a sweep­ing noise made over it, and cer­tain­ly he’d be high­ly praised in the Sci­en­tif­ic Com­mu­ni­ty for such a break­through.

    Is there any peer-reviewed data avail­able to sub­stan­ti­ate the claims, and have they been sup­port­ed by cred­i­ble researchers?

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Ter­ral,

    There is no “rem­e­dy for Alzheimer’s”, so Dr. Kawashima’s pro­grams aren’t one, cer­tain­ly. At least in the US, Nin­ten­do is not mak­ing any spe­cif­ic health claims: Nin­ten­do Brain Age should be seen as a fun and stim­u­lat­ing game, noth­ing more noth­ing less.

    Now, there is research that sug­gests lead­ing a men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing life can reduce the prob­a­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms, so why not play Nin­ten­do, or take on gar­den­ing, or trav­el to new coun­tries…

    Please take into account that this is dif­fer­ent from the pro­grams that have peer-reviewed research show­ing they can train and improve spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills.

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