11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth about Brain Training

Last Mon­day, NPR (very good US-based radio sta­tion) had a pro­gram on “do brain train­ing pro­grams work?” that reflect­ed very old-fash­ioned think­ing. In short, the guest speak­ers talked and talked about the impor­tance of nutri­tion and phys­i­cal exer­cise (both very impor­tant, as we have cov­ered in this blog mul­ti­ple times), and expressed skep­ti­cism about the con­cept of exer­cis­ing our brains to improve atten­tion, mem­o­ry and oth­er skills…I guess it takes a while to change old men­tal par­a­digms (And yes, some pro­grams work bet­ter than others).

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have final­ly debunked that old think­ing that our brains decline inex­orably after a cer­tain age with lit­tle each of us can do to “exer­cise” or “train our brains”. But don’t trust me. Dur­ing the last year I have had the for­tune to inter­view 11 cut­ting-edge neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists on their research and thoughts. Here are some of my favorite quotes (you can read the full inter­view notes by click­ing the links):

Judith Beck “Today, thanks to fMRI and oth­er neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, we are start­ing to under­stand the impact our actions can have on spe­cif­ic parts of the brain.”- Dr. Judith S. Beck, Direc­tor of the Beck Insti­tute for Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py and Research, and author of The Beck Diet Solu­tion: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Per­son. Full Inter­view Notes.

James ZullLearn­ing is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, con­nec­tions called synaps­es and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…When we do so, we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works. We become our own gar­den­ers — Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­o­gy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. Full Inter­view Notes.

Dr. Elkhonon GoldbergExer­cis­ing our brains sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly is as impor­tant as exer­cis­ing our bod­ies. In my expe­ri­ence, “Use it or lose it” should real­ly be “Use it and get more of it”.- Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine, and dis­ci­ple of the great neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Alexan­der Luria. Full Inter­view Notes.

Picture of Daniel Gopher What research has shown is that cog­ni­tion, or what we call think­ing and per­for­mance, is real­ly a set of skills that we can train sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. And that com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive train­ers or“cognitive sim­u­la­tions are the most effec­tive and effi­cient way to do so. — Dr. Daniel Gopher, Direc­tor of the Research Cen­ter for Work Safe­ty and Human Engi­neer­ing at Tech­nion Insti­tute of Sci­ence. Full Inter­view Notes.

Yaakov SternIndi­vid­u­als who lead men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing lives, through edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion and leisure activ­i­ties, have reduced risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. Stud­ies sug­gest that they have 35–40% less risk of man­i­fest­ing the dis­ease- Dr. Yaakov Stern, Divi­sion Leader of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Divi­sion of the Sergievsky Cen­ter at the Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, New York. Full Inter­view Notes.

Go HiranoIt is hard­ly deni­able that brains enchant Japan­ese peo­ple. We love brain train­ing. Dentsu, the biggest adver­tis­ing agency, announced the No.1 Con­sumer-cho­sen 2006 Prod­uct was game soft­ware and books for brain train­ing.”- Go Hira­no, Japan­ese exec­u­tive, founder of NeuWell. Full Inter­view Notes.

Picture of Brett Steenbarger Elite per­form­ers are dis­tin­guished by the struc­tur­ing of their learn­ing process. It is impor­tant to under­stand the role of emo­tions: they are not “bad”. They are very use­ful sig­nals. It is impor­tant to become aware of them to avoid being engulfed by them, and learn how to man­age them. — Dr. Brett Steen­barg­er, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Behav­ioral Sci­ences, SUNY Med­ical Uni­ver­si­ty, and author of Enhanc­ing Trad­er Per­for­mance. Full Inter­view Notes.

torkel_s.jpgWe have shown that work­ing mem­o­ry can be improved by train­ing…I think that we are see­ing the begin­ning of a new era of com­put­er­ized train­ing for a wide range of appli­ca­tions.  Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, Direc­tor of the Devel­op­men­tal Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Lab at Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute. Full Inter­view Notes.

Bradley S. Gibson, Ph.D.Train­ing is very impor­tant: atten­tion­al con­trol is one of the last cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to devel­op in nor­mal brain development…I can eas­i­ly see the rel­e­vance in 2 fields. One, pro­fes­sion­al sports. Two, mil­i­tary train­ing.  Pro­fes­sor Bradley Gib­son is the Direc­tor of the Per­cep­tion and Atten­tion Lab at Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame. Full Inter­view Notes.

Arthur LavinI don’t see that schools are apply­ing the best knowl­edge of how minds work. Schools should be the best place for applied neu­ro­science, tak­ing the lat­est advances in cog­ni­tive research and apply­ing it to the job of edu­cat­ing minds. — Dr. Arthur Lavin, Asso­ciate Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Pedi­atrics at Case West­ern School of Med­i­cine, pedi­a­tri­cian in pri­vate prac­tice. Full Inter­view Notes.

David RabinerCog­ni­tive train­ing rests on sol­id premis­es, and some pro­grams already have very promis­ing research results. Some of the most are promis­ing areas are: neu­ro­feed­back, which as a whole is start­ing to present good research results, and work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing. — Pro­fes­sor David Rabin­er, Senior Research Sci­en­tist and the Direc­tor of Psy­chol­o­gy and Neu­ro­science Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty: Full Inter­view Notes.

There is much we can do every­day to lit­er­al­ly exer­cise our brains. No mat­ter our age. So much to Learn…so Good to Learn! Let’s see when this sto­ry makes it into NPR.


  1. James Torrence on September 7, 2007 at 3:25

    So, you’re say­ing that a 25 year old brain needs not be any more effi­cient or func­tion­al than a 55 year old brain?

    Or are you say­ing some­thing more, like through devel­op­ing tech­niques we will soon be able to do things as adults that we assumed pre­vi­ous­ly were only avail­able to chil­dren, like mas­ter­ing a musi­cal instru­ment? You should clear up what you’re saying.

  2. NanoStuff on September 7, 2007 at 3:47

    It’s a mis­lead­ing idea. Don’t be fooled, there are cognitive/memory tasks for which there is lit­tle appar­ent res­o­lu­tion. Brains to decline with age, this is fact, how­ev­er as has been sug­gest­ed, there are things you can do to reduce some of the effects.

  3. Nick on September 7, 2007 at 6:05

    As a cog­ni­tive neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy research­ing this area it is supris­ing and frus­trat­ing how many sug­ges­tions and prod­ucts are tar­get­ing the idea of use-it-or-lose it. 

    It is true that on the whole pre­vi­ous research has indi­cat­ed that peo­ple who are more cogn­tiviely active tend to show less cogn­tivie decline. How­ev­er, clos­er inspec­tion will show that the major­i­ty of research has method­olog­i­cal flaws which atten­u­ate their conclusions. 

    The fact is dif­fer­ences in cog­ni­tive deline are most­ly due to uncon­trol­lable indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences and very ear­ly life expe­ri­ences, not lat­er activ­i­ties in mid­dle age.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly there is very lit­tle that one can do about healthy cog­ni­tive decline except main­tain­ing phys­i­cal fitness.

  4. ieclectic on September 7, 2007 at 7:08

    My per­son­al expe­ri­ence is def­i­nite­ly a “slow­ing down” in terms of men­tal gym­nas­tics. Ideas, cre­ativ­i­ty, seem a bit hard­er to come by, darn it. That “inner child” is far­ther away. I humbly rec­om­mend the Eclec­tic Guide to Ideation for a lit­tle exercise.

  5. Robert H. Goretsky on September 7, 2007 at 7:24

    Oth­er than engag­ing in a pro­fes­sion that con­stant­ly stim­u­lates the mind, what oth­er tech­niques / exer­cis­es do doc­tors recommend? 

    Robert H. Goretsky
    Hobo­ken, NJ

  6. Alvaro on September 7, 2007 at 8:39

    James: what I am say­ing is that 1) we should pay as much atten­tion to brain exer­cise (rich in nov­el­ty, vari­ety and increas­ing lev­els of chal­lenge) as we do pay to nutri­tion and phys­i­cal exer­cise, and that that com­po­nent is often misunderstood/ neglect­ed (how many peo­ple belong to gyms, or go jog­ging or hik­ing, or keep a diet,…vs. how many peo­ple care about what spe­cif­ic actions can they take to refine their minds con­tin­u­al­ly), 2) that tar­get­ed men­tal exer­cise can help us improve, or reduce the rate of decline, our cog­ni­tive skills.

    NanoS­tuff: brains evolve with age. They get bet­ter in some areas, like pat­tern recog­ni­tion and emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion. They get worse at oth­ers, like pro­cess­ing speed and prob­lem-solv­ing in nov­el sit­u­a­tions. The point is sim­ply that we can improve, through well-direct­ed exer­cise, on each of those areas. Yes, my abdom­i­nals will prob­a­bly tend to decline as I age…but that does­n’t mean I should­n’t exer­cise, right?

    Nick, I encour­age you to talk to more neu­ro­sci­en­tists and neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists, many of whom would tell you oth­er­wise based both on research and their own clin­i­cal expe­ri­ence (usu­al­ly with stroke and TBI rehab patients, and with mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment). You will also enjoy read­ing the inter­views above with Daniel Gopher and Bradley Gib­son. A few great books are The Exec­u­tive Brain, The Brain That Changes Itself, and Train Your Mind Change Your Brain.

    ieclec­tic: I am sure you are get­ting bet­ter at oth­er areas. Will take a look at that guide, thanks.

    Robert: it depends on the spe­cif­ic sit­u­a­tion and goals. As gen­er­al guide­lines, good “brain exer­cise” is that which presents nov­el­ty, rich vari­ety, and grows in dif­fi­cul­ty lev­el. Think of it as cross-train­ing your mind-and your brain has many dif­fer­ent areas and cog­ni­tive skills. You can change pro­fes­sion every 10 years…or try to mas­ter com­plex activ­i­ties such as tak­ing on new sports or musi­cal instru­ments, or use some of the com­put­er-based pro­grams com­ing to mar­ket, or bet­ter, all of them that you can do in a mean­ing­ful way. Please take a look at the inter­view with Elkhonon Goldberg.

  7. Johan on September 12, 2007 at 3:13

    I think one of the big ironies of the “brain train­ing” con­tro­ver­sy is that the com­pa­nies mar­ket­ing brain train­ing devices offer such laugh­able prod­ucts. Real­ly, my brain’s capac­i­ty is sup­posed to be bet­ter improved by spend­ing an hour tap­ping away at a tiny Nin­ten­do DS screen, rather than just hav­ing a spir­it­ed con­ver­sa­tion with friends, read­ing a book, writ­ing a paper, solv­ing soduku? One might imag­ine that any of these nat­ur­al activ­i­ties would be far more stimulating.

    I’m not con­vinced by the evi­dence either, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry. With a few note­wor­thy exam­ples, few of the quotes above actu­al­ly cite any sup­port­ing evi­dence that brain train­ing works. It’s easy to spin a tale on how/why brain train­ing MIGHT work, but I think the first order of busi­ness ought to be estab­lish­ing con­clu­sive­ly that it does in fact work.

    And not just that, it ought to work bet­ter than the tra­di­tion­al “brain reme­dies” out­lined above to offer any gen­uine val­ue. After all, who would­n’t pre­fer read­ing a book or chat­ting with friends over slav­ing away at a brain train­ing program?

  8. Alvaro on September 13, 2007 at 7:37

    Hel­lo Johan,

    Thanks for your com­ment. I enjoy your blog. 

    Please note that none of those sci­en­tists is even talk­ing about Nintendo.

    Why don’t you read the full notes of the inter­views with Daniel Gopher, Torkel Kling­berg, Bradley Gib­son, they explain their own peer-reviewed research on spe­cif­ic pro­grams, one for periph­er­al vision and atten­tion­al con­trol for pilots, the oth­er for work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing for kids with atten­tion deficits. The inter­views include spe­cif­ic lit­er­a­ture ref­er­ences. Please don’t judge a field based on some quotes which, by design, intend to invite peo­ple to read the inter­view. And they don’t present the full view.

    The point is that the field is WAY broad­er than meets the eye.

    Have you read books like Train Your Mind Change Your Brain, or The Brain That Changes Itself? Either of them would, I think, help change your mind­set: we are not talk­ing about about doing those exer­cis­es instead of talk­ing with friends. (Maybe instead of (the aver­age Amer­i­can watch­ing 5 hours TV per day?). The key prin­ci­ples for men­tal stim­u­la­tion are 1) nov­el­ty, 2) vari­ety, 3) con­stant chal­lenge. Com­put­er-based exer­cis­es can be a very effi­cient vehi­cle for that-the same way you may choose to go to the gym is you want to train spe­cif­ic areas. You could also walk with friends, could­n’t you?

    Final­ly, please ask any neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist you may know what train­ing they do with patients who have some form of brain injury. And why. 

    Will pre­pare a fol­low-up with a sum­ma­ry of sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, for a more sci­en­tif­ic audience.

  9. apclik on September 17, 2007 at 1:49

    They get bet­ter in some areas, like pat­tern recog­ni­tion and emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion. They get worse at oth­ers, like pro­cess­ing speed and prob­lem-solv­ing in nov­el sit­u­a­tions. That right there is the key!

  10. M. A. Greenstein on September 18, 2008 at 1:52

    As com­men­tors have all not­ed, myth debunk­ing involves con­nect­ing the dots in sci­en­tif­ic research and a will­ing­ness to rethink applied areas like “aging” and “edu­ca­tion.”

    I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in speak­ing to those who note the speed and agili­ty issue, espe­cial­ly in light of pre­scrib­ing “exer­cise” as if that term speaks to all move­ment behaviors.

    May I sug­gest: a cross-cul­tur­al age com­par­i­son with respect to cog­ni­tive and motor learn­ing, e.g., look­ing at the neu­ro-somat­ic ben­e­fits of Chi­nese mar­tial arts like Tai Chi, as flu­id prac­tices that increase per­cep­tu­al aware­ness, toni­fy joints and aug­ment one’s sense of balance.

    Con­nect the dots — Flu­id, loco­mo­tive move­ment pat­terns engage the embod­ied brain in a dif­fer­ent man­ner than the bio­me­chan­ics of lin­ear movement.

    For more thoughts on that, feel free to write to me. As well see the Blakeslee’s book: The Body has a Mind of Its Own.

    Dr. G./M. A.
    The George Green­stein Insti­tute for the Advance­ment of Somat­ic Arts and Science

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