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Cognitive Fitness and Brain Improvement: 10 Debunked Myths

Over the last year we have inter­viewed a num­ber of lead­ing brain health and fit­ness sci­en­tists and prac­ti­tion­ers world­wide to learn about their research and thoughts, and have news to report.

What can we say today that we couldn’t have said only 10 years ago? That what neu­ro­science pio­neer San­ti­a­go Ramon ySantiago Ramon y Cajal Cajal claimed in the XX cen­tu­ry, “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”, may well become real­i­ty in the XXI. And influ­ence Edu­ca­tion, Health, Train­ing, and Gam­ing in the process.

We have only scratched the sur­face of what sci­ence-based struc­tured cog­ni­tive (i.e., men­tal) exer­cise can do for brain health and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. We are now wit­ness­ing the birth of a new indus­try that cross­es tra­di­tion­al sec­tor bound­aries and that may help us under­stand, assess and train our brains, har­ness­ing the grow­ing research about neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons), neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty of the brain to rewire itself through expe­ri­ence), cog­ni­tive train­ing and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion.

Let’s now debunk 10 myths, still too preva­lent, that may pre­vent us from see­ing the full poten­tial of this emerg­ing field:

Myth 1: It’s all in our genes.

Real­i­ty: A big com­po­nent of our life­long brain health and devel­op­ment depends on what we do with our brains. Our own actions, not only our genes, influ­ence our lives to a large extent. Genes pre­dis­pose us, not deter­mine our fates.

Indi­vid­u­als who lead men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing lives, through edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion and leisure activ­i­ties, have reduced risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s. 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 Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty.

Myth 2: The field of Cognitive/ Brain Fit­ness is too new to be cred­i­ble.

Real­i­ty: The field rests on sol­id foun­da­tions dat­ing back more decades — what is new is the num­ber and range of tools that are now start­ing to be avail­able for healthy indi­vid­u­als.

Rig­or­ous and tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive train­ing has been used in clin­i­cal prac­tice for many years. Exer­cis­ing our brains sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly is as impor­tant as exer­cis­ing our bod­ies.” — Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, Frontal Lobes fMRIclin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­o­gy at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine, and dis­ci­ple of Alexan­der Luria.

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 Beck, Direc­tor of the Beck Insti­tute for Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py and Research.

Myth 3: Med­ica­tion is and will remain the only evi­dence-based inter­ven­tion for a num­ber of brain-relat­ed prob­lems.

Real­i­ty: Cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams are start­ing to show val­ue as com­ple­ments to drug-based inter­ven­tions.

Cog­ni­tive train­ing rests on sol­id premis­es, and some pro­grams already have very promis­ing research results”- Pro­fes­sor David Rabin­er, Senior Research Sci­en­tist and Direc­tor of Psy­chol­o­gy and Neu­ro­science Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty.

Myth 4: We need to buy very expen­sive stuff to improve our brains.

Real­i­ty: Every time we learn a new skill, con­cept or fact, we change the phys­i­cal com­po­si­tion of our brains. Life­long learn­ing means life­long neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.neurons

Learn­ing is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, connections–called synaps­es– and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works.” — Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­o­gy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­si­ty,

Myth 5: Schools should just focus on basic skills like Read­ing and Math.

Real­i­ty: “Men­tal mus­cles,” such as work­ing mem­o­ry, are fun­da­men­tal to aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance and are cur­rent­ly over­looked by the school sys­tem.

I 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.

Myth 6: Cross­word puz­zles, or our dai­ly job activ­i­ties, are the best way to keep one’s mind sharp.

Real­i­ty: Com­put­er-based pro­grams can be more effec­tive at train­ing spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills.

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, Pro­fes­sor of Human Fac­tors Engi­neer­ing at Tech­nion Insti­tute of Sci­ence.

Myth 7: Videogames are always a waste of time.

Real­i­ty: Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-designed, com­put­er-based pro­grams can be a good vehi­cle for train­ing spe­cif­ic skills. For exam­ple, it has been shown that short term mem­o­ry can be expand­ed by such pro­grams.

We have shown that work­ing mem­o­ry can be improved by train­ing.” – Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, Direc­tor of the Devel­op­men­tal Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Lab at Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute.

Myth 8: This means kids will spend more time play­ing videogames.

Real­i­ty: In Japan – the world’s ear­li­est adopter of brain-relat­ed videogames- over­all home videogame sales have declined, with chil­dren play­ing less over time. Inter­est­ing­ly, adults in Japan have start­ed to play brain-relat­ed video games more, and we are start­ing to see the same trend with adults in the US and Europe.

The sales of soft­ware on home game machines have declined (in Japan) from its peak of 533 bil­lion yen in 1997 to 53% of that amount, 315 bil­lion yen in 2005” — Go Hira­no, Japan­ese exec­u­tive.

Myth 9: Brain exer­cise is only for seniors. And, only about mem­o­ry.

Real­i­ty: Peo­ple of all ages can ben­e­fit from a vari­ety of reg­u­lar brain exer­cis­es. For active pro­fes­sion­als, Working memoryman­ag­ing stress and emo­tions is often a good first step.

The 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. Steen­barg­er, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Behav­ioral Sci­ences at SUNY Upstate Med­ical Uni­ver­si­ty, and author of the book Enhanc­ing Trad­er Per­for­mance.

Myth 10: This all sounds too soft to be of real val­ue to man­agers and pro­fes­sion­als.

Real­i­ty: There is noth­ing soft about the hard sci­ence-based train­ing of spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al skills.

I can eas­i­ly see the rel­e­vance in high­ly com­pet­i­tive fields, such as pro­fes­sion­al sports and mil­i­tary train­ing.” — Dr. Bradley Gib­son, Direc­tor of the Per­cep­tion and Atten­tion Lab at Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame.

To learn more, you can read the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness, which includes 18 in-depth inter­views that debunk those myths and offers guid­ance to enhance cog­ni­tive fit­ness at all ages.

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19 Responses

  1. mario says:

    Brain Relat­ed Video Games” — could you give some exam­ples? I would love to try one or two.

    Cheers,

    MW

  2. easan says:

    Cog­ni­tive exer­cise very impor­tant. I am 55 years of age. After such work­out, this month i mem­o­rized a 400-dig­it num­ber series, with no prob­lem, as an exam­ple.

  3. Kirk says:

    mario,

    Brain Age and Big Brain Acad­e­my are two pop­u­lar titles. Lots of adults and seniors in Japan are buy­ing Nin­ten­do DS hand­held sys­tems to play games like these on their com­mutes. The DS has real­ly opened the demo­graph­ic flood­gates.

  4. Andreas Engvig says:

    Alvaro,

    Great post. Myths 1–3 cer­taint­ly gives hope to the mem­o­ry clin­ic where I work these days. We’ve start­ed recruit­ing patients to our mem­o­ry inter­ven­tions now.
    Talk to you!

    Andreas

  5. Alvaro says:

    Thanks “King­brain”.

    Mario: you can see some in our Teasers sec­tion, belong­ing to com­put­er-based pro­gram Mind­Fit.

    Easan: that sounds like a big accom­plish­ment!.

    Kirk: you are right that those titles have been very use­ful in get­ting adults inter­est­ed in this field, even if they have lit­tle research behind. Pro­grams like Posit Sci­ence, Mind­Fit, Lumos­i­ty, Hap­py Neu­ron, Cogmed, and oth­ers we talk about in this web­site, can make more spe­cif­ic claims than Nin­ten­do -which is mar­ket­ed as a game, not real­ly a brain fit­ness pro­gram.

    Andreas: nice to hear from you. Please keep us informed on how your study goes!

  6. Vedic Maths says:

    Hi!
    Won­der­ful Arti­cle.
    I am going to add this on my blog.

    Thanks
    Gau­rav

  7. Carol Tosaw-Miceli says:

    Thanks so much! I was waf­fling re: con­sis­tent­ly incor­po­rat­ing “rhyth­mic writ­ing” (tech­nique to enhance STM)for my kids with these prob­lems. I’m convinced…it IS part of my dai­ly drill now. I teach in a cross-cat fifth grade sped. class­room. Thanks again. Car­ol

  8. melitsa says:

    Thanks for shar­ing with the Car­ni­val of Fam­i­ly life-Bon­fire edi­tion.

  9. chillariga ramarao says:

    This is the first time I read this. It is just great!

  10. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Chillar­i­ga- we are glad you enjoy it. And Hap­py New Year!

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.