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.


  1. Kingbrain on October 31, 2007 at 8:43

    good stuff!!!

  2. mario on October 31, 2007 at 9:46

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



  3. easan on October 31, 2007 at 12:31

    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.

  4. Kirk on October 31, 2007 at 2:36


    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.

  5. Andreas Engvig on November 1, 2007 at 1:58


    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!


  6. Alvaro on November 1, 2007 at 8:52

    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!

  7. Vedic Maths on November 3, 2007 at 6:24

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


  8. Carol Tosaw-Miceli on November 3, 2007 at 11:02

    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

  9. melitsa on November 4, 2007 at 10:09

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

  10. chillariga ramarao on December 31, 2007 at 6:37

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

  11. Alvaro on January 1, 2008 at 10:23

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

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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