Physical and Mental Exercise: Why Pitch One Against the other?

Read­er There­sa Cerul­li just for­ward­ed this Let­ter to the Edi­tor that she had sent to the New York Times and went unpub­lished. The let­ter address­es the OpEd men­tioned here (pitch­ing phys­i­cal vs. men­tal exer­cise), and refers to the Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram, whose results have been stud­ied in mul­ti­ple papers pub­lished in top med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals.


Dear Edi­tor:

I applaud San­dra Aamodt and Sam Wang for throw­ing some cold water on the cur­rent brain fit­ness craze in their recent New York Times Mag­a­zine Opin­ion Edi­to­r­i­al “Exer­cise on the Brain.”  They are cor­rect in label­ing the host of “men­tal fit­ness” prod­ucts that tar­get aging baby boomers as “inspired by sci­ence ”  not to be con­fused with actu­al­ly proven by sci­ence. For the last 30 years, terms like “brain plas­tic­i­ty” have been wide­ly and casu­al­ly used, cre­at­ing hype that risks drown­ing out the real break­throughs that brain researchers are mak­ing in this area.

How­ev­er, I would like to dis­tin­guish the “men­tal fit­ness” trend that Aamodt and Wang right­ly crit­i­cize from actu­al researched-based cog­ni­tive train­ing such as the Cogmed pro­gram devel­oped in Swe­den. Unlike “men­tal fit­ness” pro­grams, cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams focus very nar­row­ly on spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions that research has shown to be plas­tic. This is in stark con­trast to com­pil­ing a smat­ter­ing of exer­cis­es or activ­i­ties that are gen­er­al­ly thought to be good for the brain, but lack true sci­en­tif­ic research and are ulti­mate­ly inef­fec­tive. Cog­ni­tive train­ing is not for every­one only those who expe­ri­ence deficits in spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions that can be improved through per­sis­tent train­ing. A qual­i­fied clin­i­cal pro­fes­sion­al can deter­mine if and when cog­ni­tive train­ing is the right form of intervention.

One spe­cif­ic type of cog­ni­tive train­ing that has proven to be effec­tive is the train­ing of work­ing mem­o­ry the abil­i­ty to hold infor­ma­tion in mind for a few sec­onds. As Aamodt and Wang point out, work­ing mem­o­ry is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of exec­u­tive func­tion, a col­lec­tion of cog­ni­tive skills that togeth­er allow us to orga­nize, man­age and pri­or­i­tize activ­i­ties. Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing offers more than just improve­ments in the trained task. Oth­er brain func­tions such as atten­tion, read­ing, and prob­lem solv­ing skills also improve with work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing. (Impor­tant research on the effec­tive­ness of work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing to improve atten­tion and exec­u­tive func­tion­ing was pub­lished in Aamondt’s Nature Neuroscience).

In my clin­i­cal prac­tice, I have had the plea­sure of observ­ing the often dra­mat­ic impact of Cogmed’s work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram on the dai­ly lives of many of my patients who strug­gle with debil­i­tat­ing atten­tion prob­lems. Work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing is a research-based break­through for chil­dren and adults with atten­tion deficits, as well as vic­tims of stroke and trau­mat­ic brain injury. For clients with exec­u­tive func­tion­ing chal­lenges, Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing tar­gets these very dif­fi­cul­ties which med­ica­tions so often fail to treat.

Baby boomers need to remain cau­tious when it comes to the foun­tain-of-youth promis­es of the brain fit­ness pro­grams. The key lies in draw­ing a clear line between the “men­tal fit­ness” fad and proven cog­ni­tive train­ing that has been val­i­dat­ed repeat­ed­ly in the lab­o­ra­to­ry and in clin­i­cal practice.

There­sa Cerul­li, M.D.



For more infor­ma­tion on Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing: click here.

You can also read our inter­view with the lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist behind Cogmed, Dr. Torkel Kling­berg.

Our take: phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise are com­ple­men­tary tools to improve our brain health and per­for­mance. Fur­ther­more, stress man­age­ment and a good nutri­tion are impor­tant fac­tors to con­sid­er. None is a sil­ver bul­let, so efforts to pitch any of them vs. any of the oth­er are not help­ful. And some well-designed cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams have been shown to deserve their place in our toolkits.


  1. Michael on December 12, 2007 at 11:10

    I read about Cogmed work in Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can a while back and was real­ly impressed. Look­ing for­ward to read­ing more.

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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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