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Maximize the Cognitive Value of Your Mental Workout

Phys­i­cal fit­ness. Cognitive/ brain fit­ness. Both require nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge. Pro­fes­sor Schlo­mo Breznitz, a sci­en­tif­ic and busi­ness leader in the cog­ni­tive fit­ness field, explains why, elo­quent­ly, below. Per­haps “we want change” real­ly means “we need change”. Enjoy!

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Why are every­day life chal­lenges not suf­fi­cient to keep our brains fit?

– By Prof. Shlo­mo Breznitz

Often, when describ­ing the ben­e­fits of Mind­Fit to brain health, I am asked by peo­ple in the audi­ence whether this soft­ware is real­ly need­ed. After all, so they argue, life pro­vides con­tin­ues cog­ni­tive chal­lenges, which should suf­fice for ensur­ing brain fit­ness. From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep our brains have to attend to com­plex stim­uli, plan many activ­i­ties, some of them quite com­plex, and car­ry us through what­ev­er the day offers. These tasks should pro­vide suf­fi­cient “brain exer­cise” with­out the need to engage in spe­cif­ic men­tal work­out.

This line of argu­ment sounds odd­ly famil­iar, since it is an exact dupli­ca­tion of claims made in the recent past against the need for phys­i­cal exer­cise. One jumps into the car and from the car and per­haps even climbs a few stairs before sit­ting in the chair, which should be enough to burn the calo­ries and keep fit.

It took us a few long years to real­ize that the move­ments called for by ordi­nary every­day life tasks are far from suf­fi­cient to keep us phys­i­cal­ly fit and unless we engage in delib­er­ate work­out we are bound to gain weight and suf­fer the con­se­quences. The bal­ance sheet in this case is quite sim­ple; even a super­fi­cial com­par­i­son to the activ­i­ties of peo­ple with less seden­tary lifestyles indi­cates that we are not mov­ing enough. By con­trast to our fore­fa­thers who lived as hunters-gath­er­ers (and this is the most valid com­par­i­son since we are phys­i­cal­ly the same) we are prac­ti­cal­ly immo­bi­lized by com­forts.

Like in the case of phys­i­cal fit­ness, cog­ni­tive fit­ness requires delib­er­ate exer­cis­ing. The main rea­son for this rests on the fact that our brains are basi­cal­ly lazy. There are in prin­ci­ple two very dif­fer­ent modes of activ­i­ty that our brains engage in when­ev­er faced with a prob­lem:

a) Analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion and of the pos­si­ble alter­na­tive actions and their con­se­quences. This mode requires sig­nif­i­cant resources of atten­tion, takes time and is men­tal­ly effort­ful.

b) Alter­na­tive­ly, we can search for sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences in the past and evoke a sim­i­lar solu­tion. This mode does not require atten­tion, is very fast and auto­mat­ic. Fur­ther­more, search­ing one’s data­base for pri­or expe­ri­ence is easy and there is lit­tle or no men­tal effort involved.

It should come as no sur­prise, there­fore, that the brain prefers by far the auto­mat­ic mode to the effort­ful one when­ev­er pos­si­ble. This has many obvi­ous advan­tages, as well as some dis­ad­van­tages. Chief among them is the dan­ger that the degree of sim­i­lar­i­ty between past expe­ri­ence and the present prob­lem would be sac­ri­ficed for rea­sons of con­ve­nience. This can lead to neglect of impor­tant sit­u­a­tion­al fea­tures that ren­der the old, famil­iar solu­tion, inad­e­quate.

This pref­er­ence and reliance on expe­ri­en­tial prece­dents feeds direct­ly into our ten­den­cy to devel­op rou­tines. After doing some­thing a few times the activ­i­ty, any activ­i­ty, becomes grad­u­al­ly a rou­tine one, requir­ing less atten­tion and less effort. There are many things we do well pre­cise­ly due to their becom­ing increas­ing­ly more auto­mat­ic in terms of the cog­ni­tive work involved. Dri­ving is a par­tic­u­lar­ly famil­iar exam­ple. Safe dri­ving requires on the aver­age two years of dri­ving expe­ri­ence, dur­ing which time the brain devel­ops help­ful rou­tines to deal with famil­iar chal­lenges on the road. How­ev­er, the ten­den­cy to devel­op rou­tines is by no means rel­e­vant exclu­sive­ly to motor activ­i­ties.

Thus, word recog­ni­tion in read­ing becomes auto­mat­ic and allows us to attend to mean­ing rather than the process of decod­ing each word from its con­stituent let­ters and syl­la­bles. As we gain expe­ri­ence, even high­ly com­plex intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ties become rou­tine over time.

Rou­tines make things eas­i­er, but for that same rea­son they become less chal­leng­ing. Thus, as we go about the tasks of liv­ing we become more expe­ri­enced and those very tasks lose their abil­i­ty to chal­lenge our brains. More­over, old peo­ple have too much expe­ri­ence. They have seen almost every­thing, heard almost every­thing and faced most sit­u­a­tions in the past. It is for this rea­son that every­day life expe­ri­ences can­not ensure brain fit­ness any more than they can assure phys­i­cal fit­ness. The anal­o­gy does not stop here and just as we need phys­i­cal work­out we need cog­ni­tive work­outs as well.

The above analy­sis points to activ­i­ties hold­ing the great­est promise of healthy chal­lenge to the brain. Name­ly, they have to be nov­el. Read­ing a new book, vis­it­ing new places, try­ing new foods, learn­ing to play a musi­cal instru­ment, or best, learn­ing a new lan­guage, these are the activ­i­ties that brain fit­ness is made of. And on top of it, engage in qual­i­ty cog­ni­tive train­ing exer­cis­es that cov­er the broad spec­trum of cog­ni­tive skills and max­i­mize the cog­ni­tive val­ue per unit of time spent.

Schlomo Breznitz CogniFitProf. Schlo­mo Breznitz is the Founder and Pres­i­dent of Cog­niFit. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he served as the Lady Davis Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy and the found­ing direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Study of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Stress at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Haifa. He has also been vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, Berke­ley, Stan­ford, and Nation­al Insti­tutes of Health.

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4 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    Great post­ing. I am a firm believ­er in the val­ue of “men­tal exer­cise” and am thrilled to see arti­cles like this. I agree that men­tal train­ing is sim­i­lar to phys­i­cal train­ing. Tak­ing the anal­o­gy a step fur­ther, I con­sid­er med­i­ta­tion to be the refresh­ing “sleep” that the phys­i­cal body gets that the mind rarely gets. Again, well done and thanks.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Mike, well, I’d say med­i­ta­tion is a great men­tal exer­cise itself, and a source of stim­u­lat­ing nov­el­ty for most of us non-expert prac­ti­tion­ers.

  3. This is a con­cise and con­vinc­ing essay about the neces­si­ty for fit­ness in both mind and body. Thank you for shar­ing your exper­tise.

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