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Debunking 10 Cognitive Health and Fitness Myths

As part of the research behind the book The Sharp­Brains Guide for Brain Fit­ness we inter­viewed dozens of lead­ing cog­ni­tive health and fit­ness sci­en­tists and experts world­wide to learn about their research and thoughts, and have a num­ber of take-aways to report.

What Santiago Ramon y Cajal can we clear­ly say today that we couldn’t have said only 10 years ago? That what neu­ro­science pio­neer San­ti­a­go Ramon y 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 trans­form Edu­ca­tion, Health, Train­ing, and Gam­ing in the process, since we have only scratched the sur­face of what sci­ence-based struc­tured men­tal exer­cise can do for life­long brain health and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. We are now wit­ness­ing the birth of a new field that cross­es tra­di­tion­al sec­tor bound­aries and that may help us under­stand, assess and train our brains’ func­tion­al­i­ty, 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, in ways that com­ple­ment oth­er impor­tant “pil­lars of brain health” such as aer­o­bic exer­cise, stress man­age­ment and a good nutri­tion.

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 toshow 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: struc­tured pro­grams, com­put­er­ized or not, can be more effec­tive and effi­cient at train­ing spe­cif­ic brain func­tions.

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: For­get about struc­tured brain training…all you need is to talk to friends, read the paper and do puz­zles.

Real­i­ty: While more men­tal stim­u­la­tion is always bet­ter than less, you should know that not all types of men­tal exer­cise are the same at enhanc­ing tar­get­ed cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al skills.

Growth only real­ly comes at the point of resis­tance, but that is the moment that we tend to stop. Because it hurts…pushing our lim­its is a mus­cle that can be cul­ti­vated like any other–incrementally” — Joshua Wait­zkin, chess cham­pion and author of The Art of Learn­ing.

To learn more, you can read The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp

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2 Responses

  1. I rec­og­nized myself in your line, “Growth only real­ly comes at the point of resis­tance, but that is the moment that we tend to stop. Because it hurts.”
    How true! So often I feel like I can’t absorb anoth­er new les­son or idea. It was good to read your sug­ges­tion that those are the most impor­tant times for “push­ing our lim­its.”

    Great post.

  2. Alex says:

    Men­tal health is not just about exer­cis­ing your brain, it comes from phys­i­cal health too. I’ve learned the secrets of over­all health and well­ness from Inv­el USA, any­one else would ben­e­fit from their out­look on an active lifestyle! Great post, I will be back to this blog soon!

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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 tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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