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Can brain training work? Yes, if it meets these 5 conditions

brain exerciseIn a mod­ern soci­ety we are con­front­ed with a wide range of increas­ing­ly abstract and inter­con­nect­ed prob­lems. Suc­cess­ful­ly deal­ing with such an envi­ron­ment requires a high­ly fit brain, capa­ble of adapt­ing to new sit­u­a­tions and chal­lenges through­out life. Con­se­quent­ly, we expect cross-train­ing the brain to soon become as main­stream as cross-train­ing the body is today, going beyond unstruc­tured men­tal activ­i­ty and aim­ing at max­i­miz­ing a vari­ety of brain func­tions. The goal of our new book is to help read­ers nav­i­gate the grow­ing land­scape of lifestyle and brain train­ing options to enhance brain health and per­for­mance across the lifes­pan.

 How is brain train­ing dif­fer­ent from men­tal stim­u­la­tion?

Any­thing we do involv­ing nov­el­ty, vari­ety, and chal­lenge stim­u­lates the brain and can con­tribute to build­ing capac­i­ty and brain reserve. For instance, learn­ing how to play the piano acti­vates a num­ber of brain func­tions (atten­tion, mem­o­ry, motor skills, etc.), which trig­gers changes in the under­ly­ing neu­ronal net­works. Indeed, musi­cians have larg­er brain vol­ume in areas that are impor­tant for play­ing an instru­ment: motor, audi­to­ry and visu­ospa­tial regions. How­ev­er, we need to rec­og­nize that such an activ­i­ty may take thou­sands of hours before pay­ing off in terms of brain fit­ness. It con­sti­tutes a great and plea­sur­able men­tal effort, and helps build cog­ni­tive reserve, but it is dif­fer­ent by nature from more tar­get­ed, effi­cient, and com­ple­men­tary brain train­ing inter­ven­tions. To take an anal­o­gy from the world of phys­i­cal fit­ness, it makes sense to stay fit by play­ing pick­up soc­cer games AND also by train­ing spe­cif­ic mus­cle groups and capac­i­ties such as car­dio endurance, abdom­i­nal mus­cles, and thigh mus­cle. It is not one or the oth­er.

Under what con­di­tions can brain train­ing work?

This is the mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion. Evi­dence is grow­ing that some forms of brain train­ing can work, espe­cial­ly when based on cog­ni­tive train­ing, cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­a­py, med­i­ta­tion and/ or biofeed­back. The ques­tion remains, how­ev­er, how to max­i­mize the like­li­hood of trans­fer from train­ing to dai­ly life.

Why do we still often hear that brain train­ing does not work? Because of the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of what “brain train­ing” and “work” mean. A machine to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles prob­a­bly won’t “work” if what we mea­sure is blood pres­sure. A “plane” won’t fly if it wasn’t a plane to start with, but a don­key.

The most crit­i­cal fac­tor in deter­min­ing whether a brain train­ing method or pro­gram works is the extent to which the train­ing effects “trans­fer” to ben­e­fits in dai­ly life. We know from com­mon expe­ri­ence that prac­tice usu­al­ly trig­gers improve­ment in the prac­ticed task. Based on our analy­sis of dozens of doc­u­ment­ed exam­ples of brain train­ing tech­niques that “work” or “trans­fer,” we pro­pose that these five con­di­tions must be met for any kind of brain train­ing, from med­i­ta­tion to tech­nol­o­gy-based pro­grams, to trans­late into mean­ing­ful real world improve­ments:

  1. It must engage and exer­cise a core brain-based capac­i­ty or neur­al cir­cuit iden­ti­fied to be rel­e­vant to real-life out­comes, such as exec­u­tive atten­tion, work­ing mem­o­ry, speed of pro­cess­ing and emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, as well as oth­ers dis­cussed through­out the inter­views with sci­en­tists in this book. Many sup­posed “brain train­ing” games fail to pro­vide any actu­al “brain train­ing” because they were nev­er real­ly designed to tar­get spe­cif­ic and rel­e­vant brain func­tions.
  2. It must tar­get a per­for­mance bot­tle­neck – oth­er­wise it is an exer­cise in van­i­ty sim­i­lar to build­ing the largest biceps in town while neglect­ing the rest of the body. A crit­i­cal ques­tion to ask is: Which brain func­tion do I need to opti­mize? With phys­i­cal fit­ness, effec­tive train­ing begins with a tar­get in mind: Is the goal to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles? Biceps? Car­dio capac­i­ty? So it goes for brain fit­ness, where the ques­tion becomes: Is the goal to opti­mize dri­ving-relat­ed cog­ni­tive skills? Con­cen­tra­tion? Mem­o­ry? Reg­u­lat­ing stress and emo­tions? The choice of a tech­nique or tech­nol­o­gy should be dri­ven by your goal. For instance, if you need to train your exec­u­tive func­tions but use a pro­gram designed to enhance speed of pro­cess­ing, you may well con­clude that this pro­gram does not “work.” But this pro­gram may work for some­body whose bot­tle­neck is speed of pro­cess­ing (as often hap­pens in old­er adults).
  3. A min­i­mum “dose” of 15 hours total per tar­get­ed brain func­tion, per­formed over 8 weeks or less, is nec­es­sary for real improve­ment. Train­ing only a few hours across a wide vari­ety of brain func­tions, such as in the “BBC brain train­ing” exper­i­ment, should not be expect­ed to trig­ger real-world ben­e­fits, in the same way that going to the gym a cou­ple times per month and doing an assort­ment of undi­rect­ed exer­cis­es can­not be expect­ed to result in increased mus­cle strength and phys­i­cal fit­ness.
  4. Train­ing must adapt to per­for­mance, require effort­ful atten­tion, and increase in dif­fi­cul­ty. This is a key advan­tage of com­put­er­ized “brain train­ing” over pen-and-paper-based activ­i­ties. Think about the num­ber of hours you have spent doing cross­word or Sudoku puz­zles, or mas­ter­ing any new sub­ject for that mat­ter, in a way that was either too easy for you and became bor­ing or way too dif­fi­cult and became frus­trat­ing. Inter­ac­tive train­ing has the capac­i­ty to con­stant­ly mon­i­tor your lev­el of per­for­mance and adapt accord­ing­ly.
  5. Con­tin­ued prac­tice is required for con­tin­ued ben­e­fits. Just as you wouldn’t expect to derive life­long ben­e­fits from run­ning a few hours this month, and then not exer­cis­ing ever again, you shouldn’t expect life­long ben­e­fits from a one-time brain train­ing activ­i­ty. Remem­ber that “cells that SharpBrainsGuide_3D_compressedfire togeth­er wire togeth­er” – while the min­i­mum dose described above may act as a thresh­old to start see­ing some ben­e­fits, con­tin­ued prac­tice, either at a reduced num­ber of hours or as a peri­od­ic “boost­er,” is a final con­di­tion for trans­fer to real-world ben­e­fits over time.

–This is an adapt­ed excerpt from the new book “The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages). This user-friend­ly and thought-pro­vok­ing how-to guide cuts through the clut­ter of media hype about the lat­est “mag­ic pill” for bet­ter brain health, offer­ing proven, prac­ti­cal tips and tech­niques that any­one can use to main­tain and enhance brain func­tion through­out life and even ward off cog­ni­tive decline.

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3 Responses

  1. John Kennedy says:

    I’m sor­ry but I dis­agree with sev­er­al of these cri­te­ria. Com­bat Brain Train­ing is the only pro­gram of its kind vet­ted and approved by US Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand and has pro­duced real world improve­ments in cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in as lit­tle as 3 hrs. That’s how long it took for a sur­geon to reduce the required time for a surgery from 6 hours to less than 2, and a young girl with LD to remem­ber her math for­mu­las and raise her grades sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The key is not to iso­late a spe­cif­ic issue, but tar­get all areas of the brain. This way weak­er men­tal process­es are improved but so are stronger ones that no longer have to com­pen­sate for the weak ones.

    • Hel­lo John, frankly it’s not a mat­ter of agree­ing or dis­agree­ing, but of tak­ing a deep look at the avail­able evi­dence. We ana­lyzed hun­dreds of well-pub­lished ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als, try­ing to find key dif­fer­ences between those which showed trans­fer from train­ing to real-world out­comes vs. those which didn’t, and those 5 key “con­di­tions” rep­re­sent what we found. I’m sure we’ll refine them as more rig­or­ous stud­ies are con­duct­ed — I invite you to share spe­cif­ic ref­er­ences so we can add them to our analy­sis, and to conduct/ finance/ par­tic­i­pate in inde­pen­dent and high-qual­i­ty tri­als so we can bet­ter under­stand what’s going on and how more peo­ple can ben­e­fit. Regards

  2. This is great; thank you for post­ing. Par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing was the fact that train­ing must involve focused atten­tion and pro­longed hours of train­ing. How­ev­er, wouldn’t long ses­sions of train­ing result in tem­po­rary reduc­tion of cog­ni­tive per­for­mance and out­put? Thanks

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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.