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Different types of brain training

Cog­ni­tive Ther­a­py

Cog­ni­tive ther­a­py (CT) was found­ed by Dr. Aaron Beck. It is based on the idea that the way peo­ple per­ceive their expe­ri­ence influ­ences their behav­iors and emo­tions. The ther­a­pist teach­es the patient cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral skills to mod­i­fy his or her dys­func­tion­al think­ing and actions.

CT aims at improv­ing spe­cif­ic traits, behav­iors, or cog­ni­tive skills, such as plan­ning and flex­i­bil­i­ty, which are exec­u­tive func­tions, depres­sion, obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­ders, and pho­bias. It has been shown effec­tive in many stud­ies and con­texts such as depres­sion, high lev­els of anx­i­ety, insom­nia. The inter­view with Lee Woodruff (Chap­ter 1) describes the spec­tac­u­lar recov­ery of her hus­band who suf­fered a severe trau­mat­ic brain injury in Iraq. CT was part of this recov­ery and was used to improve speech and lan­guage skills.

Recent­ly, Dr. Aaron Beck’s daugh­ter, Dr. Judy Beck, has suc­cess­ful­ly used CT to help dieters acquire new skills in order to achieve their goals (see Dr. Beck’s inter­view at the end of this Chap­ter). Accord­ing to Dr. Beck, the main mes­sage of CT and its appli­ca­tion in the diet world is that prob­lems los­ing weight are not the dieter’s fault. These prob­lems reflect the lack of skills that can be acquired through train­ing. What skills is Dr. Beck talk­ing about? Most­ly exec­u­tive func­tions: the skills to plan in advance, to moti­vate one­self, to mon­i­tor one’s behav­ior, etc.

Recent evi­dence sup­ports the effi­cien­cy of CT. For instance, Stahre and Hal­strom (2005) con­duct­ed a ran­dom­ized con­trolled study test­ing the effect of CT on weight loss. Near­ly all 65 patients com­plet­ed the pro­gram and the short-term inter­ven­tion (10-week, 30-hours) showed a sig­nif­i­cant long-term weight reduc­tion, even larg­er (when com­pared to the 40 indi­vid­u­als in the con­trol group) after 18 months than right after the 10-week pro­gram.

Neu­roimag­ing has also been used to show the results of CT on the brain. Let’s take the exam­ple of spi­der pho­bia. In 2003, Paque­tte and col­leagues showed that before the cog­ni­tive ther­a­py, the fear induced by view­ing film clips depict­ing spi­ders was cor­re­lat­ed with sig­nif­i­cant acti­va­tion of spe­cif­ic brain areas, like the amyg­dala. After the inter­ven­tion was com­plet­ed (one three-hour group ses­sion per week, for four weeks), view­ing the same spi­der films did not pro­voke acti­va­tion of those areas. Dr. Judith Beck, explains that the adults in this study were able to “train their brains” which result­ed in reduc­ing the stress response trig­gered by spi­ders.


You may be won­der­ing what med­i­ta­tion has to do with brain train­ing. In fact, med­i­ta­tion has been shown to improve spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions such as atten­tion. As such it can be con­sid­ered as a brain train­ing tech­nique.

A num­ber of stud­ies have com­pared peo­ple who prac­tice med­i­ta­tion to peo­ple who do not. The prob­lem with these stud­ies is that peo­ple in both groups can be very dif­fer­ent. Thus the ben­e­fits observed in the group prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion could be due to oth­er things.

Recent­ly, a more con­trolled study was con­duct­ed that showed a spe­cif­ic effect of med­i­ta­tion on atten­tion, one of the main brain func­tions described in Chap­ter 1. In this study, Pos­ner and his col­leagues (2007) ran­dom­ly assigned par­tic­i­pants to either an Inte­gra­tive Body-Mind Train­ing (IBMT) or to a relax­ation train­ing. Both train­ings last­ed 5 days, 20mn per day. IBMT is a med­i­ta­tion tech­nique devel­oped in Chi­na in the 1990s. It stress­es a bal­anced state of relax­ation while focus­ing atten­tion. Thought con­trol is achieved with the help of a coach through pos­ture, relax­ation, body-mind har­mo­ny and bal­ance. The results of this study showed that after train­ing, par­tic­i­pants in the IBMT train­ing group showed more improve­ment in a task mea­sur­ing exec­u­tive atten­tion than the con­trol group. The IBMT train­ing also helped reduced cor­ti­sol lev­els caused by men­tal stress.

Styles of med­i­ta­tion dif­fer. Some tech­nique use con­cen­tra­tion med­i­ta­tion, mantra, mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, while oth­ers rely on body relax­ation, breath­ing prac­tice and men­tal imagery. It is not known so far what aspects of med­i­ta­tion or which tech­niques are the best to train one’s brain. Sci­en­tists are research­ing what ele­ments of med­i­ta­tion may help man­age stress and improve mem­o­ry. For instance, Dr. Andrew New­berg (whose inter­view can be found at the end of the present chap­ter) is cur­rent­ly con­duct­ing a study where 15 old­er adults with mem­o­ry prob­lems are prac­tic­ing Kir­tan Kriya med­i­ta­tion dur­ing 8 weeks. Pre­lim­i­nary results in terms of the impact on brain func­tions seem promis­ing.


Biofeed­back hard­ware devices mea­sure and graph­i­cal­ly dis­play var­i­ous phys­i­o­log­i­cal vari­ables such as skin con­duc­tiv­i­ty and heart rate vari­abil­i­ty, so that users can learn to self-adjust. It has been used for decades in med­i­cine. Recent­ly, this tech­nol­o­gy has emerged in rea­son­ably-priced appli­ca­tions for con­sumers who want to learn how to man­age stress bet­ter.

Neu­ro­feed­back is a sub­set of biofeed­back rely­ing specif­i­cal­ly on elec­tro­phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sures of brain activ­i­ty. Using Elec­troen­cephalog­ra­phy (EEG) biofeed­back to mea­sure brain waves gives the user feed­back on dif­fer­ent “men­tal states” like alertness.  Neu­ro­feed­back is still a tool most­ly use­ful in research and high­ly spe­cial­ized clin­i­cal con­texts, not for main­stream health­care and/or con­sumer appli­ca­tions, so we do not cov­er it in this guide.

Dr. Steen­barg­er, whose inter­view can be found at the end of the present chap­ter, rec­om­mends the use of relax­ation cou­pled with biofeed­back pro­grams to improve trader’s per­for­mance. These pro­grams pro­vide real-time visu­al feed­back on a “trader’s inter­nal per­for­mance”. You may be won­der­ing how this may help a trad­er improve his or her per­for­mance? It is because of the close rela­tion­ship between emo­tion and cog­ni­tion. Emo­tion strong­ly affects cog­ni­tion. Stress, as we men­tioned ear­li­er, can be very detri­men­tal to per­for­mance. Thus, in jobs that are very emo­tion­al like trad­ing, it is very impor­tant to learn how to self-reg­u­late emo­tion­al­ly in order to improve one’s cog­ni­tive per­for­mance Accord­ing to Dr. Steen­barg­er, biofeed­back pro­grams can tell the traders whether they are in opti­mal con­di­tions to learn and per­form or whether they are becom­ing too stressed.

Com­put­er-based soft­ware

For many years, neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists have helped indi­vid­u­als suf­fer­ing from trau­mat­ic brain injuries relearn how to talk, walk or make deci­sions, etc.  Among oth­er tools, cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es (includ­ing com­put­er-assist­ed strate­gies) have been used to retrain abil­i­ties. How­ev­er these tools are not avail­able to the pub­lic and not every­body can afford a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist or needs to see one. Things are chang­ing as a vari­ety of com­mer­cial pro­grams is now mak­ing brain train­ing avail­able to the pub­lic. The chal­lenge is to make informed deci­sions on which tools may be appro­pri­ate for spe­cif­ic needs and goals.

Since the launch of the orig­i­nal brain exer­cise hand-held com­put­er game Brain Age (2005 in Japan, 2006 in the USA and Europe), Nin­ten­do has proven that there is a large demand for men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing video games. These games can be seen as the next step in the chain after the tra­di­tion­al paper-based games such as cross­words and sudoku puz­zles.

As of the end of Jan­u­ary 2008, Nin­ten­do has sold 17 mil­lion copies of brain exer­cise games world­wide since the launch of Brain Age in June 2005, with sales in the US trail­ing those in Japan and Europe. This suc­cess has attract­ed many imi­ta­tion prod­ucts from oth­er gam­ing com­pa­nies such as Sega (which released their own brain game in Japan before Nin­ten­do, with­out com­pa­ra­ble suc­cess), Majesco and Ubisoft.

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This new online resource is based on the con­tent from the book The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fer­nan­dez and Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg.

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