Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


What is mental exercise or “brain training”?

nIn Session 2 we showed that brain maintenance includes balanced nutrition, stress management, physical exercise and brain exercise. We also reported that numerous studies have shown that intellectual activity in general is good for the brain and may help build up cognitive reserve.

The next question we need to clarify is, How is brain training or brain exercise different from daily mental activities? Let’s take the example of physical activity. There is a clear difference between physical activity and physical exercise. Physical activity occurs whenever we move our body or engage in a leisure activity that involves moving our body (e.g., playing pool). Physical exercise (e.g. jogging) refers to the repeated and structured activity of particular parts of our bodies. While both physical activity and physical exercise may bring benefits, it is the latter that helps build capacity and muscles strength, contributing to staying fit as we age.

Similarly, brain “training”, or brain “exercise”, goes beyond mental activity. Mental activity takes place whenever one is awake, ranging from merely day dreaming to reading a book or learning a new language. Mental exercise or brain training refers to the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques. Its aim is to improve specific brain functions.

Understanding the difference between mental activity and mental exercise is crucial. For instance, many people feel that they are doing the best for their brain after having completed their daily puzzle. However crossword puzzles challenge a relatively narrow range of cognitive skill and thus stimulate only a limited range of brain regions. A 1999 study showed that increased amount of experience in doing crossword puzzles does not modify the effect of age measured in tasks requiring vocabulary and reasoning (Hambrick et al.,1999). Crosswords puzzles generate mental activity but they do not constitute a brain training program!

This points out to the key word in brain training: variety. One needs a variety of challenging exercises in order to stimulate the whole brain. Recent recommendations made by a panel of experts reviewing a poll by the American Society on Aging (2006) stated: “A single activity, no matter how challenging, is not sufficient to sustain the kind of mental acuity that virtually everyone can achieve.” Even if one’s goal is to improve memory functions, other brain functions need stimulation to achieve that goal. For instance, attention and concentration are essential to good memorization.

Systematic brain training programs can be designed to lead to brain change in a more efficient way that random daily activities may. A combination of both may be ideal. Learning a complex skill such as learning the piano helps train and develop some parts of the brain. Well-designed training programs may help train and develop other parts.
Defined as the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques aimed at improving specific brain functions, brain training includes a range of research-supported techniques or approaches, such as cognitive therapy and meditation, along with the most popular brain fitness software. This guide is focused on software programs but will also discuss other approaches.

Keep learning by reading more articles in the Resources section, and also please consider joining our free monthly Brain Fitness eNewsletter

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.