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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.

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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.