The first question: which brain function/s do I want to improve and why?

wThe first ques­tion any­one inter­est­ed in eval­u­at­ing prod­ucts should ask is: Which brain func­tions do I (or my loved-one or my client) need to train? The answer to this ques­tion depends a lot on the sit­u­a­tion and goals of the per­son who will use the train­ing product.

The rea­son­ing is the same as with phys­i­cal fit­ness: it is obvi­ous that one need to start train­ing with the goal in mind.  Is the goal to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles? Biceps? Car­dio capac­i­ty? Over­all main­te­nance workout?

If the intend­ed user wants gen­er­al guide­lines to main­tain his or her brain health, the over­all pri­or­i­ties should be the 4 pil­lars of brain main­te­nance: bal­anced diet, stress man­age­ment, phys­i­cal exer­cise and brain exer­cise. Nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge should be incor­po­rat­ed in dai­ly life in a vari­ety of ways.

Age has to be tak­en in the equa­tion when one won­ders what skills need to be trained. As you know the brain changes as we age. Some brain areas, such as the frontal lobes, may need extra work­out to increase neu­ro­pro­tec­tion. The frontal lobes sup­port what sci­en­tists call exec­u­tive func­tions, which cov­er abil­i­ties such as adapt­ing to new sit­u­a­tions and plan­ning. The path­ways con­nect­ing the frontal lobes to the oth­er brain lobes are very slow to mature and they are typ­i­cal­ly among the first areas to decline with age. As a con­se­quence, depend­ing on one’s age, the train­ing focus may shift from one set of skills to another.

If the intend­ed user is a busy exec­u­tive, he or she may want to focus on both stress man­age­ment and train spe­cif­ic brain func­tions that are part of the skills nec­es­sary to accom­plish his or her work effi­cient­ly. For instance, in the finan­cial domain, Dr. Steen­barg­er dif­fer­en­ti­ates between short-term and long-term traders. The cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties need­ed for both types of traders in order to be suc­cess­ful are dif­fer­ent. The goal of short-term traders is to be able to process large amounts of infor­ma­tion and quick­ly see pat­terns in order to make effec­tive deci­sions. The under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions are then speed of pro­cess­ing and work­ing mem­o­ry. In con­trast, for long-term traders, ana­lyt­i­cal skills are the most important.

Use­ful com­put­er-based brain fit­ness pro­grams have an ini­tial assess­ment to deter­mine a cur­rent base­line and where it makes most sense to start exer­cis­ing. From there, the com­put­er con­stant­ly checks and updates per­for­mance to adjust the lev­el of chal­lenge to ensure that the user is pushed a bit each time.

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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