Does “brain training” make us smarter?
The quest to improve our physical health is never-ending. To quote the old athletic adage, we all want in our own way to become bigger, faster, stronger, so that we can feel better and live longer. And though individual genetics and metabolisms make a level playing field impossible, the roadmap to success is still somewhat universal: Eat well, sleep well, exercise and excuse yourself from the table before the dessert tray drive-by. Follow these principles, and you’re likely to be about as healthy as you can be.
But what about our brains? Where do our brains fit into the nature-versus-nurture spectrum? Can we work them out like we work out our bodies? Are there cognitive equivalents to running a mile or doing a set of push-ups?
Is there actually a way we can make ourselves smarter?
Millions of users
The burgeoning industry of “brain fitness” seems to think so. Much like a trainer does with a workout regimen, companies such as Lumosity — which boasts 50 million users in 182 countries — have developed a series of web-based mental games and exercises designed to challenge your brain and enhance your cognitive function. These games are accessible on your computer, tablet and smartphone (yes, there’s an app for that), and playing them for 10 minutes a day, says Lumosity, will improve your attention, memory, problem solving skills and cognitive speed and flexibility.
Lending scientific credence to their efforts, Lumosity is a member of the Human Cognition Project, in which they collaborate with researchers from 36 well-respected universities around the world. And since 2007, seven studies have been published on the improved results and positive effects their training programs have had on a diverse set of populations, including healthy adults, children and cancer survivors.
But the idea of brain training is still in its infancy. And for experts such as Anne Sereno, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and anatomy at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, the jury is still out on its effectiveness.
“It’s a new thing,” Sereno says. “And for programs like Lumosity, the question is: To what extent are they generalizable? To what extent do they relate to things that you need in the real world?”
To illustrate her uncertainty, Sereno describes the administration of an N-back test, a cognitive neuroscience test used to measure a person’s working memory. (Working memory is not only the ability to hold information in your head, like a set of numbers; it is the ability to process and manipulate that information as needed.) Subjects are presented a sequence of stimuli, and they must indicate when the current stimulus — be it a letter, image, face, etc. — matches the one from “N” steps earlier in the sequence (the “N” factor — 1, 2, 3 and so on — varies depending on how challenging doctors want the task to be). Commonly, the further subjects progress in the test, the stronger they perform.
And why wouldn’t they? It’s generally understood that we can get better at pretty much anything if we do it enough. There’s a reason Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers focused on the “10,000 Hour Rule,” and why “practice makes perfect” is a cliché.
More questions than answers
But what, exactly, are the subjects improving — their working memory or their ability to ace an N-back test?
This, Sereno says, is the issue with brain training exercises. Though they look like video games, they are at their core neuropsychiatric tests, meaning they are first and foremost designed to measure cognitive function — not to maintain or improve it. Moreover, just as with N-back subjects, it is difficult to know what a user’s increase in score truly indicates. Does it mean users are improving their memory, attention span or problem solving skills (skills they can implement in their daily lives), or are they solely improving the specific ability to play these specific games?
Sereno isn’t sure. And given how new the industry of I.Q. training is, the current research is not yet substantial or conclusive enough to let us know for certain. With further studies will come further clarification, but until then, there may be more questions than there are answers.
In the meantime, Sereno notes that there are activities we can do to advance our cognitive abilities. And while these activities require more effort than a few swipes on our smartphone, the decades’ worth of evidence that supports their effectiveness is indisputable.
“Exercise is one of the most basic things,” Sereno says. “People don’t think of the brain as being something physical, but it really is. And when you’re exercising, it increases blood flow to the brain. Depending on what you’re doing, it can also involve cognitive functions, such as some sort of planning of movements.”
As we get older, our brains begin to lose neurons — the cells that make up the core of our nervous system. During exercise, however, the increase in blood flow and overall stimulation not only curb this loss of neurons, but also help to build new ones, most notably in the hippocampus, the area responsible for learning and memory. This formation of denser neural connections has an almost fountain-of-youth effect, increasing our brainpower and allowing our brain to function as if it’s younger than it actually is.
Physical exercise is invaluable
Research also has shown that physical exercise is invaluable in the fight against neurodegenerative disease, delaying or preventing entirely the onset of Alzheimer’s, and slowing the deterioration of the brain in Alzheimer’s patients. For those afflicted with Parkinson’s, regular aerobic activity has proven to enhance not only their motor skills but also their general quality of life.
Additionally, Sereno notes that the idea of exercise is not limited to physical exertion; it also can apply to any activity that challenges you in unfamiliar ways and creates some distance between you and your comfort zone. “When you do things that are novel, you are pushing the system, which causes a lot of activity (in the brain).” Examples include cooking, playing a musical instrument or even learning to do the Cotton Eye Joe.
“Let’s say you’re taking a dance class,” Sereno explains. “You have to remember the steps. You have to learn to place your feet a certain way. You have to pay attention. All of this is cognitive. It also has a social component, and when you have to interact with people, it makes it more powerful.”
It’s not only adults who benefit from these mind-bending activities. There’s significant research that draws a direct link between consistent aerobic exercise and improved concentration, cognition, attention span, scholastic performance and overall brain health in children and adolescents. It’s never too early to start, says Sereno, though she cautions that each child’s capacity is different; some can handle a ton, some not as much. And when kids get overloaded, their growth in key areas such as imagination can be stunted.
“Sometimes people think more is better, so the kids are doing one thing or another nonstop,” Sereno says. “It’s gotten to the point where if you don’t have your kid in five afternoon activities, dropping them off here or there, you’re destroying their potential to be a writer, dancer or a musician. But I think it is important to have downtime. Not doing something for a short period of time is important, because it can make kids more creative.”
Regardless of age, Sereno points out that the keys to maxing out our cognitive powers aren’t all that different from what’s required for optimal physical health: a balanced diet (no overeating, in particular), quality sleep, emotional wellbeing and, whenever possible, intensive exercise — be it physical, mental or ideally both — that puts enough stress on our system to make us sweat.
As for brain fitness programs, Sereno acknowledges that they can add value to this equation, primarily for people who battle any type of cognitive deficit, such as in autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Games that target these specific deficits and put them into the context of the real world may show more robust effects. For those with normal cognitive function, playing these games certainly won’t hurt and may fill the void if you’re not near a bench press. Beyond that, though, Sereno wonders if it’s not smarter to simply stick with what has been proven to work.
“We know spending half an hour doing exercise gives you big benefits,” she says. “So, then the question becomes: Do you do the exercise, or do you do those tasks on the computer?”