You have of course heard, "Use it or lose it." Increasingly, "Use it or lose it" is taking the form of videogames, computer-based "brain training" programs, neurofeedback systems, and event ancient practices such as meditation.
Now, is brain training the same as "Use it or lose it"?
Anything we do involving novelty, variety, and challenge stimulates the brain and can contribute to building capacity and brain reserve. For instance, learning how to play the piano activates a number of brain functions (attention, memory, motor skills, etc.), which triggers changes in the brain itself (this is called "brain plasticity"). Indeed, musicians have larger brain volume in areas that are important for playing an instrument: motor, auditory and visuospatial regions. However, such an activity may take thousands of hours before paying off in terms of brain fitness. It constitutes a great and pleasurable mental effort, and helps build cognitive reserve, but it is different by nature from more targeted, efficient, and complementary brain training interventions.
To take an analogy from the world of physical fitness, it makes sense to stay fit by playing pickup soccer games and also by training specific muscle groups and capacities such as cardio endurance, abdominal muscles, and thigh muscle. It is not one or the other.
Under what conditions can brain training work?
This is the million dollar question. Evidence is growing that brain training can work. The question remains, however, how to maximize the likelihood of transfer from training to daily life.
Why do we still often hear that brain training does not work?
Because of the different understandings of what "brain training" and "work" mean. A machine to train abdominal muscles probably won't "work" if what we measure is blood pressure. A "plane" won't fly if it wasn't a plane to start with, but a donkey.The most critical factor in determining whether a brain training method or program works is the extent to which the training effects "transfer" to benefits in daily life. We know from common experience that practice usually triggers improvement in the practiced task.
Based on our analysis of documented examples of brain training techniques that "work" or "transfer," we propose that these five conditions must be met for any kind of brain training, from meditation to technology-based programs, to translate into meaningful real world improvements:
1- It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes, such as executive attention, working memory, speed of processing and emotional regulation. Many supposed "brain training" games fail to provide any actual "brain training" because they were never really designed to target specific and relevant brain functions.
2- It must target a performance bottleneck - otherwise it is an exercise in vanity similar to building the largest biceps in town while neglecting the rest of the body. A critical question to ask is: Which brain function do I need to optimize? With physical fitness, effective training begins with a target in mind: Is the goal to train abdominal muscles? Biceps? Cardio capacity? So it goes for brain fitness -the choice of a technique or technology should be driven by your goal.
3- A minimum "dose" of 15 hours total per targeted cognitive ability, performed over 8 weeks or less, is necessary for real improvement. Training only a few hours across a wide variety of brain functions should not be expected to trigger real-world benefits, in the same way that going to the gym a couple times per month and doing an assortment of undirected exercises cannot be expected to result in increased muscle strength and physical fitness.
4- Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty. This is a key advantage of computerized "brain training" over pen-and-paper-based activities. Think about the number of hours you have spent doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, or mastering any new subject for that matter, in a way that was either too easy for you and became boring or way too difficult and became frustrating. Interactive training has the capacity to constantly monitor your level of performance and adapt accordingly.
5- Continued practice is required for continued benefits. Just as you wouldn't expect to derive lifelong benefits from running a few hours this month, and then not exercising ever again, you shouldn't expect lifelong benefits from a one-time brain training activity. Remember that "cells that fire together wire together" - while the minimum dose described above may act as a threshold to start seeing some benefits, continued practice, either at a reduced number of hours or as a periodic "booster," is a final condition for transfer to real-world benefits over time.
I hope that now you feel better equipped to do your next mental workout.
This is an adapted excerpt from the new book by educator Alvaro Fernandez and neuroscientist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, titled "The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age" (April 2013; 284 pages), a Preventive Medicine bestseller. You can learn more at SharpBrains.com