Article Copyright © 2016 Mark Robert Waldman. It is posted with his permission.
For centuries people have been trying to improve mental health and cognitive functioning, and tremendous advances have been made. But the question remains: can you train your brain – through technology, games, apps, audio programs, spiritual practices, or other forms of ritualized or systematic mental “gymnastics” – to improve, in a scientifically measurable way, specific cognitive functions that actually enhance mood regulation, work performance, memory, intelligence, and perhaps most important, lower the risk of degenerative diseases that affect the brain? The answer is a CAUTIOUS yes.
But there’s a big problem: most of the consumer products that are currently on the market don’t do much of anything. Few have been tested, and those that have rarely show improvements that have real life value. They rarely beat control groups, and the people who sit around on the researcher’s waiting list often show the same improvement as those who are participating in the study. When positive findings are discovered, the percentage of improvement is slight, barely above chance (which is the scientific definition of “statistical significance”). And they are rarely more effective than placebos (inert substances or unrelated activities to what is actually being measured). Something is working – and placebo benefits are, on average, around 30%, and for pain, placebos can be 90% effective – but another principle may be responsible for the change, like the person’s belief that they will experience an improvement. In fact, from the research that I and many others have conducted, positive beliefs appear to be one of the most powerful brain-enhancing strategies we have. The fledgling field of neuromarketing suggests that it is the way a product marketed, coupled with consumer popularity, that makes others believe that brain-training products really work.
Here’s what we currently know. You can’t improve intelligence through any known brain-training exercise. You can improve memory, but only in a very limited way, not enough to have any practical effect beyond giving the person a sense of hope (which, again, has real value, and there are many brain-scan studies showing that hope, optimism, and positivity, when maintained for several months, improve many emotional and cognitive functions).
But – and this is very important – you have to continue practicing these mind-altering exercises – like mindfulness, affirmations, and stress-reduction activities – nearly every day or the benefits will be lost. And as far as the research currently shows, only a few different forms of meditation appear to permanently alter brain structure after many years of daily practice. Yes, you can turn on a relaxation or guided imagery tape, or monitor yourself with some of the new neurofeedback head bands, and you’ll temporarily alter brain activity, but the effects for most people– when measured in a laboratory – quickly fade away within minutes. Passive brain training is a great place to begin, but if you want to make significant improvement (and remember, “significant doesn’t mean “a lot”) you’ll have to create an active ritual that you impose on yourself throughout the day, one that you are willing to repeat until a new mental state or behavior is achieved. Then continue to practice for the rest of your life. Why? Because human brains love to regress to old lazy habits. So real brain-training is a two part process: someone, or some machine, teaches you how to experience enhanced states of awareness, but then you must turn the lesson into an active exercise that you apply to yourself on a daily basis.
Yes the brain is malleable (neuroplasticity), but not as much as most people think. In fact, there are only a few areas where functional and structural changes can be made with gentle rituals like exercise, meditation, behavior modification, hypnosis, and mental/cognitive/emotional training. The other parts of the brain change more slowly, which is why physical therapy and rehabilitation training takes so long, and can be excruciatingly painful because the patient has to force new parts of the brain to take over the functions of areas that have been damaged from stroke, trauma, and neurological disease. We, in the science and psychology communities, have great hope because we do see small changes, and that is enough to make us continue to seek new strategies to help others improve their damaged brains. Still, there is not "sufficient" evidence (which is tricky, because there's rarely enough evidence to "prove" much of anything in neuroscience!) to recommend any method of cognitive training for the prevention of age-related brain disorders. One day soon, or so I hope.
Brain training has its roots in the neurofeedback/eeg experiments in the 1960s, when researchers first suggested – and then disproved – that a person could put themselves into certain brainwave states (like alpha) to consistently improve mental focus or learning skills. Brainwave entrainment is a real phenomenon but as a tool to improve cognitive functioning, it is now considered pseudoscience (brain-scan technologies are superior to eeg devices that can only read weak signals from the outermost parts of the neocortex). The term “brain training” – and more recently, “brain fitness” – became popular term in the late 1990s when several renowned neuroscientists created the first neurocognitive video training games for students. The research showed statistical significance for improving various cognitive skills, and several multi-million-dollar companies were born, but then the practical side of the research emerged. Yes, children who were scoring 60% on a test improved to 65%, but they were still failing. The $1000-per-student fee to the school turned out to be of very little value. Lumosity – the giant brain-game company that does national media advertising - also has many good studies to support the possibility of cognitive improvement, but the FDA recently fined them $2 million because they couldn’t substantiate their claims for the products they sell.
The same thing is happening for companies advertising brain-enhancing supplements – they are being fined big dollars. It’s true that some of the ingredients have been shown – in clinical tests, with specific amounts of the active substance – to have some potential value (“statistical significance” again) for people experiencing cognitive impairment and specific health problems, but they don’t appear to have any effect on the average healthy brain of people between the ages of 12-70. In other words, with the exception of a few vitamins and minerals, there’s little preventative value in most of the supplements you are probably taking (this is where a blood test and your doctor can really help). That’s why the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization suggest you be cautious; you may be throwing your money away, or worse: taking too much of some supplements that can upset your biological balance. But hey! If, when you swallow that supplement, you believe it will help, the positive belief will likely improve your health. That’s what the placebo research shows.
So what are the best evidence-based ways to train your brain and improve cognitive and emotional functioning? Stress-reduction exercises, mindfulness practices (a robust improvement in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression – and you’ll rarely see the word “robust” in a scientific study), a healthy diet (although there’s no agreement of what that may be!), and aerobic exercise (even a minute or two every couple of hours will do great things to most of your body systems, including your brain), intense intellectual stimulation, and an active social engagement with positive-thinking people. Do those six things daily and that’s the best brain-training program you can find. And it’s free!
Oh, and one more thing, don’t ignore the following activities that have historically been associated with spiritual traditions: practice gratitude, forgiveness, self-love, compassion, fairness, and empathy every day, with as many people as possible. Meditations associated with these virtues have some of the most powerful effects on your brain.
So what to do about all of those brain-training and brain-fitness books and products? By all means read as much as you can (that too is great for the brain), but try out the products with an optimistic dose of skepticism – what I call “skoptimism” – and explore them, especially those that give you real-time feedback of changes in your brain. Be creative and invent your own brain-training routine and keep visualizing yourself becoming happier, more peaceful, more confident, and more successful because this too will stimulate your brain in profoundly healthy ways. There is no magic bullet, or pill, in the marketplace, but there may be one inside of your skull: in the optimistic imagination of your left prefrontal cortex, one of the most changeable structures in your brain.
At MindFullyAlive, we are dedicated to bringing you the only the best, science-based information, training and products for cultivating enhanced awareness and improving your brain.