Looking for the Best Brain Fitness Method? Think Balance. (This is me being a blog-butt-in-ski)

by ToriDeaux on June 12, 2008

For anyone interested, I’ve added a follow up on this conversation: The Big Brain Building Debate: A Citizen Journalist’s Role In The Discussion

Two of my favorite Mind/Brain Bloggers are having an interesting conversation about different approaches to cognitive fitness, and I’ve decided to butt in. (Because that’s the only way I know to do this social media thing, you know. I butt in)

Not Actual Photos Of Jeremy or Alvaro. If you’re not familiar with Jeremy Dean of Psyblog, or Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains, hop on over to their sites, and subscribe. They both blog circles around me, frankly, so it’s worth your time (and hopefully that plug will make up for the photo of stuffed animals I’ve plonked next to their names… sorry guys. )

But about that conversation…

Over on Psyblog, Jeremy’s latest post compares techniques for improving cognitive function, including the science that supports (or doesn’t support) the claims and popular perceptions of each technique.

He takes a quick look at brain-training, exercise, drugs, supplements, meditation, and exercise, and (in my presumptuious, uneddycated opinion) gets a lot right – especially in describing brain-training as science-inspired, rather than science-based.

Why science-inspired?

The demand and development of cognitive fitness products is quickly out pacing the research community . The research that inspired the software programs is solid, but there is, as yet, very little research available on the actual benefits of using the software programs themselves.

That may seem like nitpicking, but when we’re talking about a $225 million-dollar-a-year-and-growing-market, it’s easy for the hype and promise to take over.

The benefits of brain-training programs (as much as I personally believe in them) are really still a hypothetically helpful stage. It seems like they should have benefits, and early evidence suggests they probably have benefits, but we don’t really know just how beneficial they are, who they benefit, or how, or even if the benefits apply to the average person’s daily life. The same is true of many supplements, chemical enhancers, and meditative programs. They seem like they should work, but the science is still preliminary and conflicting.

So I rather like the description of “science inspired” for the purposes of writing about this stuff – it acknowledges the science that is involved in the products, but doesn’t leave the impression that the results are fully proven and backed up by science.

But I disagree with the conclusion..

In winding up his post, Jeremy concluded that:

On current evidence exercise is clearly the best method for increasing useful everyday cognitive functioning.

It’s just not that clear to me. Being the best-supported-by-science isn’t the same as being the best method with scientific support.

If you’re looking for the one cognitive fitness method that has the clearest research results behind it, exercise might be the current winner. But the other methods have science supporting them, too – the results just aren’t as clear.

If the results of that research is preliminary, wouldn’t it be impossible to really compare the methods to see which is best, or most effective, at this point? It seems to me that all we can say is that this method, or that one, has the best supported claims – but not that one method is better than another. We just don’t have enough information for that. (But since Jeremy has a degree in research methods, and I don’t, maybe I’m misunderstanding something here)

It’s About Balance.Balanced Stones

The “best” method of maintaining and improving cognitive health is a combination approach, one that strikes a balance between different factors in brain health.

As Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains points out in a reply post:

In our work we try to integrate all these concepts by saying that the 4 main “pillars” for cognitive health are: good nutrition, physical exercise, stress management and mental exercise.

Last fall, I sketched a rough outline of a similar idea: Which Areas Does Your Brain Need Help In?

I’m slowly developing that article into something more comprehensive to help people find the right balance, and it seems that’s what SharpBrains does, too – focuses on helping people find the balance. (Oddly, I had no idea what you actually did over there, Alvaro. I should crawl out of my hermit cave more often.)

The “best balance” isn’t universal, either, but depends on the individual, their lifestyle, and their strengths/weaknesses. The next-best-action will depend on the individual, as well. As Alvaro put it:

… research based-advice would probably be, for a teenager: Don’t Drop Out of School. For a middle age person: Make Sure you Have a Stimulating Job. For a retired person: Find and Try to Master A New Hobby Every Few Years.

For a couch potato, starting an exercise program could well have the most immediate and beneficial effect on brain function – but it doesn’t do much for the specific cognitive functions like working memory. So beyond reasonable levels of physical activity, general exercise may not do that much for slowing or minimizing age-related declines, or delaying the onset of Alzeimer’s. (Although I’m personally intrigued by Jeremy’s suggestion of physical activity programs designed to increase cognitive function… I can see a lot of promise in that.)

So which ones really work?

The Psyblog post is titled “Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work?”

My answer? Maybe all of them. Brain-training, exercise, meditation, drugs, and supplements can all “really work” to enhance brain function, each in their own way.

Individual examples in each category won’t work, of course. Slapping the image of a brain on any old video game doesn’t mean it will improve your memory, and many of the herbal supplements on the market are too weak to have any effect, even if the active ingredients were proven to have an effect on the brain.

And none of these as single-step approaches are likely to work for everyone

But as parts of a whole, each method likely helps to maintain or improve mental function to a degree. Each method one points to a basic of brain health, or a compensation for a brain problem. There are other elements to consider that weren’t mentioned, including diet, hydration, sleep, general health, and so on.

Final Thoughts?

Brain-training is only one approach, one part of keeping an active mind. In turn, keeping an active mind is only part of overall brain-fitness.

That’s the message I’d like to see sent out balance the brain-fitness hype we’ve seen lately(as opposed to a message about how one aspect of brain fitness is better than another). Cutting through the hype is crucial, but it’s equally crucial not to swing too far to the other side, and become a promoter of anti-hype hype. (Try saying THAT one three times fast!)

Both of the articles referred to in this post are worth a read, so here they are again:

PsyBlog: Which Cognitive Enhancers Really Work?
SharpBrains: BrainHealth – Physical or Mental Exercise?

And I hope both Jeremy and Alvaro will forgive my butting into the conversation ; )

MindTweak: “If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.” – Lewis Carroll

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 » Brain Health: Physical or Mental Exercise?   « Brain Fitness Revolution at SharpBrains      06.13.08 at 10:51 am

[...] the conversation continues at Looking for the Best Brain Fitness Method? Think Balance. Learn More about Brain Fitness About Our Seminars Find the Right Program Tags: [...]

2 Jackie 06.23.08 at 5:09 pm

Finding balance is the key. I just can’t seem to find the key nor the balance. Good thing for me it’s not the law or I’d be on probation. lol

I never have been good at balancing acts. So, I gave up trying. Can’t juggle either. :(

Have a wonderfully busy week! ;)

3 Tori Deaux 06.25.08 at 1:37 pm

Jackie, don’t give up… juggling (even just trying to juggle?) seems like it’d be great for the brain, using lots of different functions, balance, hand eye co-ordination, etc…
And finding a balanced approach to brain-fitness shouldn’t be that tough, just common sense sorts of things in various areas of life. More on that later, though … I’ve got other topics to juggle!

4 Forgo the Brain Training, Drugs, Vitamins & Meditation and Just Get Some Exercise - World of Psychology 06.25.08 at 3:27 pm

[...] Mind Tweaks weighed in more on the side of Sharp Brains basically suggesting different strokes for different folks. Mind Tweaks is also focused on helping people cognitively enhance their brain, so again, the unspoken conflict of interest remains. (Tori Deaux, the author of Mind Tweaks, is also not a researcher nor psychologist.) [...]

Note from Tori:I’m considering the appropriate response to this post from PsychCentral. Meanwhile, I’m leaving the link here, because it is a continuation of the conversation, sort of… (if basically telling me to stay under the porch and stop yapping at the big dogs counts as a continuation of conversation)

5 James 06.26.08 at 9:13 am

Have we all been blinded by the $ signs? This website replaces something so obvious that I’m suprised no one has said it clearly. These cognitive enhancers manufactured to get on the ‘brain training’ wagon, regardless of how self-righteous they come across, are a replacement for so many general things. You are taking time out from practicing the violin (which could be seen to build hand-eye coordination, working memory, imagination and so much more) to play a computer game (which claims to improve hand-eye coordination, working memory, imagination and so much more). The example isn’t perfect, and you would need to do a variety of things, like painting, climbing, music making, programming, etc. but we do don’t we? even in an office job we do tasks that work on the sort of things that mind tweaks etc. claim to. If a healthy range of activities are as effective as ‘brain training’ and the like, then we won’t see a difference in studies which are truly without demand characteristics, experimenter bias or any of the other nasties that a heavily subsidised professional, deliberately or more likely otherwise, would have creep in. Surely society isn’t so lazy that these computer programmes are replacing total inactivity.


6 Tori Deaux 06.26.08 at 1:39 pm

James, I must indeed be blind, since after a year and a half, I have yet to see a single dollar from MindTweaks! ;)

I think there’s some sort of core misunderstanding here… “MindTweaks” is *not* a brain-training tool. It doesn’t replace anything. It’s a BLOG — a rambling, unfocused collection of personal opinion, ideas, experiences, reviews, references to news reports, and whatever else strikes my fancy at the moment. I reserve the right to turn it into something else down the road, but, for now, it’s *just* a blog.

That said… brain training software, games and the like are no more necessary to brain fitness than an expensive personal trainer or home gym is necessary to be physically fit. And brain-training software does not replace a range of challenging activities – it’s just a targeted means of engaging *some* parts of the brain which might otherwise be left out.

I agree that practicing a healthy range of activities throughout our lives should be as effective (if not more so) than any formalized training program.

But I don’t see the problem in the programs being out there, either. Again, using the physical fitness analogy, just because a bowflex machine isnt *necessary* for the average person to maintain physical fitness, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be available, and used as part of an overall fitness program.

Make sense?

7 Movin’ Right Along » Just Get Some Exercise » Sweat365 » Fitness Community 07.24.08 at 4:30 pm

[...] Mind Tweaks weighed in more on the side of Sharp Brains basically suggesting different strokes for different folks. Mind Tweaks is also focused on helping people cognitively enhance their brain, so again, the unspoken conflict of interest remains. (Tori Deaux, the author of Mind Tweaks, is also not a researcher nor psychologist.) [...]

8 Richard Buckley 12.03.10 at 7:10 pm

I think what’s exciting is that engaging in a brain fitness program is possible – rather than the old notions that we came into this world with a brain that was limited and finite – as well as one unavoidably on it’s way to becoming old and slow. It can be confusing with so much conflicting info and misinfo out there. As my mainstay, I try to stay on the path of learning new things and practicing new skills until the day I leave the planet.