Not easy to boost brain power
Whether or not you really can boost your brain power, a mental makeover can be on the cards, says Ewan Sargent.
It feels like a smart thought to want smarter brains, or brains that work to their maximum. Either way, we imagine life will be better if our brain had a little more grunt.
More power works wonders for cars, computer processors, and blenders. So why not our brain? Also, we reason, the brain is just another muscle like leg muscles. If you go for runs your leg muscles get bigger, have more power, and perform better. Surely this would work for brains?
For young people, it’s about getting ahead, and being smart is attractive. For older people, a slower brain is associated with ageing. Forgetting things and being slower on the uptake is uncool. The idea of boosting the brain fits comfortably into the second half of our life battle to stay young.
So no wonder there’s such a big market for brain-boosting products – foods and thinking exercises.
But can you actually boost your brainpower with all the foods and activities the billion-dollar brain boosting industry offers? The general consensus is mostly not, with a few maybes, and a few yeses, but none of them as much as you think.
Research in the area is controversial and divided. For example, online brain games to boost your brain power are a popular option, but Michigan State University psychology professor David Hambrick wrote in Scientific American that ‘‘brain training’’ is no magic bullet and products that promise quick gains in intelligence are wrong. He pointed out that 70 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists signed a statement in 2014 saying there was no solid evidence software-based brain games alter ’’neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease’’.
The argument was that if you play a video game a lot, you will become better at playing that game and maybe similar games. But you won’t be better at real-world things like driving your car or doing your job. However, an even bigger group of pyschologists and scientists signed a statement that disagreed and claimed that brain training has a broad range of benefits. They argued that not all ‘‘brain training’’ was equal. Brain stimulation games built by gamers who knew nothing about the brain were different to those designed by scientists with deep knowledge of the brain.
The most encouraging sign around brain games is a study published this year (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) that shows online speed-of-processing training does appear to significantly reduce the onset of dementia. The findings showed study members who took part in the training, and who had booster sessions, were 48 per cent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia after 10 years than their peers, and this included study members who had reasoning and memory classes instead.
Another controversial area is the idea of eating something to get smarter. The consensus here is that a good healthy diet gives your brain all it needs. Unless a doctor has prescribed a supplement to fix a known deficiency, no gains will occur. But there is consensus on some things that could make a positive impact on the brain:
A healthy body, a healthy mind. It’s an old saying but study after study has shown that people who exercise generate benefits for their brain as well as the body carrying it around.
A Cambridge University study showed that after a few days of running, hundreds of thousands of new brain cells grew in a region of the brain that is linked to the formation and recollection of memories.
Good sleep is crucial in many ways to a body and brain operating at its maximum. Much building and repair within the brain occurs during sleep. It’s obvious how important it is when you try to think clearly after not having enough.
A tick for the mindfulness movement. A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neurolimaging revealed changes in brains after mediation. MRI scans showed increased grey matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of grey matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. No such changes were seen among the nonmeditators.
Learn new things
Reading, study, learning, finding new challenges: all these things stimulate the brain and increase the amount it knows. That’s a boost for the brain, even if it’s unknown how much that will help the brain’s ability to analyse and adapt to new things or changed circumstances. But simply knowing more and building bigger networks of understanding does create a better brain in a sense.
Steering your mind
Taking the brain you have and teaching it how to work more usefully also has potential. This is lifting your skills at dealing with life through training in things like positive psychology, neurolinguistic programming, lateral thinking. These can give you better thinking strategies.This is seeing ‘‘thinking’’ as a skill that can be improved throughout life by focusing on how you think and learning smarter tricks. In computer terms, you could see it as upgrading the operating system rather than just boosting the speed and memory of the processor.
Long ago, scientists concluded that while intelligence isn’t fixed, just like a person’s height, it’s hard to make much change and you can’t change much. As always, what you do with the brain, how you act is far more important than how big or fast it runs.
Brain scans revealed changes in the brain structure as a result of meditation.