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.

The Press - - Summer -

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:

Ex­er­cise

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.

Sleep

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.

Med­i­ta­tion

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.

PHOTO: 123RF

Brain scans re­vealed changes in the brain struc­ture as a re­sult of med­i­ta­tion.

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