I used to think that the practice of “mindful meditation” was exclusively the preserve of yogis, Buddhists and New Age hippies fresh back from an extended voyage of self-discovery around Asia. If you’ve ever found yourself caught up in a conversation with an over-enthusiastic traveler fresh back from their adventures you’ll know what I mean. Such folk have usually undergone a wholesale transformation from fairly conventional individuals into barefoot, sandalwood-scented, Thai-dyed, hemp shirt and trousers wearing, bead bracelet bedecked eccentrics who preach the stupidity of capitalism and the supremacy of the compassionate mind-set at any and all available opportunities. My attitude has changed fundamentally in recent months.
A recent review paper (in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, no less) evaluating the flurry of scientific investigations into the possible benefits of practicing mindfulness that have accumulated over the past ten years or so, has given me a fresh perspective. To my surprise it turns out that there is plenty of early evidence attesting to “beneficial effects on physical and mental health; and cognitive performance.”
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Mindfulness is actually a very simple concept to grasp, if only we’d give it a half chance. From the moment we wake to the moment we go back to sleep our minds are cluttered with innumerable thoughts.
These thoughts tend to focus on the past and the future: conversations, experiences and interactions that occurred in the past and hopes, ambitions, fears and other concerns regarding the future. Mindfulness encourages the development of attention directing and emotional regulating capacities that enable us to focus on the present moment. Ultimately, by getting in the habit of focusing on what we target with our conscious awareness, rather than just allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever stimuli, thoughts or feelings happen to flicker through our minds, we can achieve a greater self-awareness.
There are many different ways of achieving a mindful brain state but typically the beginner is encouraged to start by focusing on their breath. They are asked to breath deeply, in and out, right into the belly to ensure their diaphragm is being used to full effect. Whilst performing these simple actions they are regularly reminded to bring their attention back to their breath whenever the mind wanders elsewhere, to notice the cool air passing in through the nostrils on the inhale and the warm air passing out again on the exhale. After a few minutes of this, you are usually instructed to re-direct the focus of your attention on different body parts, moving systematically around the body. Notice the feeling of clothing on skin, upward pressure of the floor (or the chair) on your buttocks – move your mind’s eye from your toes, gradually up through the legs, into hips, up your back, across your shoulders and down your arms to your finger tips.
FOCUS AND RE-FOCUS YOUR MIND
When thoughts pop into your head, as they invariably will, the idea is not to block them or force them out, but simply to acknowledge them without engaging too deeply; focusing attention back on your breath, or touch sensations in a certain body part.
It sounds extremely simple (too straightforward to result in any meaningful benefits surely?!) but most of us are ingrained with deeply entrenched habits of thought such as worrying about events in the past or future or perpetually seeking some form of stimulation that it can take a while to achieve the goal of quiet contemplation of bodily sensations for more than 20 or 30 seconds at a time. But for those who stick at it – regularly, intensively and consistently over many weeks and months – and gradually build their ability to stay in this mindful state for 5, 15, 30, 60 mins at a time, a wide variety of benefits are achievable. And the latest neuroscience studies into mindfulness are homing in on what it going on inside the brain as a result of all this practice.
To find out about how mindfulness changes the brain please click here.
If you love science geekery then my weekly science podcast Geek Chic’s Weird Science may well be right up your alley. It’s available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X.
I also regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on Twitter so if you’d like to follow me, please click here –> @drjacklewis
In part 1 of this blog I broadly described the benefits of mindfulness and what it involves. Here I dig into the detail, outlining the parts of the brain that appear, on the basis of a recent review of many brain scanning studies, to be most consistently impacted by the regular practice of mindfulness.
NEUROPLASTICITY IN ACTION?
Using MRI scanning to focus on differences in the physical structure of brains has revealed that the anterior cingulate cortex (highlighted in yellow in the below image), often implicated in studies of attention, is physically thicker and the underlying white matter denser in practitioners of mindfulness who are highly experienced as opposed to those who are relatively inexperienced.
Moderate to severe stress is associated with high levels of circulating cortisol (a “stress” hormone). This is associated with increased density in the amygdala (highlighted in red in the below image) – a structure deep within the tips of the left and right temporal lobes and vital for orchestrating rapid responses to perceived danger. Decreased tissue density is observed within several prefrontal regions and the hippocampus – which also resides within the core of the temporal lobes – serving several memory-related functions and vital for many aspects of cognition. Regular practice of mindfulness appears to reverse this. Cognitive impairment is reduced and presumably an increase in synaptic connectivity accounts for the increase in tissue density within the hippocampal / prefrontal cortex. The enlarged amygdala shrink – presumably due to reductions in the number of synaptic connections between neurons in this region – which is also associated with a reduction in anxious feelings / the attenuation of heightened perception of threat, back down to normal levels.
The default mode network (DMN) describes a group of brain areas that are activated in MRI brain scanning studies when participants are “in between tasks”. At first these activations were thought to reflect the brain at “rest” or in “default mode.” After a few more years of research, during which this same set of activations cropped up under circumstances that couldn’t reasonably be described as “restful” the original conclusion was revised. Considering all the studies in which the DMN kicked into action it seemed much more likely that it relates instead to “mind-wandering.”
In the original studies, when the participant was instructed to “rest” they would invariably use this period to self-reflect or daydream about something completely unrelated to the experimental task (I certainly did when I volunteered for various MRI studies – it’s impossible not to – anyone that’s seen Ghostbusters should know that).
A couple of years ago when I conducted a series of interviews (British Neuroscience Conversations) with various big hitting neuroscientists at the British Neuroscience Association’s conference, neuropsychopharmacologist Prof David Nutt pointed out that, if our “ego” or the “self” lives anywhere in the brain the Default Mode Network is the best candidate.
The medial prefrontal cortex (labelled DMPFC for the dorsal/upper part and VMPFC for the ventral/lower part) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), i.e. the core DMN regions, were less active in experienced versus inexperienced mindfulness practitioners. As one of the primary aims of many mediation practices is to selflessly accept thoughts and feelings in a non-judgemental, compassionate way – the reduction in these neural correlates of “ego” may well reflect a degree of success in this endeavour.
So inspired have I been by these revelations of fairly solid early evidence attesting to a likely neuroplastic impact of regular practice of mindful meditation on brain areas involved in modulating attention, emotional responses and perhaps even ego that earlier in the year I went to Mykonos for a retreat to immerse myself properly (opening the invitation to anyone who faniced coming along).
Since then I’ve gone on to develop a #brainboost campaign for Weight Watchers in order to help tackle the obesity epidemic by getting people’s brains ready for healthier eating by practising mindful eating, performing a bit of daily brain training to boost their working memory and learning some simple brain hacks, all with a view to eating more strategically.
During my research for this project I came across a nice little book on mindful eating that I would highly recommend: it’s called Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers. Personally I find a lot of books on this topic extremely cringeworthy, but Susan Albers describes the practical tips on how to avoid mindless / emotional eating through mindfulness in a very straightforward manner.
My own book “Sort Your Brain Out” includes a chapter on the kind of foods and eating habits that are good and bad for the brain. In addition, I do a weekly science podcast available on iTunes, audioboom, libsyn and podbay, with the delectable Lliana Bird who presents every Fri and Sat nights on Radio X. And I regularly share the best of the day’s neuroscience breakthroughs on twitter (@drjacklewis).
Figuring out what I should write about in my blog this month really was a no brainer. It’s not every month that I have a new book about to hit the shelves (Friday 28th March 2014). So from April onwards, if you happen to be passing a WHSmith’s then please do consider popping in. You should find Sort Your Brain Out prominently displayed in the Non-Fiction and Business charts. If you can’t find it then please drop me a line!
Although we have specifically targeted the business market in the first instance, primarily due to their familiarity with my co-author’s previous work, this truly is a book for everyone. We hope that business professionals will decide that other members of their family would also benefit from reading it and pass it on; whether the recipients are their children – to help them get the most out of their brains to achieve more in their education, or their own parents – to help them get the most out of their brain during the post-retirement years. In fact, the book has been carefully put together to ensure that readers of all ages will be able to get something out of it. Happily we’ve already had some feedback that suggests we have been successful in achieving this goal. If you fancy flicking through a few select pages, or perhaps even pre-order a copy with a 30% discount, then please click here to see it on Amazon.
We are encouraging people to tweet photos of Sort Your Brain Out when they find it in the wild with the hashtag #SortYourBrainOut or #SYBO for short – we’ve been made aware of sightings all over the UK and the world – from Jamaica to Hong Kong and Cornwall to Edinburgh.
This is my first foray into the world of publishing. Strictly speaking it’s the second book I’ve ever written, if you count my Ph.D. thesis. However I doubt whether more than a handful of people have ever pulled it out of the vaults of the University of London library in Senate House. For most readers it would be pretty incomprehensible anyway what with being laden with complex scientific terminology. The whole point of Sort Your Brain Out is to make the latest neuroscience accessible for everyone, not just the science enthusiasts. So with this in mind, for my first published book, it only seemed appropriate to co-author it with someone who has extensive experience in writing books that everyone can get something out of. And a few years back, thanks to a fortunate twist of fate, I met the perfect collaborator.
Adrian Webster and I both contributed as motivational speakers at a conference in Tenerife in 2011, presenting me with the perfect opportunity to forge an alliance with a truly exceptional individual. An internationally best-selling author, his first book Polar Bear Pirates was a massive hit. It is very unusual to see a business book packed full of cartoon characters, yet this unorthodox approach may well be precisely what made it resonate with such a broad audience. We’ve tried to reproduce this effect with a handful of illustrations commissioned for Sort Your Brain Out. For a sneak preview: click here.
Over more than a decade Adrian has been one of Europe’s most popular and influential motivational speakers. His uncanny ability to spin a yarn in an entertaining yet impactful way, leaving audiences not just spellbound by his performances but also much wiser about how to get the best out of themselves at work is unparalleled. He distils many years of experience in the workplace into witty/moving anecdotes and wise observations about how best to motivate ourselves and those around us. Here’s a quick taste of his speaking style brilliantly animated by some young and very talented animators.
Our book Sort Your Brain Out aims to make what modern neuroscience has discovered about the strengths and weaknesses of human brain function accessible to the broadest possible market. We wanted to provide some powerful insights into how to get the most out of your brain, whoever the reader happens to be. After all, every one of us has a brain, but it doesn’t come with a user guide. So we thought we’d pen a book that illuminates what’s going on within our skulls and what brains need to function optimally. The Sunday Express kindly published an article we wrote to support the launch of the book and the following Monday we got a mention in the Daily Express. We also penned a short article on how to stoke the fires of creativity which you can also read online.
We asked a few kind souls to read the final version before it went to print and were overwhelmed by the positive feedback. Below you’ll find just a small selection of the endorsements we received:
This truly inspiring and fascinating book leaves you never wanting to waste a single second ever again. Everything you need to know about how your brain works and how to maximize it is contained in an easy-to-read way. The book proves you really can do anything and there are lots of simple ways to help ensure you too can make the most of your biggest asset – your brain! Without doubt, a book you cannot be without!”
Dame Sarah Storey, DBE
For all the debate about governments nudging people to make better decisions or to adopt better behaviours, it is easy to overlook the fact that we can actually nudge ourselves. This book is a wonderful guide to how to do just that.”
Executive Creative Director and
Vice Chairman, OgilvyOne London
I thought it was accessible, thought-provoking and full of useful, easy-to-follow tips about improving your everyday life through a better understanding of the brain.”
Writer for The Observer and other publications
This book explores the kind of topics we all think and talk about: Is the internet making us stupid? What do alcohol and caffeine really do to our brains? It provides you with kind of fascinating nuggets of information you end up reading out to whoever you happen to be with, as well as practical tips on how to maximise what we all have between our ears. Forget brainstorming, it’s all about brainshaking and dunking now. Neuroscience demystified and simplified without being patronising; a must-read.”
A really great book that explains in layman’s terms how the brain works and how you can then translate that knowledge to enhance your own performance. Thought-provoking and insightful, it will add considerable value to anyone still willing to learn, irrespective of which rung of the success ladder they are on. It’s an enjoyable and extremely useful read.”
Sort Your Brain Out is a must-read for everyone. It is a clever and thoughtful book designed to help the lay reader understand more about the brain’s most intimate workings but most importantly it provides erudite yet easily consumed bite-sized gobbets of information on how to improve one’s lobar lot. The fascinating examples are eminently readable and marvellously memorable; the reading of this book will stretch the brain in exactly the way the authors have devised. This is mental stimulation at its best.”
Head of Programming and Branded Content
As someone who has spent their life reviewing neuroscience material, I was struck by how the overview on offer contextualises some aspects of brain function in a novel and refreshing way. In short, this is a delightful and illuminating read – it is the book that I would (will) give my family, when they ask searching questions about neuroscience – and what it means for them.”
Professor Karl Friston FRS
Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging
University College London
Sort Your Brain Out is has clarity of purpose and many features that puts it ahead of its competitors in an expanding area of interest. Making the best use of the amazing brains we all inherit, even though they are destined to operate in a world far removed from the environment that shaped their evolution, is crucial. There probably is no more important a task for us as individuals or for the groups we live and work in than this. Help and the chance to expand our insight is at hand.”
Head of Strategy
Advertising Planning firm Vizeum
Engaging, accessible, demystifying.”
Dr Daniel Glaser
Science Gallery London
If you do decide to purchase a copy we’d be really grateful if you’d find time to review it on Amazon.
I recently did a little digging around in the scientific and medical literature for clues to foods that could boost mood in a way that might enhance various movie viewing experiences. I promised those who were listening to radio interviews I did across the UK that I would post these findings in my monthly brain blog, so here you go… 😉
The basic premise of these recommendations is that many people these days feed themselves almost exclusively on highly processed foods. Sadly such diets often lack certain vital nutrients that are critical for the production of important brain chemicals. Different neurotransmitters systems are fundamental to the generation of different brain states (i.e. mood / emotional responses to events in the outside world). The idea is that eating the right foods will ensure there is a plentiful supply of all the relevant chemical messengers when the brain requires them to produce the appropriate emotional state.
What’s usually missing from people’s diet, in this regard, is either the basic raw materials from which complex messenger chemicals like the neurotransmitters noradrenaline, serotonin, dopamine and hormones like testosterone are actually built from and/or certain trace elements, such as copper, zinc and magnesium, which are a vital component of the enzymes that enable those raw chemical building blocks to be converted into the relevant neurotransmitters / hormones.
Below is a brief account of moods that may be enhanced by including certain key ingredients to ensure that all the necessary chemical messengers are available when needed, plus movie genres that I suggest might be boosted if these ingredients are included in a meal consumed prior to watching your chosen film.
Aim: To enhance the viewing experience of five different film genres by eating specific foods.
- Increasing excitement – to boost the enjoyment of ACTION movies
- Increasing happiness– to boost the enjoyment of COMEDIES
- Increasing focus – to boost the enjoyment of DOCUMENTARY / DRAMAS
- Increasing anxiety – to boost the enjoyment of HORROR movies
- Increasing libido – to boost the enjoyment of ROMANTIC films
Results: Various foods have been identified for which evidence exists to indicate that they impact certain aspects of body and/ or brain physiology in such a way as to potentially influence a person’s emotional state:
- The following meal may boost excitement of ACTION movies by increasing noradrenaline availability (which mediates the effects of the sympathetic nervous system i.e. increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, dilating blood vessels of muscles in preparation for fight or flight) via a large dose of l-phenylalanine (building block of dopamine) & traces of the mineral copper (vital to the function of the enzyme dopamine-beta-decarboxylasewhich catalyses the conversion of dopamine into noradrenaline), e.g.:
- Chicken, beef, or tofu pasta with sundried tomatoes, basil and cashew nuts
- Meal elevating mirth-levels with l-phenylalanine for extra brain dopamine plus nitrates (converted into nitrites by bacteria that live in everyone’s mouth) to enhance nitric oxide release (which dilates blood vessels when you laugh at a funny scene) throughout the brain for COMEDY, e.g.:
- Beefburger and sweet potato chips served with beetroot, celery & coleslaw
- Meal enabling sustained focus using slow-release carbohydrates (rather than fast-release carbohydrates which induces the “sugar roller coaster“), powerful stimulating flavours (to activate the reticular activating systems to jolt your brain awake), plus a peppermint dessert (improving sustained attention), ideal for DOCS & DRAMAS:
- Lemon, chilli fish served with on brown rice, seasonal vegetable, nuts & seeds
- Meals high in protein/fat and low in carbohydrades (i.e. Atkins diet-esque foods) to eliminate the comforting influence of foods rich in carbohydrate (potato, pasta etc which causes elevated levels of brain serotonin) plus stimulants (e.g. coffee) to get your heart beating faster to provide for a more anxious frame of mind to scare you witless during a HORROR:
- All day English breakfast fry up (without bread), followed by a strong coffee
- Scaredy cats may wish to do the exact reverse to make the horror less, er, horrifying
- Meal rich in cholesterol (raw material from which testosterone is produced) and nutrients (rich in zinc and magnesiumviital for the enzymes involved in testosterone synthesis) that maximises availability of testosterone to make a ROMANTIC film more emotionally-arousing (well, erotic to be precise):
- Lamb satay with edamame, broccoli, garlic & coriander with egg fried rice
- or a Creamy (dairy is a good source of cholesterol), Beef (rich in zinc), Curry (coriander is rich in magnesium)
As you may be able to tell from these suggested dishes – I ain’t no chef! So feel free to re-organise the suggested ingredients to your own taste…
Please don’t leave a comment because I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve lost the battle against the spambots. I have to wade through 500 spam messages before I find a real one, so if you do wish to comment please do so on Twitter. If you wish to follow @DrJackLewis on Twitter then you will be privy to thrice daily #braintweets – I sift through all the breaking brain news tweeting only those articles that I deem to be reliable, relevant and compelling, thus worthy of your attention…
We humans have far more control over our environment than any other species on planet Earth. We have developed an innate propensity for making and using tools to such a degree that we can now fundamentally change – through architectural, engineering and scientific innovation – the very environments in which we exist and with which we interact every day.
In modifying places in which we spend thousands of hours: our homes, schools, places of work and leisure – we exert more power than any other species in shaping our own brains.
Iterative cycles of human brains adapting to environments and environments being adapted by human brains have enabled our species to thrive in a wider variety of ecological niches than any other mammal across the length and breadth of the entire globe. Of vital importance to our adaptability is the emergence of cognitive faculties enabling us to circumvent the painstakingly slow processes involved in evolutionary change that drive behavioural adaptations in most other multicellular species.
Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, for example, had to wait for many generations to evolve a useful adaptation that conferred a survival advantage over their competitors. This is because the vast majority of genetic mutations do not yield any useful, adaptive characteristics. For genetic mutation(s) to result in, say, a beak of appropriate dimensions to access an otherwise inaccessible food source, a great many decades of annual mating must pass before this random process eventually hits the jackpot.
Humans confronted with a similar scenario would likely invent a tool to access the food in question. Offspring, or anyone else for that matter, could then mimic the movements necessary to successfully make and manipulate the tool. This is all thanks to “mirror” neurons, which provide us with our natural ability to convert observed movements into movements that we perform ourselves (In his TED talk VS Ramachandran describes the importance of mirror neurons quite beautifully). Behavioural adaptation through tool use is thus not, unlike genetic adaptation, limited to being spread down through subsequent generations.
Humans are not the only creature to use tools. New Caledonian crows are top of the pecking order when it comes to birds intelligent enough to use tools. They use a variety of different tools and in the appropriate sequential order, to obtain a food reward that would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each bird is clever enough to figure this out for themselves, or at least to learn from others, but their capacity to propagate this information beyond their immediate habitat is prohibited by a lack of sufficiently sophisticated communication tools.
Chimpanzees strip the leaves off of long straight sticks to use the resulting tool as a means to “fish” for termites in a termite mound. However, as E. O. Wilson famously pointed out: non-human primates do not have the necessary intelligence to prepare a neat stack of fishing sticks the night before. Non-human species only make and use tools as and when they are needed. In more recent times exceptions to this rule have been observed.
It was long thought that we humans were the only species with sufficient foresight to predict the need for certain tools in the future and to prepare them in advance. However a chimpanzee residing in a Scandinavian zoo turned this assumption on its head by building a stack of stones in the morning to hurl at visitors later on once the zoo had opened to the public!
That said, we still enjoy the unique status of being the only species able to share knowledge of making and using tools through verbal or written communication. This has propagated knowledge of all sorts of tools way beyond our own communities, to other members of our species across the entire globe – eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel and build upon the creativity of others.
Arguably the kings of tool use (homo sapiens exluded) are surely the bonobos. The below footage shows our closest primate cousin making tools out of stone, just as our caveman ancestors did, and using them to perform a variety of scraping, cutting and boring purposes.
In addition to these monthly brainblogs you can catch my daily #braintweet several times a day by following me on Twitter.
Rats fed high fructose corn syrup supplement navigate a maze significantly slower than others fed normal rat feed: click here for full article. Researchers suspect that the increase in insulin that results from high blood sugars may be to blame. In the body insulin serves to instigate biochemical process by which the sugar is taken out of the blood and put into storage. Yet although insulin can get into the brain, there no room there for excess sugars to be stored and so its role in the brain is not well understood. It is thought that elevated levels of insulin induced by the ingestion of sugary foods somehow interferes with the mechanisms of learning.
Whatever the cause of this disruption to the brain apparatus for maze navigation – a highly cognitively demanding ability – the study also observed that rats fed flax seed oil, a source of the essential fatty acid: omega 3, were protected from the debilitating effects of a high sugar diet.
And what does this mean to you? Stop stuffing your face with sweets, fizzy pop, cake and other snack foods high in quick release simple sugars. They cause your blood sugars to roller coaster in the following way:
1) large quantities of insulin are released (from your pancreas) to bring blood glucose levels back down to safe levels (by putting it into storage – ultimately as fat surrounding organs and under the skin).
2) Very high levels of insulin will often remove too much glucose from the blood – leading to hypoglycaemia.
3) Very low blood glucose levels detected in the brain (the hypothalamus, if you’re interested) triggers feelings of hunger and food seeking behaviours, which invariably entice modern man into a hunt for snack foods. These of course usually comprise high sugar foods sending blood sugars rocketing (please go back to stage 1).
It has been known for some time that the beta cells of the pancreas, which produce and release insulin, get worn out through overuse and that the insulin receptors doing the bidding of this life-saving hormone become increasingly unresponsive after decades of overuse resulting in diabetes, obesity and ultimately heart complications. What is new here is the suggestion that even before all that damage is even done the high levels of circulating insulin might be blunting our cognitive capacities.
How to avoid the sugar roller coaster?
Slow release carbohydrates. Eat porridge for breakfast and vegetables, fruit, wholegrain-rich meals for lunch and dinner so that all the carbohydrates aren’t dumped immediately into your blood stream – but instead are gradually released over the course of hours rather than minutes.
Not only will this help to protect against diet-related diabetes and obesity, but it will stabalise mood AND it seems from this latest research – improve your cognitive abilities to boot.
In addition to these brainblogs you can follow me on Twitter and if you like the sound of this Brain Optimisation Principle then why not book a Brain Coach Live seminar so I can share the other BOPs I’ve accumulated over 15 years of studying the brain.
BBC study slams brain training – but don’t throw your Nintendo DS away just yet…
Since Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training (UK) / Brain Age (US) game was launched on the Nintendo DS in 2005 a great buzz has been generated by the enticing prospect of sharpening up our mental faculties. Indeed, claims that it can improve memory, make us smarter, sharpen reaction times and improve general brain power have convinced over 3 million of us in the UK alone to buy this game (including me! – I’m in the process of writing a review on it, so watch this space). Then, in 2007, Lumos Labs launched “Lumosity” – a web-based, subscriber-accessed, brain training program with an ever-expanding range of colourful and engaging brain training games. Just one year later Lumos labs managed to attract $3,000,000 in private investment to further develop their cognitive training offerings. Brain training has become a billion dollar global industry.
In a previous blog I suggested that there is nothing special about each individual brain training game – I argued that the same benefits would be achieved by picking up a puzzle book containing number games, word puzzles and problem solving tasks on a daily basis:
However what these commercial offerings do provide is a structured training program, consisting of a wide variety of different games and puzzles, the opportunity to measure and keep track of your progress and the convenience that might encourage you to train for long enough and regularly enough to notice some benefits. The only problem is that in the 5 years since these games were launched there has not been a single shred of independent evidence (to my knowledge) that these games actually benefit brain functions useful in everyday life, rather than just the inevitable performance improvements in the games themselves. We already know that practice makes perfect. There have been reports that brain training works – but these studies were invariably linked to the very companies that had a vested interest in such findings.
Doubts started to be voiced in early 2009, for instance, Which? magazine assembled a panel of experts who concluded that Brain Training on the DS had no “functional impact on life whatsoever”. By the autumn of 2009 the BBC had clocked that is was high time that the concept of Brain Training was put to the test and set the “biggest brain training experiment ever” in motion – an independent clinical trial the results of which would be published in a suitable peer-reviewed journal. They asked distinguished scientists from the University of Cambridge (Dr Adrian Owen, MRC Cambridge Brain Unit) and King’s College London (Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society) to design a suitable experiment involving 11,000 participants, which ultimately led to the conclusion that “Brain Training Games Don’t Make Us Smarter”:
However, lack of proof of a brain training effect is not the same as proving beyond all reasonable doubt that brain training doesn’t work. At the bottom of this piece is a list of 5 reasons why the results of Bang Goes the Theory’s Lab UK study does not necessarily mean that brain training on consoles like the Nintendo DS is ineffective. These are centred around the following facts: they created their own games rather than using commercially-available ones (maybe their games were not as effective?), they required people to train only 3 times per week (maybe it would have worked with a more intense training regime?) and the games involved people sitting at a PC using mouse and keypad to register responses (i.e. they missed out on the technological advances of touch screen and voice recognition in the Nintendo DS). They have certainly demonstrated that the games they created, when played infrequently, across a relatively short period of time, using an outdated user control interface (that slows down the speed at which responses can be made in time-critical games), did not lead to improvements in a separate set of ‘benchmarking’ games that may or may not have been sensitive enough to detect improvements in attention, memory and problem solving skills. However, their failure to detect any improvements whatsoever (in the under 60’s at least) could boil down to any of these factors or more likely a combination of them. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these results are invalid. All I’m saying is that the proverbial jury is out regarding the putative efficacy of brain training – we must wait until more evidence has been gathered before potentially throwing the brain-train-baby out with the bathwater.
The compromises that they had to make in order to pull off such a large clinical trial are inevitable, but may have hampered their ability to capture any discernible effect. In order to get such large numbers of people to participate they clearly needed to avoid requiring people to give up their time too often and for an unnecessarily protracted period of time; otherwise people would have dropped out of the trial like flies. What led them to create their own games, rather than testing existing ones, may have involved the desire to avoid the potential wrath of powerful multinational companies. Even if they had been brave enough to wish to test the actual games to which the claims were attached the BBC would never have got away with wasting license fee payers money by coughing up the cash to issue each of these volunteers with a Nintendo DS – even if it would mean benefiting from the advances of speed-enhancing touch screen and voice-recognition technologies. Yet until further clinical trials, including some that investigate the potential of brain training in a way that gives it the best possible chance to shine, have confirmed or contradicted the current findings – I myself will not be throwing my DS away just yet.
If I was Nintendo I would wish to tackle this issue head on. I would ask an independent scientific body to find a suitable group of research scientists who could conduct a fully independent study totally uncorrupted by any conflicts of interest. This group should together combine a thorough understanding of the human brain with specific experience in measuring the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals – perhaps an education specialist, an occupational psychologist and a neuroscientist. They would oversee a further large-scale, independent, clinical trial that implements a more intense training program based on the best brain training game in the Nintendo DS armoury. I would develop a battery of tests that are able to capture improvements in brain function that actually come in useful during everyday life, as opposed to performance improvements in a rather arbitrary batch of computer games. For instance, if a person’s ability to tot up the cost of a batch of 10 items in a shopping basket improves as a result of intense brain training, they will be better able to spot when a cashier over or under charges them at the till and it would become possible to confidently state that they have benefited from the brain training in a meaningful way. If they are better able to remember a route on a map after training, then they will be less likely to suffer the stress and inconvenience of getting lost. If they are better able to pay attention to and ultimately recall verbal instructions, in an environment containing a cacophony of visual and acoustic distractions, then the benefits from brain training may actually help them in real life. To ensure participants stay with the program to the very end I would incentivise the much more intense training regime with cash rewards e.g. if they successfully completed 1 month of 2×30 minute training sessions per day they would receive a cash bonus, 2 months and they get a double cash bonus plus a further prize and if they complete the full 3 months they would get a quadrupled cash bonus. I would dish out 10,000 Nintendo DS consoles to individuals who would benefit most from the alleged cognitive improvements that are expected to occur – the chronically unemployed perhaps. That way, whether or not any improvements in cognitive function was detected, any improvement in the employment status of these 10,000 compared to a control group of another randomly selected 10,000 (who have also been receiving job seekers allowance for a prolonged period), would give Nintendo a possible second bite of the cherry by demonstrating a generic improvement in motivation levels and the power to benefit society as a whole. In addition to the milestone incentives, if they did look to keep unemployed hands and minds busy, it might also help to improve brain training dedication by dangling a carrot over the “high score leader board” – whereby those that achieve the best scores overall could be given paid work experience in a role that utilises the skills tapped by each specific game. Just think of the headlines: “Intense Brain Training DOES Improve Mental Abilities AND Gets The Chronically Unemployed Back Into Work”
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5 Potential Flaws with the Lab UK Brain Training Study:
- At least 3 times per week for 6 weeks
- POTENTIAL FLAW: the training regime is very sparse. In other words not surprising that there was no significant improvement because it didn’t tax the participants brains hard enough to benefit memory, planning, problem solving etc.
- REASONING: I would expect multiple training sessions EACH AND EVERY DAY to be necessary for significant improvements because the brain is only likely to invest resources in building better lines of communication between brain areas supporting a certain function if it is really needed (i.e. often used)
- SOLUTION: a commuter training regime – twice per day (on bus or train) on the way to and from work or school. Perhaps longer sessions at the weekend.
- BONUS: using dead time when people would otherwise be staring into space – even if it doesn’t translate into long term improvements such a brain training regime definitely helps to wake up a sleepy brain (it works for me!!)
- Brain training transfer to other brain skills like memory, planning or problem solving
- POTENTIAL FLAW: improvements in memory, planning or problem solving may have occurred but were not successfully detected
- REASONING: the selected tests may not have been sensitive enough to detect subtle improvements that occur with such a sparse training regime.
- SOLUTION: use more sensitive tests or increase frequency of training.
- Choice of brain training games
- POTENTIAL FLAW: brain training games may not have been sufficiently taxing to elicit significant improvements
- REASONING: the games were not those used by Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and so the results of this experiment might not be applicable
- SOLUTION: perform a study using the actual Nintendo DS game and console.
- No improvement in PC-based brain training games compared to just using the internet
- POTENTIAL FLAW: this does not capture the ability of the Nintendo DS to do brain training on-the-go, nor voice activated responses, nor faster responses enabled by touch screen technology – scribbling a letter/number or tapping at a certain location.
- REASONING: portability of Nintendo naturally lends itself to more intense training regime, writing on touch screen lends itself to faster responses than a keypad or mouse, voice activation allows verbal responses i.e. exercises different brain areas.
- SOLUTION: compare brain training games on Nintendo DS to normal games on Nintendo DS in order to take these important issues into account.
- Further investigation into effects of brain training in 60+ year olds
- POTENTIAL FLAW: Brain training must have shown some promise in the elderly yet it’s reported negatively to fit into “BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK” headline
- REASONING: Usually studies inflate even weak results to justify the study. Here they seem to want the negative findings and hence the improvements in the elderly are downplayed until further investigation.
- BONUS: Clearly you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!
- At least 3 times per week for 6 weeks