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Train Your Brain Seriously

Our brain, ever present, ever listening, ever learning, obeying our every command, solving our every problem, attending to our emotions and wishes, remembering our joys and sorrows, our brain, is our best friend. Yet, environmental conditions such as increased stress, depression, drug and substance abuse, neurological conditions such as learning disabilities, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer's as well as developmental conditions such as aging, may impair the brain's ability to attend, reason, learn or remember. Despite our advanced technologies and rising education levels, cognitive decline or decreasing levels of cognitive function is increasingly observed across all ages and may be the result, not only of developmental or neurological impairments, but no less of drug and medication abuse, obesity and lack of aerobic activity. Because cognitive decline affects performance of daily tasks including productivity at home, at school and at work, researchers are attempting to preserve or enhance cognitive function using enrichment approaches that intensify the learning experience. They are supported in this endeavor by the abundant scientific evidence on the potential for neural and cognitive brain plasticity. One such form of enrichment is cognitive training, or as it is sometimes called brain training. Brain training, the systematic training of cognitive ability, aims at preserving, enhancing or developing cognitive abilities such as memory, executive control, coordination much as physical training develops muscle strength or flexibility. Depending on the condition, brain training can be applied in isolation or in combination with medication.

The literature on cognitive training recommends that, in order to be more effective, cognitive training should be endowed with a firm scientific theoretical base. Trained processes should be firmly grounded in the scientific theory of human cognitive development throughout the lifespan. For example, a brain training program for the elderly should consider the speed of processing theory which stipulates a general perceptual and processing slowing down with advancing age and the executive control theory which claims a decline in fluid abilities such as attention, inhibition, task switching and working memory.

Train Your Brain Seriously

A second requirement stipulated by researchers is that a cognitive training program should use a personalized approach to learning in the form of an individually performance-adaptive, training system. Studies which used such a training system show that when an adaptive feedback mechanism operated in the training, cognitive function could be significantly improved. Research indicates that to improve performance, and maximize training-induced learning, feedback to the trainee must be timely, easily understood and applicable to ongoing performance on the task at hand.

An important goal of cognitive training is to allow greater ease in carrying out real-world tasks such as driving, regulating finances, managing medication intake and maintaining social interaction. Because a large number of cognitive processes operate in concert when performing real-world tasks, researchers have posited a third requirement, namely to design multi-domain cognitive training interventions that integrate several cognitive processes and are not restricted to a single process (for example, memory or processing speed).

When these three main requirements were rigorously implemented in the development of a scientifically validated brain training program, widely diverse populations benefited greatly. This brain training program improved cognitive ability in healthy elderly individuals. It improved memory, attention and speed of processing in individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. It improved reading speed and reading comprehension in individuals with reading disability (dyslexia) and ameliorated gait and mobility in individuals at risk for falls.

The science of brain training is an exciting journey into intensive discovery and debate. Using ever more sophisticated technology and steadfastly growing interdisciplinary knowledge, we are exploring the best conditions and circumstances for the long-term conservation of our mental health. On this journey we observe training-related brain activity at the cellular and macro-cellular levels. We explore neurogenesis (the creation of new cell brains) after cognitive training. We observe as compensatory neuronal mechanisms (intact regions in the brain learn to carry out the functions supported by impaired brain regions) develop after brain training and this knowledge will expand. We know today that cognitive training is conducive to higher levels of cognitive reserve, the accumulated knowledge and experience of an active brain and a potent protective factor against cognitive decline. In the future we will expand this knowledge and target ever more specific brain areas and neurological conditions.

But future brain training research will tackle other questions important to humanity. It will ask whether the human brain can be trained, not only to preserve and promote cognitive function, but emotional and social resiliency. It will ask whether the brain can be trained to differentiate between good and evil, peacefulness and violence; justice and injustice. It will ask if the brain can be trained to like or dislike, agree or object. Debates in education, philosophy and ethics will flourish as brain training will come into the school system and will target, not only optimal mental and intellectual health, but also the assimilation of moral and social values.

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