In the highly salable field of "brain fitness," there is an awful lot of hype. How can consumers possibly sort the science from the pseudo-science? Thankfully, there are resources such as The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age (284 pages; April 2013).

Co-authored by SharpBrains CEO Alvaro Fernandez and co-founder and Chief Scientific Advisor Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, this resource is timely and informative. Through a mixture of figures, tables, scientific research, and 20 interviews with leading scientists on the forefront of this rapidly evolving field, this guide helps the everyday reader come to a basic understanding of brain functioning and the lifestyle changes that matter the most for keeping the brain in tip top shape. What I particularly liked is that this book doesn't read like an infomercial. In fact, the authors explicitly state up front that "we do not prescribe or endorse any specific interventions." This was important to me because there are too many claims being put out there that are clearly motivated by the goal of selling a particular product.

The authors define brain training as "the structured and efficient use of mental exercises designed to build targeted brain-based networks and capacities. Its aim is to improve specific brain functions, similar to physical conditioning." According to the authors, society is a human ecosystem with different kinds of minds contributing to the ecosystem. Under this conceptualization, the key to brain training is to develop the specific brain functions required to flourish given a person's personal goals and specific environment. The authors review a number of important brain functions, including the suite of "executive functions" that are so important for reaching our personal goals in life. These cognitive functions include mental flexibility, perspective taking, anticipation, problem-solving, decision making, working memory, emotional self-regulation, sequencing, and inhibition. The authors make a compelling case that we need to foster the development and maintenance of a wide range of mental functions-- not just IQ or memory-- in order to reach our personal goals.

There are so many gems in this book, but I thought I'd highlight ten that particularly caught my attention:

  1. Our brain's functions improve drastically throughout childhood and adolescence, following a predictable developmental progression.
  2. Education and lifestyle matter just as much as genetics in the developmental trajectory of our mental functions across the lifespan.
  3. There is no general brain training solution for everyone: each of us encounter different cognitive demands and have different starting points in our developmental progression.
  4. Aerobic exercise can substantially improve executive functioning, increasing various neurotransmitters, nerve growth factors, and the formation of new blood vessels (angiogenesis).
  5. Diet can improve cognitive functioning, although overall diet is important. While there is no magic nutritional supplement, recent research suggests that omega-3 fatty acids is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline in adulthood (but no association has been found with risk of developing Alzheimer's disease).
  6. The key for optimal brain functioning is to learn how to manage stress and build up the capacity for resilience. As Dr. Brett Steenbarger notes, "think of life as a gymnasium and the obstacles we encounter as the weights we must lift to get stronger. When you view challenges as resources toward development and not as unfortunate obstacles to be avoided, you'll be well along the path toward brain fitness."
  7. It's possible to prevent cognitive decline and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in later life by building up your "cognitive reserve." In one recent study, greater participation in intellectually stimulating activities, especially in early and middle life, was associated with lower accumulation of beta-amyloid peptide in the brain (beta-amyloid is elevated in patients with Alzheimer’s disease). Older participants who engaged in the most stimulating intellectual activities showed levels of protein accumulation similar to the levels seen in the brains of much younger participants.
  8. Social interactions, particularly those that are complex and cognitively demanding, can improve executive functioning, build cognitive reserve, and lower stress levels that can impact on brain functioning.
  9. The key to long-term mental growth is continual novelty, challenge, and variety. According to Dr. Larry McCleary, "All types [of brain stimulation] count including schoolwork, occupational endeavors, leisure activities and formal brain training."
  10. Cross-training-- involving a combination of meditation, biofeedback, cognitive therapy, and cognitive training-- can enhance targeted brain functions and build upon the healthy foundation laid by proper physical exercise, proper diet, stress regulation, and social engagement. Here's a great excerpt from the book, which includes a suggestion of five conditions that need to be met for brain training to be likely to translate into meaningful real world improvements.

On a personal note, I have to say I wish I had read this awesome guide when I was much younger. Even today, students are often led to believe that a bad grade, or difficulty learning material in a particular course, is an indication of low levels of a singular, fixed intelligence. I find the emerging field of neuroplasticity immensely exciting, and guides like this one are both hopeful and reasonable. To be sure, there is no magic pill, and cautious claims are warranted. But at the same time, I find that the latest science paints a much more hopeful picture of the potential for cognitive improvements across a wide range of cognitive functions throughout life than more fixed conceptualizations that are still predominant in society.

© 2013 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved