You may have heard, “Use it or lose it.”

What you may not have heard, but will in years to come based on latest brain science, is “Train it and get more of it.”

Mental or brain training goes beyond simple mental activity. It is the structured use of mental exercises or techniques aimed at improving specific brain functions, physically strengthening the brain areas you are training (they get more neurons and stronger connections among neurons). Over the last 10 years scientists have found that mental training can work if you use any of these four methodologies: meditation, biofeedback, cognitive therapy, cognitive training.

1)Meditation has been shown to improve specific cognitive functions such as attention. As such it can be considered as a brain training technique. A number of studies have compared people who practice meditation to people who do not. The problem with these studies is that people in both groups can be very different. Thus the benefits observed in the group practicing meditation could be due to other things. Recently, a more controlled study was conducted that showed a specific effect of meditation on attention, one of the main brain functions.

Styles of meditation differ. Some technique use concentration meditation, mantra, mindfulness meditation, while others rely on body relaxation, breathing practice and mental imagery. It is not known so far what aspects of meditation or which techniques are the best to train one’s brain. Scientists are researching what elements of meditation may help manage stress and improve memory. Preliminary results in terms of the impact on brain functions seem promising.

2)Biofeedback-based devices measure and graphically display various physiological variables such as skin conductivity and heart rate variability, so that users can learn to self-adjust. It has been used for decades in medicine. Recently, this technology has emerged in reasonably-priced applications for consumers who want to learn how to manage stress better. Neurofeedback is a subset of biofeedback relying specifically on electrophysiological measures of brain activity. Using Electroencephalography (EEG) biofeedback to measure brain waves gives the user feedback on different “mental states” like alertness. Neurofeedback is still a tool mostly useful in research and highly specialized clinical contexts.

3)Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that the way people perceive their experience influences their behaviors and emotions. The therapist teaches the patient cognitive and behavioral skills to modify his or her dysfunctional thinking and actions. CBT aims at improving specific traits, behaviors, or cognitive skills, such as planning and flexibility, which are executive functions, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and phobias. It has been shown effective in many studies and contexts such as depression, high levels of anxiety, insomnia. Doctors used CT to help dieters acquire new skills in order to achieve their goals.

4)Cognitive training: the new kid on the block

For many years, neuropsychologists have helped individuals suffering from traumatic brain injuries relearn how to talk, walk or make decisions, etc. Among other tools, cognitive exercises (including computer-assisted strategies) have been used to retrain abilities. However these tools are not available to the public and not everybody can afford a neuropsychologist or needs to see one. Things are changing as a variety of commercial programs is now making brain training available to the public. The challenge is to make informed decisions on which tools may be appropriate for your specific needs and goals.

How do I know what will work for me?

To determine if something works we first need to define what we mean by “work”. A machine to train abdominal muscles probably won’t “work” if what we measure is blood pressure. In the same way, a program training auditory processing speed may not work if visual functions are measured. This is why to determine whether a brain training software “works” it is crucial to (a) understand the claims made by the developer as to what abilities are trained, (b) find well conducted scientific studies showing that these abilities are indeed trained by the program and (c) decide whether that training is relevant to one’s needs and objectives.

Another important aspect when evaluating whether a brain training program “works” is to look at the extend to which the training effects transfer to untrained tasks. It is well established that practice usually triggers improvement in the practiced tasks. So the first requirement for a well working brain training program is to show that people who use the program get better at the tasks trained. The second and more important requirement is to show that this improvement transfers to other, untrained, tasks, mostly tasks performed during everyday life. This would show that the cognitive and self-regulation abilities targeted by the program were indeed trained.

These are the mental abilities you can build using the different methods discussed above:
1) Meditation: attention, stress management
2) Biofeedback: attention, stress management
3) Cognitive therapy: self-regulation, especially when facing anxiety or depression
4) Cognitive training: working memory, speed-of-processing, auditory processing

In future articles I’ll discuss all these abilities in more depth. In the meantime, why don’t you select a new method that you haven’t tried before and give it a try?

Alvaro

Author's Bio: 

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of SharpBrains.com, which provides the latest science-based information for Brain Exercise combined with fun Mind Teasers. SharpBrains has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, MarketWatch, Forbes. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute. You can learn more at http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog