There’s a lot of marketing being done for ‘brain fitness’ devices and methods, and of course there’s big bucks to be made when your target market is baby boomers.
Interesting conversation going on between a few blogs on this topic. At Psych Central summing up a post at PsyBlog, asserts that the most evidence-based cognitive enhancer is exercise. PsyBlog‘s post is a little longer, and really worth a look. There’s also a thoughtful retort, at SharpBrains, a site that markets tools for cognitive enhancement.
[P.S. Alvaro at SharpBrains has commented on this post and added additional links for further information on this topic. See Comments below.]
Part of what’s being argued is the value of evidence-based research vs. speculation about the effects of certain technologies or treatments, often based on some science to begin with. For some of the methods mentioned it’s quite difficult to isolate the effects via research (say, for instance, in meditation).
Each of these posts touch upon some interesting ideas about what might minimize the onset of Alzheimers or dementia — a concept known as the “cognitive reserve”. In other words, if you’ve spent an active, engaged life, you’ve got more “buffer” against these afflictions. Just a theory.
Here are some of the opinions from the PsyBlog post:
On computer programs:
Side-effects are probably limited to repetitive strain injury and a depleted wallet.
On a cognitive enhancers:
Amongst the chemical cognitive enhancers Modafinil is currently fashionable for grown-ups. But is it really that much better than caffeine? This study and this study suggest that in warding off sleep Modafinil is no more effective than caffeine – and caffeine is legal and readily available. Probably better to stick to tea or coffee.
Meditation still has to be considered unproven as a cognitive enhancer but it probably won’t do you any harm, plus it’s free.
And finally, on exercise:
The evidence for exercise boosting cognitive function is head-and-shoulders above that for brain training, drugs, nutritional supplements and meditation. Scientifically, on the current evidence, exercise is the best way to enhance your cognitive function. And as for its side-effects: yes there is the chance of an injury but exercise can also reduce weight, lower the chance of dementia, improve mood and lead to a longer life-span. Damn those side-effects!
And here are some thoughts from the SharpBrains retort:
What about traders, bankers or consultants who already frequent the gym often, but need help with stress management/ emotional self-regulation in order to remain “cool” when they need to? Would you tell them “Please stop trading/ that Board meeting when things get difficult, leave your desk/ room for 30-40 minutes to take a quick run, and everything will be fine when you come back”. Or would they better learn the cognitive skills needed to manage stress real-time via biofeedback or meditation, for example.
Third, as you point out, there are studies on specific groups of people (add/ adhd, dyslexia, stroke/ TBI) where well-directed cognitive exercise has shown an effect in well-designed trials, whereas physical exercise, to my knowledge, hasn’t to the same degree. We are talking about over 25 million individuals in the US in those 3 categories alone. What do you tell them?….
Fifth, while physical exercise has shown clear value in improving some cognitive abilities, such as some executive functions, it hasn’t show comparable value in others, such as information processing or memory. Which is one crucial reason why, in my view, looking for cure-alls will probably prove elusive.