The (Ugly) Truth About Brain Training

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It was 7 o’clock in the morning. The guy woke up by the sound of the alarm. He stopped the alarm and stood up. He could barely open his eyes but he managed to move up to the toilet and wash his face and his teeth. He prepared a coffee and opened the computer. He was ready to start his brain fitness program of the day. For half an hour, he engaged in images, numbers and letters that appeared on the screen challenging his brain. He finished exhausted. And then, again, the thought appeared on his mind: really? Do I have to do this for the rest of my life? But does this really work?

The question does really matter

And I understand why it matters. Training the brain is not a funny thing most of the times. You have to dedicate your time to perform the exercises that stretch the brain for a long period of time. You have to follow a diet. You have to exhaust yourself at the gym. Hence, before dedicating your time to do all those things you may need to have some certainty that it is going to work.

If you surf the web for this answer, you will find plenty of websites and books indicating that the training works:

Why do they say it works?

Well, most of the brain training programs rely on performing some kind of games on a computer. Famous examples of training programs are Lumosity, Cogmed, Cognifit or Posit Science. Those programs contain specific games for each brain skill that one wants to improve, for instance, attention, working memory or decision making. And what usually happens is that the person improves in the game by time training.

However, been good at a computer game does not imply becoming smarter, or avoiding dementia or Alzheimer’s.

The question is, then, does this improvement in the game mean that the person became smarter?, understanding by being smarter as improving some other areas of your intelligence aside from your ability playing the game.

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Searching for scientific demonstration

And here is where the controversy starts. Based on those results, many scientific papers crafted experiments to show that the training actually does improve intelligence. Those scientific papers got positive results in showing that people became smarter:

However, at the same time some other scientific papers obtained the contrary results:

 

So what’s the real thing? Who should I trust?

 

My conservative answer would be none of them.

None of the results are conclusive. Neither in one sense or the other. And the reason is that none of the experiments were performed with the correct testing conditions or performed correct data analysis to be accepted as scientific truth.

It looks like it is very difficult to perform a correct test on skill transference because it is very difficult to control the testing conditions for a long time. Some studies lack the sufficient amount of people, some have just a group of people with very particular characteristics, some include distractions that shouldn’t be, some do not include the control group, etc, etc, etc…

But in all those complains, the common denominator is that it is difficult to maintain people doing the training for the required periods of time (even the trainers don’t do their own training!). 

Why it is so? Because in order to make the training work it needs to push the person to the limit and the person gets bored or exhausted. Want an example?, try the n-back test here and you will see how difficult it is. Imagine yourself doing that every day for several months… (and it never gets better, since every time you improve the difficulty increases to keep you all the time at your limit!!).

As a conclusion, the only thing you can know for sure is, if you train in some particular ability, you will improve that ability. Whether this improvements transfer to other skills is something not demonstrated. Hence, if you want to be better at paying attention while driving, you should train paying attention while driving. Nothing more.

Meditation and exercise to the rescue

However, it looks like there is agreement about two activities that showed improvements in the brain as a whole: exercise and meditation. Both activities have been shown to produce similar effects in terms of brain improvement. Both reduce the effects of stress that kill neurons, both release hormones that increase the generation of new neurons. And both have been shown to increase the activity of the frontal cortex, where all the executive functions of the brain are done.

So, if we want to guide us from scientific results, only sport and meditation have some kind of transfer effect over the brain. Practicing them will improve our brain, in a more general sense.

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What about Insanity Mind training?

The training of Insanity Mind builds on the results explained above.

  1. First, meditation and body training, the only two methods that have scientifically showed that improve the brain, are the core of the Insanity Mind training. You are provided with a specific program for both of them, and encouraged to not miss any of those training exercises.
  2. Second, in order to improve intelligence, Insanity Mind does not train specific cognitive skills but specific full abilities.

The implications of these points are big: you are actually learning a useful ability which is directly applicable to your daily life. So whether or not the training transfers to other intelligence skills, you will learn and improve without any doubt on those abilities that are very important for your daily life: memorization, speed reading and mental calculus. And we do not care if they transfer to other things since, by themselves, they are very powerful increase in human intelligence.

With Insanity Mind you will learn to read faster, memorize… That is 100% increase in your intelligence, at least in practical sense. And in the process of leaning those abilities, you will have to learn new things (for instance, how to visualize, how to chunk information, etc..), all of them activities that stimulate your neurogenesis.

The result is that you will stretch your brain in some areas that have not been stretched for a long time. I don’t know if that stretching will increase your cognitive skill X, but actually, I don’t care. I only care that the brain is being moved out of its comfort zone, pushed with challenges and learning new good habits…

… hence what about trying something like Insanity Mind? The sooner you start the better!

The material for this post has been extracted from two interesting books that deal with the problem of brain fitness from a scientific point of view

 The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, by Alvaro Fernandez

and

 Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power, by Dan Hurley.

 

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