Last year my sister moved to Spain with her two young children. For my sister, the process of learning a new language has been slow and hard work, involving hours of dedicated study and instruction. But her children have absorbed not one but two dialects of Spanish as if by osmosis, and already switch effortlessly back and forth between their native and adopted tongues. Scientists now understand the neurological processes that account for the amazing plasticity of the child’s brain. And this understanding lays the foundation for the exciting new field of brain training.
A child’s brain produces large amounts of a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF stimulates the brain’s center of attention and memory formation. For children, the copious production of BDNF means that their brains are constantly ready to take in new information and form new brain structures.
Toward the end of the critical learning period, an adolescent’s brain releases even greater quantities of BDNF, shutting down this ability to effortlessly absorb and retain new information. By adulthood it is important for the brain to begin to consolidate the information it has absorbed in the formative years. Closing off the critical period prevents our brains from becoming saturated with too much information, and facilitates decision-making and long-term focus.
As scientists have shown, however, the adult brain isn’t hopelessly cut off from further growth and change. We can reactivate the absorption of new information by engaging in mental tasks that requires focus and attention. When these mental tasks also induce a sense of achievement or satisfaction, we can create the conditions for the growth of new nerve cells and plastic change.
Intense focus at a challenging task results in neurogenesis (new nerve cell growth) and neuroplasticity (rewiring of brain structure). If we activate these processes while training core brain functions (e.g., processing speed, memory, and problem-solving ability) we can strengthen and improve our mental ability.
The Three Building Blocks of Effective Brain Training
When we apply focus and attention the nucleus basalis releases a substance called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine tells the brain’s memory center to pay attention so that we will hold on to the memories being formed.
2. Mental Challenge
When we feel challenged and rewarded the brain secretes dopamine (the ‘happy’ chemical).
3. Targeted Training
Acetylcholine and dopamine together stimulate new cell growth (neurogenesis), creating the right conditions for change in the brain’s function and structure (neuroplasticity). By simultaneously training core cognitive functions the cell growth and plastic change strengthen and improve those core functions.
Brain Training In Practice
There are many activities that stimulate neural growth and help us stay mentally fit – studying a new language, tackling puzzles and brain teasers, learning a new skill – but while these are relevant and worthy pursuits, they’re not as targeted and effective as a carefully designed and scientifically tested brain training exercise.
A well designed brain training program improves cognitive ability using efficient and quantitatively verifiable exercises. The practical applications are many and varied: Learning specialists now work with brain training software to help reverse learning deficits; Senior centers offer brain training resources to their customers, helping to reverse memory loss and delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms or dementia; Schools have begun to introduce brain training as a way of optimizing children’s academic study; And individuals have taken to brain training as a way to maintain and improve their mental agility, in some instances even capitalizing on the latest training programs as a way to increase fluid intelligence (problem-solving skills) – a goal once thought unattainable.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult for a consumer to know which brain training products are the right products. Some products billed as ‘brain training’ programs engage the user in teasers and games that don’t have a true scientific foundation. Others may work but cost hundreds of dollars or require a big time commitment.
Since committing to a program requires time and money it pays to check the scientific credentials of the training. What specifically is it designed to achieve? Has its efficacy been independently tested or proven? Does the vendor specify the degree of improvement you should expect? And does training follow a prescribed timeline with set duration and milestones?
And finally, we should remember that the critical ingredients for plastic change are focus and challenge. Just as we don’t expect to stay physically fit without breaking a sweat, a truly effective brain training program requires our attention and effort. The rewards, however, can be worth every ounce of that investment.
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