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Does brain training really work?

(I first published this one in Australian Women’s Health. Loved you in Dead Calm, Our Nic)

On the outside, I am calm and ordered. I’m a massive fan of lists. I keep three jobs on track – uni tutor, writer, yoga instructor. I rapidly switch between tasks without missing any major deadlines. But on the inside … inside my brain there is a pack of wild brumbies, careening out of control.

Some days my brain goes on strike. I find myself staring blankly at a YouTube make-up tutorial when I should be writing an article or planning a yoga class on mindfulness. When I actually start teaching the class, my memory is so bad I still refer to the class plan at the foot of my mat.

Neuroscientists tell us the internet is literally changing our brain and turning us into ‘shallow thinkers’, messing with our reward centre, making it harder to concentrate and easier to outsource basic cognitive functions like memory and calculation. ‘Use it or lose it’ they say, for without regular exercise our brains turn to mush.

Fortunately, last ten years has produced a boon of research telling us that our brains are ‘plastic’; able to be physically re-wired with training. Just like taking your brain to the gym. No more ‘I’m just terrible at maths’ – brain training can prompt the neural circuits in the part of your brain responsible for trigonometry to start firing, strengthening the synaptic connections between them. Could I train my slacker brain, the same way I exercise my body?

In response to this research, there has been an explosion in brain training programs promising everything from improved memory and concentration to happier thoughts and increased creativity. But how effective are they? And should we be scheduling in a regular twenty minutes or brain exercise alongside out morning jogs?

Professor Robert Wood is a cognitive psychologist at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the University of Melbourne, who helped develop the Australian brain training program ‘Active Memory’ in conjunction with the ABC. “We’re ultimately concerned with ‘do they make a difference on a daily basis’. They should work, and the people who do the training believe it does.”

But one of the problems with proving that brain training works is that the apps are developing faster than the research that supports them. “Research shows that brain training programs can be helpful for cognition, but we don’t yet know if these programs effectively translate into everyday life,” says Professor Sharon Naismith, a Neuropsychologist at the University of Sydney. “We know that people improve on the games themselves and also perform better on formal memory tests, but the key is to determine how much they affect your ability to perform outside of the training itself. Having said that, I’m excited and optimistic that there is a future for these programs. By targeting cognition early, we could transcend a whole generation of degenerative illness.”

According to Professor Wood, most people report significant improvement after six weeks of brain training for fifteen minutes a day. Since the wild brumbies in my head are threatening to take control, I decide to try for myself.

Day 1:

Active Memory sends me a reminder email that it’s time to play. ‘I can’t play,’ I think. ‘I’m way too distracted to train my brain for fifteen minutes.’

Fortunately, the program is ridiculously easy to set up. I do a few tests to record a base level (let’s just say I have room for improvement) and I get cracking. The games are fun and by keeping track of reaction time, they tap into my competitive spirit. Activities include pattern recognition and matching synonyms, while keeping track of colour sequences (harder than it sounds!). Fifteen minutes fly by.

Day 12:

I can focus while playing the brain training games, but back at work I still find it hard to concentrate. Time for Plan B: a free ten-day meditation app called ‘Headspace’. Dubbed ‘a gym membership for the mind’, Headspace specialises in making meditation doable for ADHD types like me.

Research suggests just five minutes of meditation each day is enough to improve attention and cognition. Each meditation is only ten minutes and is preceded with a short ‘how-to’ animation (some of us only meditate if cartoons are involved).

As I sit and try and follow the instructions (‘Notice the thoughts, but don’t judge yourself for having them,’ croons the app’s founder, a British ex-monk named Andy Puddicombe), but the wild brumbies in my head act like someone’s given them a shot of caffeine. It’s like being guided by someone from EastEnders, but since it’s like he’s there with you, I feel accountable and stay. When the ten minutes is up, I feel virtuous (yes! I meditated!), calm, and ready to get stuck into work.

Day 20:

I actually feel smarter. Active Memory scores go up every time I play. The app suggests I go up to more difficult levels. It praises me when I go well, so not only do I feel smarter, but the positive reinforcement makes me want to keep playing.

This is no mistake. Professor Wood says that he games are cleverly designed to keep the player in that ‘sweet spot’.

“One of the key determinates of skill development is the sense of progressive mastery. You have to feel like you’re making progress in a way that feels challenging but achievable. For most of us, if something is too challenging and we keep failing, we get frustrated and give up. But if it’s too easy, it’s boring. The games specifically designed to push you keep you just stretched out of comfort zone, but not so far that you feel frustrated and de-motivated.”

I asked Professor Wood if the increased confidence that training gives me can actually improve my brain. “People often don’t perform to their full potential when they’re self-doubting, but one of the key things about the training is that people report their confidence going up. Now this in itself is really useful because when you’re confident, you use your knowledge better.”

When people aren’t confident in certain areas of cognition they shy away from opportunities to use them. “One of the things you see in elderly people, is they start to worry about their cognitive performance and they withdraw. They stop engaging socially and it becomes a self-fulfilling cycle.”

In ‘real life’, one of my biggest distraction triggers is perfectionism: if I can’t do something well, I give up before I’m halfway out the gate (don’t you want me on your team?). But there is so much positive reinforcement built into the brain training (‘Yay! You scored 52 percent!’), that whenever I get something wrong, since there are no negative consequences I have become desensitised to the prospect of ‘failing’.

How does this translate in my real life? I’m less distracted by perfectionism, more confident about tackling tasks I traditionally suck at, and more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty. If that’s the placebo effect in action, bring it on.

Day 29:

A recent study by the Australian National University found that programs like Headspace and MoodGYM can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. I finish each meditation session feeling calm, clear and focussed – like my brain’s had a shower. I also feel happier and the space the meditation opens up mentally seems to have a positive effect on my work performance.

Dr Naismith says that brain training doesn’t just help with cognition, it also has a big effect on mental health. “My own research has shown that brain training can improve people’s mood, sleep and reduce disability levels so that people become more engaged in the community.”

Day 40 – the verdict:

After six weeks of training, I’m spending much less time on tasks and getting more done. Active Memory helped me build confidence and tackle difficult tasks, but the games seemed to improve my concentration only in that they were so fun they temporarily squashed distractions.

The Headspace meditation app wasn’t ‘fun’ per se, but I found it produced the biggest change. The short daily meditations cleared the mental ‘static’ enough to keep me focussed for several hours after I’d finished.

I happily signed up after the ten-day trial, and now have access to the whole library – which includes meditations on everything from creativity, self-esteem and relationships, to walking and eating. My favourite – the 3-minute ‘SOS’ meditations – which I used today before hitting ‘send’ on an ill-advised angry email.

Brain training tips from the experts:

  1. Work up a sweat. Literally! The experts are unanimous that the best thing you can do for your brain is exercise. “Physical exercise is just as, if not more important,” says neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay, the creator of online resource Your Brain Health.
  1. Hang with your homies. “As humans one of the most cognitively difficult tasks is to think about what someone is thinking and feeling, which is what happens when we socialise.”
  1. “The strongest evidence is that the Mediterranean diet works best for brain health.”
  1. “Having something in your life that you feel passionate and engaged in, meaning and purpose.”
  1. Try new activities that stretch the brain out of its comfort zone. “With brain exercise, you need a whole lot of cross training. Any activity you can find that combines more than one skill is going to benefit your brain. So if you could walk to something interesting, like a lecture or brain training, with friends’ you’re hitting three pillars of brain health right there.”

Products I tested

Top pick 1: Headspace

The ten-day starter program is free, and perfect for those who dislike meditation. There are cute training animations to keep you on track. The ten free meditations are always available, though the paid option ($7.99 per month) has hours of extra content.

Top pick 2: Lumosity

US brain training giant Lumosity has the motherload of games, and they’re all fun, slick and absorbing. Free to begin, though the paid option unlocks masses of extra games. Only $US5 per month, but for $8.33 you can sign up the whole family.

Active Memory

Pros: It’s free! Plus, data from players is collected to add to a pool of Australian research, so just by playing you’re doing your bit for neuroscience. Cons: To avoid boredom, you’ll need to upgrade. $9.95 per month unlocks extra games.

MoodGYM

A brain app for happiness! Developed by staff at the National Institute for Mental Health Research, MoodGYM teaches the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy. It’s incredibly effective at training users how to work with the thoughts that affect mood and performance. There are five modules (including games, a workbook, plus audio relaxation and meditation), plus techniques for coping with stress, depression and anxiety. The whole program is free, however you’ll need self-motivation to get through the modules.

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