Brain training: getting smarter, can you?

Become smarter it is one of the most expressed wishes for the new year, and so I decided to make an article about it, or rather, to use what someone wrote to me who, on this topic, is really knowledgeable ...

Before I let him speak, however, let me tell you one thing: becoming smarter is of no use.

In fact, most of us have more than enough intelligence to get any result, we just don't use it.

And I don't mean, by this, stirring up the usual story of our brain "that we only use 20% etc etc", also because from a scientific point of view it is a bit of a bullshit, created and popularized by learning gurus who science know nothing about it.

What I mean instead is that:

  • We often don't put him in the best conditions to work. For example, negative emotional experiences (anxiety, demotivation, stress, depression) damage cognitive functions.
  • We often don't believe in him enough.
  • We often don't practice right to get better at the specific tasks it has to perform. For example, reading and repeating a text 37 times is not a good way to study, and therefore if you do not have results it is not because you are not smart enough, but because you study poorly (to stop re-reading 20 times, see the article on the recall active)
  • We often ignore very simple techniques that allow you to increase performance without any need to "increase the brain". For example, memory techniques, or those of fast reading.

In my article exercises to train the mind, which is one of the most read on the MyHealthyGrowth blog, I suggest a series of simple routines able to positively stimulate brain areas, to keep them "fit", induce positive sensations, activate your creativity, etc.

In this article we will instead talk about a little less soft stuff, trying to understand together what is known and what can be achieved with brain training, that is, the cerebral loosening aimed at become smarter.

Leading the dance will be Raffaele, a medical student and neuroscience enthusiast.

"The passion for both the mind and the brain (two distinct entities united at the same time) prompted me, already years ago, to try the first brain training software, to test all the most famous over time, to do research on the subject.

In addition to curiosity, the hope of "getting smarter" has always pushed me, so that I can study less, which, as a medical student, would be very convenient for me.

Here is what I have discovered so far….

A little history of brain training

Back in 2005, Nintendo, with the collaboration of Dr. Kawashima, developed the first brain training software that combined Sudoku, puzzles, mnemonic and audiovisual exercises aimed at what in the jargon is called "cognitive training", or improving intellectual performance.

In the same year, a neuroscience student created Lumos Labs, the company he developed Lumosity, one of the most famous Brain Training apps that you can find in the various stores.

Since then, games aimed at improving one's brain abilities have multiplied. So much so that in 2015 SharpBrains estimated a value of 1,3 billion dollars for this market, destined to reach 2020 billion by 6!

Marketing strategies, however, have gone far beyond the "fun and intelligent game", to the point of almost advertising these apps as medical devices: according to Lumos Lab, using Lumosity for 10 to 15 minutes three times a week would get better results in tests of standard intelligence, you would improve performance at school or work and slow down age-related brain decline (there is no supporting scientific evidence on the latter).

Although there was a lot of scientific research supporting the effectiveness of brain training, at least in some areas, many other studies are far from conclusive.

For this the Federal Trade Commission (the American FTC) fined Lumos Labs for 50 million dollars (later reduced to 2) for misleading advertising.

L’idea alla base del brain training

Why should or shouldn't brain training make you smarter? And what are the principles behind it?

Many years ago, when I was just a child, among doctors there was the belief that man was born with a fixed number of neurons, the brain cells, and that he was inexorably destined to lose them over time.

Therefore a person was born with a certain degree of intelligence, (therefore genetically predetermined), and if he did not "mess up" his brain (such as with alcohol or drugs), he could age while minimizing the decline, but nothing was in his power to improve. how much nature had given him.

Lately science has, if not overturned, at least questioned these old beliefs; today it is known that there are some areas of our brain where new neurons can develop, for example the hippocampus (which is very important for visuospatial memory, and is also - not surprisingly - the area most stimulated with memory techniques). It would therefore seem possible, in some way, to "develop intelligence", whatever is meant by it!

The definition of "intelligence" is in fact very complex and could be discussed indefinitely, also because the scientific community has not been able to agree univocally, but we all associate certain skills and competences with an intelligent person.

The neurophysiological basis of these "capabilities" is given by the interaction between various neurons. The connection between neurons is called "synapsi": In general, the greater the number of synapses, the better the connected" ability ".

An example is given by musicians: by training, they develop a greater number of synapses in particular areas (the visual, auditory and motor areas, in particular the part of the motor cortex corresponding to the use of the hands or hand they use to play).

But the same high number of synapses can also be found in certain areas of professional athletes, or in any other situation in which a high degree of competence has developed.

Therefore by training we are able to create more synapses and improve our abilities; in fact, in recent years we have discovered a very interesting function of our nervous system, brain plasticity; just as training a muscle strengthens it, so by "training" our brain, it changes and strengthens the most "used" synapses.

The logic behind the human body is to face every "stimulus" and every "challenge" by adapting and modifying itself to be able to respond adequately (muscle growth, for example, is nothing more than an adaptation in response to the workloads to which we submit. the muscles).

Brain plasticity is so surprising that it allows a functional recovery of many abilities lost following illnesses or accidents; when a person is hit by a stroke, he irremediably loses some brain tissue that cannot be recovered, just as if part of the brain is exported due to a tumor of the Central Nervous System, the excised brain mass is irretrievably lost ... yet slowly, at least in part, it is possible to compensate.

Thanks to an early and massive neurorehabilitation (a sort of specific "brain training"), the residual neurons begin to create synapsi more numerous and stronger in order to take over the lost function: for example, you can learn to coordinate the movements of the legs to go back to walking, or reacquire urinary continence (which is initially lost due to sensory and motor deficits due to stroke ).

TV, cinema and comics give us many examples of brain plasticity; who doesn't know Daredevil? The famous superhero goes blind at the age of 9, and his senses become increasingly acute: he has an amazing sense of smell, hearing and touch, but this is also what happens to ordinary people, albeit in a less pronounced and "romanticized" way. ".

By losing sight, many neurons (especially in the visual cortex) are no longer used, and the area that controls vision is "invaded" by other areas: other neurons expand their range. This also happens because not being able to use the sight, one is forced to use the other senses more, so it is as if one “trained” the taste, touch, smell and hearing.

The brain training therefore does nothing but "stimulate" us to improve some skills, so in theory it develops the brain; but is it really so?

Training to become smarter?

When we learn a skill, “generalization” is also important, ie the ability to apply what we have learned in a broader context.

Knowing how to memorize a deck of cards in seconds, or being able to memorize the names of 100 people in a short time does not automatically make you a better student; to become one you must know how to apply your competence (your ability in memory techniques) to a more general context, that is study.

Likewise, being able to do calculations very quickly does not automatically make you better at math; It is true, however, that by training in calculations, you will become more and more competent and you will carry out the exercises with ever better results. This is also intuitive, it is well known that in any field the more you train, the more you improve.

So what do the developers of these brain training software say?

That by training different components of intelligence (eg spatial memory, working memory) the improvements are visible in many fields, so as to make us more witty, more performing at work or in the study.

But is it really so? Let's analyze what scientific studies say!

Conflicting studies on brain training

In the last 10 years, countless studies have been published that try to give their judgment on brain training, but the results have been mixed, the methods questionable, and the results difficult to reproduce (and reproducibility is one of the fundamental points of the scientific method).

Unfortunately such studies are difficult to carry out due to both methodology and problems designation. 

For example, a person who does brain training expects to improve, e these expectations have a positive effect on its performance: it is therefore the typical case of “self-fulfilling prophecy”, already seen many times in cognitive studies.

It is therefore difficult to understand how much the best cognitive result is due to the brain training per se or to the "placebo" effect of the same.

In 2014, a systematic review of 51 scientific studies was published in PLOS Medicine which seems to give a fairly comprehensive answer: brain training games can have some slight effect in improving the mental performance of an adult, but only if the tests are conducted with the help of a supervisor and with a method, because the results vary too much according to the type of exercise to be able to say with confidence that the "cognitive trainingIs effective if not followed by a cognitive science professional.

Unsupervised home training, even at high intensity, is ineffective, or rather, has not been demonstrably effective so far.

For this reason, from my point of view, the aggressive marketing of certain companies that, to sell, exploit the fear of memory loss and cerebral agility typical of old age is ethically incorrect.

How to really do "brain training"?

In light of the previous considerations, is it all useless? Isn't it worth spending your time with these software?

In my opinion, the balance lies in the middle; having tried so many of these software I must say that for example the apps and games are very captivating, and next to the "educational" purpose you can also have fun (if you don't overdo it with training) and it certainly doesn't hurt to learn to stimulate the brain differently from our routine.

Probably, as written elsewhere in this blog, it is not possible, at least with modern technology, to "increase" the capabilities of the brain, but certainly those that already exist can be better used.

To make an analogy with the sporting world: your tennis talent cannot increase, but certainly if you train every day your forehand and backhand become much better.

And even once you have reached the "top" from the point of view of the execution of the shots, you can certainly still improve by taking care of the game strategy; o the study of opponents; or the psychological part (this is really very important for your results, even from a cognitive point of view. The "self-fulfilling prophecy" seen above is an example).

To really improve our cognitive performance, therefore, we need many stimuli and in many different areas, and brain training can be one of these.

Apps like Lumosity, but also Fit BrainsWhile it's not proven to make you "smarter," they certainly don't hurt, they're fun, and they definitely help you use the brain you already have.

More than working on “becoming smarter” therefore, it can make sense to work on specific areas in which we want to improve performance, and look for techniques to improve them.

Here on the blog you can find several articles about it.

If you want to improve the memorization the blog de “The Audacious of Memory” has many exercises to offer you, all for free! (Maybe you could take a cue and memorize some exam material, so you train your memory and study at the same time).

  • Quick memorization exercise
  • How to learn the law (even if you are not a law student)
  • Studying pathological anatomy with mnemonics

For example, if you want to study a foreign language, you can simultaneously train memorization and learn a new language.

  • Learn the keyword method 
  • Memorize the definitions in English
  • The 700+ English words to learn first (although of course you can take a cue and learn the same terms in any language)
  • Learn Chinese

You want to improve speed reading? You are right! This is a great way to improve a skill that will be useful to you in many contexts, including studying.

  • Studying with skimming
  • Because speed reading makes you study better
  • Quick Reading: The Ultimate Guide (which teaches you for free, what you should pay for in one of the many quick reading courses)

But I want to get smarter!

If training a specific skill wasn't enough for you, but you want to improve every part of your brain in a general way, there are many things you can do.

It is not proven that they will make you smarter, but trust me they will make you feel good.

First of all, our brain needs continuous stimuli, challenges of all kinds and the greatest possible variety.

Here I will give you some examples, but the possibilities are endless:

  • Make exercise part of your daily (or at least weekly) routine. The reasons are many, if you want to explore them together, you can comment on this article, but for now know that there is probably nothing so beneficial for our mind and for learning as physical exercise.
  • Get out of your comfort zone, do something new. Anything that goes out of your mind (a trip, a visit to a museum, skydiving, a public presentation) will force you to push yourself beyond your limits, and your mind is asking for nothing better.
  • Learn a new skill. It can be a musical instrument, a new language, a new sport, hobby or passion; indeed, just "passion" must be a key word, you have to do something in life that you are passionate about.
  • Dedicate time to a totally different field of study / work. If you are a psychologist, study a little law, if you are a doctor, dedicate yourself to economics, if you are an engineer, dedicate yourself to literature. Over the years we tend to specialize more and more in our field and acquire a very structured mindset, so our thoughts and patterns will start to be repetitive.
    If we distort our field of interest, our mind in an above all unconscious way will begin to reflect and connect this new material in an unimaginable way, and the new mental associations will help us to expand our horizons (what the Anglo-Saxons call "think out of the box").

Read our article on how to train your mind, and you will find a series of easy exercises that you can perform on a daily basis.

The point, as I said, is not to "get smarter". Right now it is not at all proven that it can, and moreover in fact it is such a general concept that it means very little.

What we can do, however, is to put our brains in the optimal conditions to work to the maximum.

I hope with this article you have a little inspired to learn more!

Remember that the most important thing that characterizes intelligent people is the curiosity! 

A greeting,

Raffaele Lisisco


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