18 December 2008

Brain Training: What Makes You So Special?

The brain fitness software market has been growing at a dizzying pace. Worldwide revenue surged to $850 million last year, up from $250 million in 2005, according to SharpBrains, a company that tracks the mental fitness industry. _CNN
Your brain makes you special. Taking care of your brain should be one of your top priorities. A large number of brain training programs have been developed to train brains of all ages. Some studies suggest that specific types of brain training may improve a person's mental performance: short-term memory, ability to perceive subtle connections between seemingly unconnected events and phenomena, capacity to "multi-task", fluid intelligence as measured by IQ tests, and more.
New work by Minear & Shah shows that as little as 2 hours of practice can promote improvements in multitasking that generalize beyond the particular tasks trained. Specifically, they show that performance on individual tasks can be made more efficient while multitasking, but the efficiency of actually switching between them cannot. The data supporting this conclusion is fairly complex, but significantly adds to theoretical accounts to a number of previous studies showing that even the highest levels of cognitive processing (the so-called "executive functions") can be improved with practice. _DevelopingIntelligence
Look over the posts at Developing Intelligence. Chris Chatham has posted a number of times on different research looking at brain training for children and adults. The real possibility that some types of brain training might help to improve a child's IQ and/or EF makes the research worth following.
Web sites like BrainBuilder.com and MyBrainTrainer.com offer members access to a variety of training exercises.

Other software programs like MindFit from Israel-based CogniFit are customized to each user.

Growth in mental training has been particularly explosive in the U.S., where aging Baby Boomers have begun to fret about their mental sharpness. According to SharpBrains, the U.S. brain fitness industry is forecast to exceed $2 billion by 2015.

"There is more awareness that the brain evolves depending on what we do in our lives. People who are getting older now are much healthier than they've ever been and want to keep doing things to keep their brains alive," Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains, told CNN.

The growing prevalence of Alzheimer's has also heightened anxiety about mental acuteness. According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Maryland, one in 85 people worldwide will have Alzheimer's by 2050. _CNN
A person's choice of leisure activities may help determine his ongoing brain fitness. Choosing a crossword puzzle or a game of chess provides the brain with a lot more stimulation than passive distractions such as television, movies, or pulp fiction.
Using functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Bishop and her team conducted the study of 17 men and women, ranging in age from 19 to 48, at Cambridge University. They scored in standardized tests as having varying levels of anxiety, but were not on medication. Their brains were scanned as they performed letter-searching tasks on a screen.

Each time they saw an "N" or "X" in a string of letters, they had to press a corresponding button. At times, the Ns and Xs were easy to spot, and at other times they were buried among long strings of letters. To present a distraction, a similar but irrelevant letter was placed above or below the letter sequence.

When the letter search was demanding, brain scans showed all the study participants' dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes, which control planning, organization and memory, to be fully engaged. But when the letter search was easy, the prefrontal brain activity in high-anxiety participants plummeted as their attention wandered. In contrast, low-anxiety participants easily activated the prefrontal brain to focus on the task at hand when presented with distractions. _RedOrbit
The brain craves a challenge, even in leisure. Persons susceptible to anxiety may have to force themselves to include mental challenges in their daily routines.

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