The prospect of losing your memory or sharp mental faculties as you age may be disconcerting. Fortunately, similar to engaging in physical exercise to keep your body in check, there are methods to keep your mind in good shape too.
Brain training (also known as cognitive training) involves engaging in regular mental activities to maintain or improve your cognitive ability, effectively training your brain like a muscle.
But does brain training really work and can it preserve your mental faculties? We speak to neuroscientist Dr Liron Jacobson and chartered psychologist Fiona Murden about the science behind keeping your mind in shape:
What is brain training?
© Getty Student writing on blackboardIn order to stave off mental decline and keep your cognitive wheels turning, brain training involves participating in certain mental workouts such as puzzles, tasks or games in order to improve your mental agility and safeguard it from deteriorating as you age.
‘Brain training refers to intensive cognitive exercises, such as thinking and reasoning, aimed at fine tuning, improving or maintaining your mental faculties,’ explains Murden. ‘It tends to involve doing a range of exercises that relate to different thinking and reasoning abilities such as solving puzzles, mental arithmetic, attention, memory and processing speed.’
How does brain training work?
It may sound simplistic, but there is logic behind the concept. ‘The logic behind brain training relies on the idea that our brain is like a muscle and it can change over time, responding to what we do with it,’ says Dr Jacobson. ‘This means that as we challenge the brain, it affects its functionality.’
‘This concept is called neuroplasticity and it means that our brain is not fixed,’ she adds. ‘It strengthens and weakens over time and can be affected by the challenges we set it. Brain training relies on this amazing phenomenon of neuroplasticity.’
Brain training benefits
According to Murden, setting aside some time to do puzzles, learn a new language or engage in other cognitive training exercises comes with the following benefits:
✔️ Improve memory.
✔️ Maintain and optimise reasoning and thinking skills.
✔️ Improve problem solving.
✔️ Process things more quickly and operate nearer your peak.
© Getty Brain therapy rehabilitation cognitive psychological testing. Hand holding wood block cube therapy equipment’The motto “use it or lose it” applies perfectly to the brain and cognition,’ explains Dr Jacobson. ‘The more we use our brains the better, although of course we need to allow enough time for rest and sleep which is also crucial for our brain’s functionality.
‘This is the rationale behind encouraging people to learn a new language, or a new skill, try a new physical activity and make social interactions. All these activities stimulate and challenge our brain which results in a strengthening of the connections between the neurons and can even cause new neurons to emerge!’
Moreover, recent research from City University of New York found that brain training apps could help alleviate symptoms of depression. The 46 young adults who took part in the study had mild to moderate depressive symptoms, but after eight weeks of using the Peak brain training app showed improved mood and decreased depressive severity.
Can brain training delay cognitive decline?
© Getty Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problemsWhile there are plenty of books, apps and programmes on offer that promise to improve and protect your mental faculties, the jury is still out on the efficacy of brain training.
‘There is an evidence around memory, speed of processing, and even mood, and recently there was also a big study suggesting it can diminish cognitive decline among older adults,’ says Dr Jacobson.
Having said that, ‘Not all studies showed significant effects, however there are many elements that can affect the results such as the programme that was used for the training the intensity of the programme, how challenging the programme was, what were the cognitive tasks used for assessing the effects etc.’
‘You can reach an optimum level of capability but it will not enable you to surpass what you’re already capable of,’ agrees Murden. ‘It’s a bit like taking a car that has a maximum speed of 70mph for a spin, you can put in more fuel and rev the engine more but if its top speed is 70mph it’s very unlikely to you can anything that will make it go faster than that.’
Should you try brain training?
© Getty Crossword Puzzle and PencilUltimately, while the experts can’t be 100 per cent sure than brain training will safeguard your mental abilities in the future, there is certainly no harm done from continually challenging the brain with reading, arithmetics and puzzles.
‘Anything that stimulates the cognitive functions of the brain can help to slow down their decline so when it comes to minimising the impact of ageing then yes it does work,’ Murden says.
‘There is plenty of evidence to support this but it’s not necessarily linked to specific brain training apps, but more broadly to all sorts of cognitive activity like reading and doing crosswords.’
Dr Liron Jacobson is a neuroscientist whose work provides the solid scientific background behind the Peak brain training app.
Fiona Murden is a chartered psychologist and author of Defining You (Hodder).