Could training our brain now, protect us psychologically in later life?
It’s National Train your Brain Day!
As a Cognitive Neuroscientist I am interested in how the brain works, how we process information coming from the world, and how we learn. Our brains are malleable, flexible things, and we are capable of learning practically anything we set our minds to. At ANY AGE! (Pauwels et al., 2018). Although it’s true that children learn at a rapid pace and seem to accumulate knowledge at lightspeed (Cantor et al., 2018), our capacity to learn new skills and practise old ones continues into older age (Santos Monteiro et al., 2017). We refer to our brains’ continued ability to learn and adapt as plasticity. Brain plasticity is what we are trying to make use of with brain training interventions – we are challenging our brains to make new connections and strengthen old ones.
There has been some controversy around some aspects of computerised ‘brain training’ programmes which have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the last two decades. In 2014, a group of 70 researchers published an open letter stating that there was little benefit of brain training. A few months later, some 133 researchers and clinicians published their response outlining the accumulating research evidence that brain training is effective for improving cognitive abilities. The controversy stems from how we classify and define what constitutes as brain training in the first place. Many of the game-industry developed programmes were/are not sufficiently informed by scientific research, as fun as they may be! On the flipside, other programmes, billed more often as cognitive training programmes are founded in rigorous scientific studies, and are designed to be challenging and address specific cognitive abilities. Training the whole brain at once, or hoping for improvement across multiple domains, is unlikely based on current available evidence because what we usually see are improvements only in the specific skills/tasks that are practice (for review see Simons et al., 2016)
What does this mean?
Well, it doesn’t mean that training your brain is a waste of time. Expertise in multiple domains and lifelong, sustained education are factors associated with better cognitive reserve as people age (Christie et al., 2017). What that means is that for these people, their brains may be more plastic and malleable and potentially less susceptible to cognitive decline. The key thing is your brain is challenged – finding that sweet spot of interest, motivation, and challenge across multiple domains (Valenzuela, 2019).
What can you do?
Pick up a long-forgotten instrument, learn a new language, take up chess. Something, anything challenging and more complex than the day-to-day stuff. Or you could consider furthering your education with a Psychology degree at Wrexham Glyndŵr University, where you will gain the key skills in research design and knowledge of broad range of psychological disciplines, including cognitive psychology. The transferrable skills you gain from a psychology degree will put you a path to something different and might (MIGHT) provide some protection against cognitive decline further down the line.
Written by Joshua Payne, lecturer in Cognitive Psychology.
- Cantor, P., Osher, D., Berg, J., Steyer, L., & Rose, T. (2018). Malleability, plasticity, and individuality: How children learn and develop in context1. Applied Developmental Science, 23(4), 307-337. doi: 10.1080/10888691.2017.13986494
- Christie, G., Hamilton, T., Manor, B., Farb, N., Farzan, F., & Sixsmith, A. et al. (2017). Do Lifestyle Activities Protect Against Cognitive Decline in Aging? A Review. Frontiers In Aging Neuroscience, 9. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00381
- Pauwels, L., Chalavi, S., & Swinnen, S. (2018). Aging and brain plasticity. Aging, 10(8), 1789-1790. doi: 10.18632/aging.101514
- Santos Monteiro, T., Beets, I., Boisgontier, M., Gooijers, J., Pauwels, L., & Chalavi, S. et al. (2017). Relative cortico-subcortical shift in brain activity but preserved training-induced neural modulation in older adults during bimanual motor learning. Neurobiology Of Aging, 58, 54-67. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2017.06.004
- Valenzuela, M. (2019). Cognitive Reserve in the Aging Brain. Oxford Research Encyclopedia Of Psychology. doi: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.338