Mind gyms for cognitive fitness

At last week's Institute for the Future client conference, I conducted an on-stage interview with Alvaro Fernandez, co-founder of SharpBrains.com. Alvaro's company creates custom "mind gym" programs for corporations, athletic teams, children, and the elderly, and tracks scientific advances related to cognitive fitness. At the foundation of the SharpBrains programs and other mental fitness companies' offerings is the recent scientific evidence of neuropolasticity, the brain's ability to grow new brain cells and form new connections throughout life. The SharpBrains "fitness regimes" consist of various software games designed, say, to improve memory or improve concentration. Do they work? Alvaro is convinced. And besides, he jokes, if someone doesn't see improvement, he just tells them that "they're already at their peak." (He kids! He kids!) Today's Los Angeles Times profiles the emerging industry of brain training. From the article:
"There is plausibility, both biological and behavioral, to the claim that these may work," says Molly Wagster, chief of the National Institute on Aging's neuropsychology branch. "But it is still a situation of 'buyer beware.' "

Insurance companies such as Humana and Penn Treaty American Corp. have begun to distribute software programs such as Posit Science's Brain Fitness 2.0 to millions of their older customers. In two years on the market, Nintendo's Brain Age, a video game designed to be played on a hand-held game device, has sold 10 million copies worldwide. Retirement communities are rushing to establish brain gyms to help current residents sharpen their mental skills and to attract baby boomers, who may one day put such amenities on a par with a weight room and a track.

"I see this as a new frontier of fitness overall," says Alvaro Fernandez, founder and chief executive of the website SharpBrains .com, which tracks the business and science of brain-training. Americans already understand the value of physical fitness as a means of preserving the body's proper function and preventing age-related diseases, says Fernandez.

He predicts that cognitive fitness will become a goal to which Americans equally aspire as we learn more about aging and the brain.
Link to Los Angeles Times article, Link to Alvaro's SharpBrains blog


  1. Link to SharpBrains blog is broken at this time, leads to “http://www.boingboing.net/2007/10/15/tracks%20scientific%20advances%20related%20to%20cognitive%20fitness%20and”

  2. As a long-term boingboing reader, it’s a very pleasant surprise to see my field covered here. I manage the science program at Posit Science, as mentioned in the LA Times article.

    To answer the question David asks – “do they work?” – we are close to completing the largest clinical trial ever done with a broadly available cognitive training program. This study was performed with the Mayo Clinic and USC and enrolled more than 500 people.

    The answer to David’s question will be coming out soon at scientific meetings – maybe I’ll finally suggest a story to boingboing when that happens…


  3. umm, last I checked, there were these things called books. They cover a variety of subjects, are geared for many levels of interests, and several do not even deal with celebrities, murders, or the murder of celebrities!

    It such a terrible shame that people who have a lot of time on their hands (retirees), and a desire to maintain their cognitive ability, have to be sold something that is so universally available and often free. All this activity may make our soccer moms, baby boomers, silver hairs, corporate execs more mentally ‘fit’, but it wont make them one ounce more knowledgeable.

    I am a philosophy student. We truck in books, articles and lectures. When my boomer parents complain they are having seniors moments, but that they are at a loss for how to correct it, I shout ‘read a book!’ I would like to collectively shout this to North America, READ A BOOK! Preferably not one written this century, preferably not one written on this continent. There is a vast corpus just waiting to be explored for anyone willing to forgo the ‘gym’ and get an education.

    I am so ashamed for our decaying culture, when we have forgotten the very source of the knowledge that allowed us to arrive at the stage of having ‘mind gyms’ in the first place. Turn off the TV, stop shopping, and LEARN.

  4. @Ianm – umm…could you possibly be more pedantic? Last I checked (and also the times I checked in the course of getting a degree in cognitive science), neither the improvement, development, or emergence (across evolutionary time) of cognition was solely dependent upon the ability to transduce meaning from squiggly lines on parchment or in pixels.

    Please don’t get me wrong – I am an avid reader, I wish I read more, and I wish everyone else did too. Books are the most delightful little portals we currently have to other universes (well, comics are neat too), and there is certainly much to be gained from their use.

    But they are not the limit of the intellectual world. Far from it. To suggest that this is all one needs to enhance or preserve their cognitive abilities is to suffer from those ancient philosophical blunders, arrogance and tunnel vision. Not to mention the fact that your contention flies in the face of a great deal of established and ongoing research.

    Before they can even string coherent sounds together, let alone decipher symbolic text, infants undergo an incredible degree of modulation and enhancement of their nervous system – the complexity and variety of sensory energies in the world force young neurons to move, connect, expand, and even die in the process of developing full human cognitive abilities. And well before they can read, children can demonstrate a wide and impressive range of perceptual and conceptual abilities. Meaningful interactions are embodied (literally – hand motions and facial expression…mean stuff!) well before language capacities are fully functioning.

    To skip to the other end of the vital spectrum, it has been found that preservation of cognitive function in the elderly is related to some possibly surprising factors – at least they would be to you! Certain dietary factors, exercise, and ongoing social interactions all seem to have a positive effect on what is known as “cognitive reserve” – roughly a measure of preserved brain function that protects from natural deterioration – or even pathological degeneration, as in Alzheimer’s – that may occur with aging. Which, again, is not to suggest that reading and other intellectual pursuits are not positive – they are just not enough. A quick google scholar search turned up this short paper (pdf), hosted by Columbia University, which gives a very nice (and encouraging) summary of some data from a few years ago that indicate the myriad ways that are being investigated has having protective effects on cognition through aging. The conclusions would at the very least suggest that a service such as SharpBrains offers cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    You do so in an uninspiring, brusque, and heavy handed fashion. On top of which, you demonstrate such a weird cultural and temporal inverse-myopia (hyperopia?) – what exactly is the problem with books from the past hundred years from this continent? (oh how we could go on there…) It is really a greater shame that someone who claims to be a student of philosophy, shows such an apparent lack of interest in critical inquiry, investigation of the world, and consideration of their own possible error – and it definitely tells us that you sure aren’t a scientist. If you want to help the “North American scum”, you might want to consider ways to make them interested in the world that don’t involved you “collectively shout[ing]” at them. And if I may, how does a single person do that, exactly? Is that in some fancy “book”?


  5. @Dave Hecht

    Thank you for your response.

    I am an avid follower of science and technology – and have been so from a very early age. So I am not (entirely) unfamiliar with the developments and methodologies.

    I will give you one example why I would recommend that someone engage a book outside their time and place – Friedrich Schiller. He lamented the decline of modernity he saw in 18th century Germany, he abjured the chaos and torment of the ‘liberating’ French Revolution, and he admired and acknowledged the power and achievement of science. In fact, he put forward a science of beauty – a rational understanding of art that allows the viewer to engage both their passionate (aesthetic) responses to a piece, while simultaneously enabling their rational understanding. This ‘science of beauty’ would allow those who are driven by hedonistic desires to be elevated by rational themes while simultaneously enjoying a visceral experience. It would take those who are rationally hidebound (think fundamentalists) and allow them to see a rational doctrine coupled with beauty and provide a softening experience; pulling them more towards their opposite, hedonistic, inclinations. Schiller reports that his investigation is ‘untimely’ – unfit for his time when everyone is so concerned with politics and science. But it is precisely because of this that he recommends they learn about the timelessness of beauty – so that people can work towards political freedom and responsible use of technological innovation through his coupling of the freedom of art and the freedom of thought.

    If you are simply trapped within your day, the faddishness of contemporary pop and academic culture, you are blind to vast swaths of human history and learning. By engaging texts removed from your own time, you extend your horizon for morals, beauty, and how to live your life far more so than simply cognitive exercises can provide. (Also, they’re really great reads). Exercise for the body, while smoking and eating terribly, does not a healthy individual make. Mental acuity without judgment, without the knowledge of human achievement (and error) – in my mind – is empty.

    I would refer you to the biography of J Robert Oppenheimer – who chose to study in California for its collection of Sanskrit documents and not for its physics. You say that I suffer from ‘hyperopia’, I am unsure how this is possible if I am attempting to call attention to items in the DISTANCE. Conversely, I would counsel that you do not fall into “those modern philosophical blunders” of positivism and technological fetishism. (Cf. Rousseau’s First Discourse on the Arts and Science, as well as Popper’s long project against positivism).

    Personally, I engage in far more intellectual activities than simply reading, as should be evident from my appearance on boingboing. Although I encourage mental fine-tuning, and I seek it out myself, my main point is that there is a glut of resources readily available to make a mind strong, and a person robust.

    You say that “neither the improvement, development, or emergence (across evolutionary time) of cognition was solely dependent upon the ability to transduce meaning from squiggly lines on parchment or in pixels”

    But it was vastly aided by this ability to record and transmit information accurately beyond a generation or two. Reading and writing were once cutting edge technologies as well – eschewed by no less than Socrates.

    But some of the supposed benefits to the mental gym were increased attention and increased memory (among others). All of these skills can be acquired by engaging in serious reading projects by sitting still and attending to a book, by recalling the events/arguments of the previous chapters. Of course this is not for everyone, but those who are privileged enough to be engaging with ‘mental gyms’ also ought to be the ones responsible enough and capable enough to engage texts (or music, or art or otherwise) at a level sufficient to maintain their skills while also improving their person.

    Two final points, babies developed quite well by using the diverse stimuli of the world around them. That they would not need these particular programs could be argued as most any environment is stimulating enough. However, things like baby sign language are very compelling – any tool (perhaps something like SharpBrains) that provides infants with access to avenues of conveying meaning should not be derided.

    If as you say, it is a variety of factors that help to stave off the ravages of age, I know of few people who remain so acute in their advancing years as professors (not least of them philosophy profs) who have done so by placing themselves in environments and activities that encourage all of these factors – not by buying a product.

  6. Liz notes:

    > Goldacre’s article refer to a physical fitness movement called “brain gym” in the UK. They don’t seem to have anything to do with SharpBrain’s work…

    Not to get too off-topic, but the (pseudo-scientific) Brain Gym movement, http://braingym.org/ , is firmly entrenched in the U.S., too, unfortunately. I’ve worked to get it from being used in schools locally, as it’s absurd (it’s based on applied kinesiology, where you can test if a patient is allergic to a substance by having him just hold the chemical formula for the substance in his hand – see Wikipedia or the articles mentioned). The phrase “Brain Gym” is trademarked by this group.

    So please excuse the knee-jerk reactions when the phrase pops up. Perhaps SharpBrains.com is in the scientific camp. However, it would be wise for them to leave the phrase “brain gym” behind. If anything, they should actively distance themselves from this other group, if they truly value the scientific method.

    On SharpBrains itself, I’d be happy to find they’re legitimately scientific. I’ve certainly read of research showing the general idea of “use it or lose it” works for various reasoning faculties. I enjoy puzzles as much as the next person, so love having another excuse for solving them. That said, I admit a bit of skepticism on first view of the site. Their sales of the “emWave PC Stress Relief System”, http://www.sharpbrains.com/z/eshop/stress-management-programs/freeze-framer/ , has some strong claims. The biofeedback program allegedly relieves stress, improves golf scores and other athletic performance, gives greater creativity, increases efficiency, helps performance on tests, etc. Anything it doesn’t do?

  7. Nice to see a high-quality debate. David, it was very fun to chat with you and interact with your clients.

    Phillip and Liz: thanks for helping correct the link.

    Pyros: from my point of view, “smart” defines the ability to learn and adapt to new environments. Wisdom, or pattern recognition, is an important component, but not the only one, and in fact it can get in the way if the environment changes too quickly and the person tries to apply learned patterns that are relevant no more.

    Henry: As I have expressed in the past to Dr. Merzenich and other Posit members, I am open to interviewing him as part of our neuroscience interview series that cover all angles of cognitive training

    Dave: great response. I assume that you already have seen my interview with Yaacov Stern?
    Note that other neuroscientists go beyond his claims, but it is a great starting point as you mention.

    Eric: I am not too familiar with “Brain Gym”, except to agree with what you say above. The good news: I am presenting at a K12 Learning & The Brain next February, and I see not “brain gym” representative in the agenda. We don’t use “brain gym” terminology for that reason. We use “brain fitness” instead, as a consequence of market surveys 2 years ago. I encourage you to read the interviews I link above, most of them include overall explanations and then specific links to quality published research. In terms of the product you highlight, let me say that
    1) we do not produce that product, so we would have 0 problem in stopping selling it tomorrow if we didn’t have happy customers,
    2) there is good research on how Heart Rate Variability biofeedback is a useful tool for emotional self-regulation, which is important to ensure good performance under pressure. Hence, it is useful in a variety of high-stress situations, because the physiology of a student taking a critical test is not that different from a golfer about to make an important shot or a trader deciding whether to maintain or reverse a bet given new real-time financial conditions.

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