Brain training is suddenly big business. But can you get smarter without geriatric video games or wildly expensive lab tests? As our Lab Rat learned, yes.
The mental calisthenics were pretty simple at first: Could I pick up an envelope off the floor? Did I know where I was? Then came the stumper: What day was it? "Wednesday wait a minute." I glanced around the room for clues. Nothing. "It's Tuesday. No, Monday!" I blurted to Tonya Kydland, a psychologist who works at Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies (CFIT), a brain-fitness facility in a leafy section of Santa Barbara, California. Kydland nodded and, wearing a serious expression, jotted something in her notebook.
CFIT is a new kind of mental-health outfit. Unlike the exploding number of commercial enterprises that purport to sharpen the mind using various electronic games and gizmos, CFIT addresses the whole picture: physical fitness, diet, mental activities, personal relationships, and medical history. "The idea here is to provide a thorough baseline assessment, then set you up on a program that will optimize your lifestyle to promote cognitive health," says Ken Kosik, CFIT's founder and a professor of neuroscience research at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In other words, CFIT is an everyman's brain gym: You pay an annual membership fee of about $4,000 and make twice-weekly visits to the place, à la Equinox.
Brain fitness has become big business over the past few years. Cerebral-exercise computer games from companies like CogniFit and HappyNeuron generated $80 million in 2007, up from $2 million just three years earlier. An increasing number of high-end labs, such as Los Angeles based Elite Sports Performance, help wealthy clients tweak attention-honing brain waves using EEGs and other state-of-the-art technology. CFIT, which is scheduled to be fully open for business by late 2008, offers something entirely different: an accessible, one-stop mind shop that promises to transcend the realm of the wonky and geriatric. For now, half of CFIT's pilot group consists of retirees with looming cognitive trouble the most ready and willing clients of the brain-training world but Kosik's vision is far bigger.
"I can see this sort of facility all over the country, for all kinds of people," he says. (There's talk of opening a second CFIT facility in San Diego, with more on the horizon.) "The time to focus on brain health is when there is no disease at all."
Until about 15 years ago, many experts believed the brain was hardwired, and that once mental deterioration set in, it was irreversible. But recent neuroscience research has convinced the scientific community that the brain is malleable into old age. This principle, called neuroplasticity, has neurologists racing to tweak the mind in order to improve sports and job performance and even stave off or reverse problems like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. CFIT aims to prevent these illnesses, but also to teach people how to maintain their intelligence and mindfulness over the long term. And that process begins with the rest of the body. "People forget that the brain is an organ, like the heart and lungs," Kosik says, "and that it benefits from exercise and sound nutrition."
My first step was to come clean on how often I floss (only in that pre-dental-exam panic), whether I do drugs (uh cough, cough no), and how much red wine and chocolate I consume (plenty). Once the staff reviewed my general health, it was time for a little mind fitness. The exercises involving a stationary machine called the NuStep, a cross between an elliptical trainer and a stationary bike, and a widescreen TV set up with Nintendo's Wii were pretty basic at first. I experienced minor guilt pangs when, during a round of Wii boxing, I knocked out CFIT's petite director, Hether Briggs (well, her avatar, anyway).
I got my comeuppance during the neuropsychological evaluation. I aced a few of the initial tests, then struggled to remember what day of the week it was. I could repeat from memory a string of eight numbers in reverse, but for some strange reason I messed up while attempting the same exercise with just four numbers. At the end of our hourlong session, Kydland asked me if I could recall the questions she'd asked when I first entered the room (Do I wear glasses or use a hearing aid? How old am I?). I drew a blank. And then I felt a sudden chill. Was this a warning sign of bigger problems?
Before I mustered the nerve to ask this question, CFIT set me up with some mental exercises on a brain-training computer program called MindFit that involved various memory and hand-eye-coordination games. At first, it was about as challenging as desktop solitaire, but it got progressively harder, until I was floundering again. Clearly, I could use some more brain push-ups.
The next day I sat down with the CFIT team to review my performance and discuss a long-term DIY program. This is the most innovative and impressive aspect of CFIT: They put all the components of mental fitness together in a practical, manageable training program. In lieu of cool-but-mostly-useless brain scans that might show my frontal lobe lighting up like a Christmas tree (or not), I got smart advice that I could take home and apply immediately.
To wit: My physical fitness is fine; keep it up, Kosik told me. He offered nutrition suggestions, like adopting the olive-oil-and-fruit-rich Mediterranean diet, which, according to a 2008 study in the British Medical Journal, promotes a 13 percent reduction in the occurrence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Kosik also advocated a few supplements, like calcium, high-quality fish oil, and folate (a B vitamin that may prevent Alzheimer's). My team prescribed three 20-minute CogniFit sessions a week; though, to be honest, I'm more likely to commit my time to other equally effective brain-benders, like the Sunday crossword puzzle, Sudoku, learning guitar, or tackling another language anything, basically, that presents fresh challenges. "The better you get at a given activity," said Kosik, "the less brain you use."
One of the most compelling things I came away with is also the simplest: the vital importance of friendships. "A healthy and active social network is probably one of the best predictors of long-term mental health," Kosik said.
"So I should keep playing soccer and going on ski trips with friends?"
"Absolutely," he said.
Before I left, I had to ask Kydland about my quirky performance during the neuropsych tests. Was this, as I feared, a sign that I'm on the road to senility? "Don't worry," she said reassuringly. "You scored completely within the normal range. You just weren't paying attention."
Reprogram Your System
Know that feeling when you want to keel over at mile five on your run? That's your brain playing mother hen. Sports scientists are realizing that everything from how fast you can run a 10K to how long you can bike at 20 mph is determined by the brain's understanding of the body's limits a protective mechanism known as "anticipatory regulation."
"Job number one for your brain during exercise is to prevent you from working yourself to death," says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist and consultant to the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. This subconscious safety net is usually more conservative than it needs to be, unless you're an elite athlete. And research suggests that amateurs can boost their performance with workouts that safely recalibrate the brain's protective mechanism. Here's how.
1. Wear a stopwatch or heart-rate monitor and warm up with ten minutes of easy swimming, jogging, or pedaling. Increase your effort to the fastest speed you think you can sustain for 20 minutes. But don't look at your watch hold your pace until you think you're near exhaustion. Stop and cool down.
2. Jot down your average pace (for example, 7:30 mile for a run) and the amount of time you held that pace (don't feel bad when it's not even close to 20 minutes). Repeat the workout once a week and try to sustain the same pace for a slightly longer duration each time. Again, don't look at the clock push yourself by feel. Expect some improvement in your second try at the workout not because you're more fit, but because your brain is comfortable letting you work harder.
3. In each subsequent workout, you should be able to go farther, thanks to improving fitness and a slightly less conservative brain.