Does online brain training work?

Why didn't  Einstein do online brain training?

1. The internet and apps weren't yet invented

2. He understood that sticking to the basics (such as quality sleep, exercise, nutrition and freeing the mind from unnecessary distractions) provides the building blocks for optimum brain function.

Recently there has been a proliferation of information about 'brain training' products ranging from apps, specific software and online gaming, through to Sudoku, crosswords and puzzles.

There is some research showing these programs improve memory, enhance spacial perception, sharpen concentration and improve creativity; but some of the research is very controversial (especially studies commissioned by the companies behind the programs rather than independent bodies).

A pair of scientists in Europe recently completed a meta-analysis of 23 investigations of memory training programs and concluded that while gaming may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, this does not always transfer to broader skills including arithmetic or other measures of intelligence. In other words, playing the games makes you better at playing the games, but doesn't transfer across to other areas of our lives.

So, how did mega intellects such as Albert Einstein in ye olde days possibly develop their brain if they didn't have all the tools and techniques we have at our fingertips today? And how did Einstein stumble upon his theories without Google, Twitter and constant news updates?

Apparently young Albert started playing the violin at 13 and used this as relaxation time when he became stuck in his thinking process. Einstein slept for up to 10 hours each night and took regular daytime naps, especially when he was overloading the grey matter. He enjoyed bike riding and credited his best insights to the unconscious work his mind did while he was taking a cognitive (brain) break.

In many ways, Einstein enjoyed a huge advantage over modern-day brainiacs, as a lack of technology meant he avoided brain overload – that surplus of information created by our obsession with constant connectivity that ends up swamping our brains with data and leaving us in a vegetative state.  You know the feeling you get when you have info overload and you end up just staring at the wall?

Research from The Brain Foundation, Australia's largest independent brain and spinal injury research body, gives strength to Einstein's old-world approach. It recommends a healthy diet, regular exercise, sleep, rest and challenges (stimulation) as key ingredients to a healthy and flourishing brain.

Senses working overtime

My job puts me in contact with tens of thousands of employees from a range of different industries every single year. And what I can emphatically tell you is the average employee is overloaded (too much to do and not enough time to do it in), fatigued (tired due to minimal recovery and not managing stress effectively) and distracted (pulled in every direction from sunrise to sunset).

The team I work with approaches this by building extra capacity through saving time (working smarter), improving energy (physical activity, nutrition, stress management) and sharpening attention (minimising distractions and training mindfulness). All of which put you in a much better position to access your brain and use it how it was originally designed: to think, create, innovate, implement and decide.

I'm not saying to write off brain training altogether. What I am saying, however, is to not rush off and download the latest program onto your device thinking brain training is the magic pill for cognitive performance and memory. Most of you don't need another software program to improve brain function - start by making sure you follow all of the lifestyle basics to ensure your brain is in the best possible condition to perform.

Start by stripping back and building capacity (time, energy, attention) before filling your brain with anything else. Otherwise, jumping straight into the brain training is like pouring water into an already full glass.

Five lifestyle tips for a high-performing brain

1. Quality sleep improves memory and is crucial for storing information in the brain. During sleep, brain regions such as the hippocampus and the neocortex are literally at the same wavelength, resulting in better connectivity between the two allowing new experiences made throughout the day to be integrated into our existing knowledge and stored as long-term memory.

2. Regular breaks during the working day allows the brain to temporarily pull back and unconsciously integrate new information with existing knowledge. This helps to make novel connections and to come up with new ideas.

3. Cardiovascular training prevents cognitive decline as we get older by ensuring the survival of existing neurons as well as enhancing the growth of new neurons and synapses in the brain.

4. Drinking water throughout the working day ensures good cognition such as enhanced working memory, which is absolutely crucial for problem solving or planning.

5. Eliminating constant multi-tasking results in finishing projects quicker and making fewer mistakes. Structuring periods where you focus on one task increases cognition and uses less energy.  

As I write this blog we are completing a High Performance Thinking program with senior leaders at a large accounting firm. The program focuses on building capacity (time, energy and attention) through training the body and calming the mind, then we are going to see how much more efficiently their brains respond. I'll report on the results in a month's time.

What are your tips to improving brain performance?

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