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Exercise Your Brain in the Cognitive Age: Reflections on the Brain Games Market

Copyright (c) 2008 SharpBrains

In the past few days, The New York Times has published two excellent articles on brain and cognitive fitness. Despite appearing in separate sections (technology and editorial), the two have more in common than immediately meets the eye. Both raise key questions that politicians, health policy makers, business leaders, educators and consumers should pay attention to.

1) First, Exercise Your Brain, or Else You'll ... Uh ..., by Katie Hafner (5/3/08). Some quotes:

- "At the same time, boomers are seizing on a mounting body of evidence that suggests that brains contain more plasticity than previously thought, and many people are taking matters into their own hands, doing brain fitness exercises with the same intensity with which they attack a treadmill."

- "Alvaro Fernandez, whose brain fitness and consulting company, SharpBrains, has a Web site focused on brain fitness research. He estimates that in 2007 the market in the United States for so-called neurosoftware was $225 million."

- "Mr. Fernandez pointed out that compared with, say, the physical fitness industry, which brings in $16 billion a year in health club memberships alone, the brain fitness software industry is still in its infancy. Yet it is growing at a 50 percent annual rate, he said, and he expects it to reach $2 billion by 2015."

- "Boomers believe they have ample reason to worry. There is no definitive laboratory test to detect Alzheimer's disease".

Comments: I enjoyed the conversations I had with the NYT reporter, Katie Hafner. The main 3 points I wanted to convey were, and are:

a) The brain fitness software programs mentioned in the article (and others) are no more than "tools" to exercise certain brain functions. None of the products on the market today offer an overall brain health solution. Some programs are helpful at training specific cognitive skills that tend to decline with age, others improve attention or decision making skills, and still others help assess cognitive functions. If health, education and corporate executives as well as consumers become more familiar with the progress that cognitive science has made over the last 10-20 years, they will be able to make informed decisions about which, if any, tools, may help. This is what "smart people" do: adapt to new environments and use new tools appropriately - without falling prey either to manufacturers' inflated/ confusing claims, or negating the value of those tools as a general principle.

b) Many times, baby boomers worried about their memory tend to blame Alzheimer's disease. This reaction causes stress and anxiety, which in turn harms the brain structurally (by reducing neurogenesis - the creation of new neurons) and functionally (by reducing working memory and decision-making abilities). Hence, stress management or emotional self-regulation, is often a much needed cognitive training intervention.

c) The brain fitness market is growing fast and this trend will continue. This is not just a Nintendo-fueled fad. The article reflects this point best. Part of the market confusion lies in the disconnect between what computerized brain fitness programs can do (the ones with more science behind them than Nintendo Brain Age) and what people seem to want them to do. Computerized programs can be an efficient way to exercise and train specific cognitive skills and improve productivity and daily life. Think of them as similar to the range of equipment in a health club. If you walk into a health club today, you will find machines for abdominal muscles and others for cardio training, biceps, etc. Similarly, there are brain fitness programs to improve auditory processing, others to expand working memory, maintain driving-related skills, etc.

However, what the current brain fitness software programs can't do is to prevent Alzheimer's disease altogether. At most, there is circumstantial evidence that they can (together with, say, learning how to play the piano, taking on a second or third career, or nurturing new stimulating interests) help lower the probability of developing Alzheimer's symptoms. But, again, no specific program has been shown to be better than another from this "anti-Alzheimer's" point of view. The best protection is to lead rich, stimulating lives.

The second excellent article in the New York Times on a related topic was an opinion piece by David Brooks, which provides the perfect context for why cognitive fitness and training deserves more attention than it gets today.

2) David Brooks: The Cognitive Age (5/2/08). Quotes:

-"It's the skills revolution. We're moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information."

-"the most important part of information's journey is the last few inches the space between a person's eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it?"

-"But the cognitive age paradigm emphasizes psychology, culture and pedagogy the specific processes that foster learning."

Comments: Beautifully said. Yes, we are "moving into a more demanding cognitive age." This is true for the reasons that Brooks aludes to: because of globalization that requires workers to keep their cognitive skills sharp to compete. But, there are other reasons such as current demographic, health and scientific trends. People are living longer which means that they have more opportunities to experience cognitive decline and and will require specific interventions. Huge medical advances over the last 100 years have enabled longevity, improved quality of life overall. But, they have focused more on how to maintain "healthy bodies" than on "healthy brains." Thanks to scientific research, there is now more knowledge on the cognitive effects of a variety of medications and conditions, from attention deficit disorders to chemotherapy and beyond. Our market projections take into account these trends.

In sum, we agree with Brooks: the Cognitive Age is here. And we add: new tools will help us be more healthy and productive.

About the Author

Alvaro Fernandez is the CEO and Co-Founder of SharpBrains.com, which covers the brain training and brain health fields. SharpBrains has been recognized by Scientific American Mind, Newsweek, Forbes. Alvaro holds MA in Education and MBA from Stanford University, and teaches The Science of Brain Health at UC-Berkeley Lifelong Learning Institute. You can learn more at http://www.sharpbrains.com/


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