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Why Mental Capital and Cognitive Enhancement Matter FAQs On Improving Brain Health and More

Copyright (c) 2011 SharpBrains

A few days ago I was interviewed online by dozens of readers, in a fun Q&A on lifelong cognitive fitness, "mental capitalism", and more. Here is the full transcript (lightly edited) for you to enjoy the conversation.

Rick Moody: Welcome to everyone from Rick Moody

AlvaroF: Please ask your questions! We had a fun session with Dr. Gary Small last time, and look forward to another good session today.

Steve: What are the products that you have reviewed, and what are their differences?

AlvaroF: Good question, but we need to start before products. The question is, what type of interventions produce what kind of results? We also track lifestyle options such as aerobic exercise, non-products such as meditation and cognitive therapy, technologies such as biofeedback. So, the starting point that everyone needs to understand how our brains work and what and why we need to enhance. Only then we can make informed decisions about what product, if any, makes sense.

(Editor's Note: I didn't have time to answer the question of what specific products were analyzed. The answer is: twenty one products developed by Nintendo, Learning Enhancement Corporation, Vivity Labs, Scientific Brain Training, Lumos Labs, CogniFit, Dakim, Posit Science, Cogmed, Houghton Mifflin,Scientific Learning, Applied Cognitive Engineering, NovaVision, HeartMath, Wild Divine, InterCure, Helicor.)

Rick Moody: I think this question is the big one, the one from consumers. It's of great importance: how to give guidance to consumers?

AlvaroF: key is to engage and interest consumers in the fact that we all have brains and cognitions that deserve our attention. How to enhance then, how to maintain them…in the same way we take care of our bodies and even of our cars. Then, once consumers and engaged, they need to learn about what is possible and what not, and what tools are becoming available and how to best use them. The field is not about "magic pills" or general solutions, but options in our mental fitness toolkit. Interventions and products can "work" but we need to have realistic expectations about what "works" means

Peter Whitehouse: Please address the issue of generalizability of improvements from "programs" into daily life.

AlvaroF: Great question, Peter. The ultimate objective in my view is not to generalize but to transfer to real life outcomes. That's why the questions needs to be, what life outcomes do I need to improve on, and then work backwards to figure out what intervention/s may make more sense.

Nasrin Lakhani: Are there any studies on brain function improvement with biofeedback intervention.

AlvaroF: Let me link this to Peter's previous question. Biofeedback-based training may not "generalize" to overall intelligence, but certainly it can help to learn how to recognize and regulate stress and emotions better, which is a critical outcome in itself.

Kate: How soon should we start trying to maintain our brain health, and is it ever too late to try?

AlvaroF: Never too early, and never too late. The UK government run a major research project a few years ago and main takeaway was that everyone should invest in their own Mental Capital as early as possible. Because the objective here is not only the delay of disease/problems, but the enhancement of our wellness and productivity as citizens. Now, different age groups will of course have different priorities. Educational, workforce, driving safety, health-related…what we are talking about is a new framework and toolkit to enhance targeted capacities through life.

Peter Whitehouse: We need a new form of mental capitalism I guess.

AlvaroF: We are all mental capitalists.

Rick Moody: Here's another thought. Can we begin to identify the typical pitfalls and mistakes that consumers make when they approach brain fitness products?

AlvaroF: Main problems: consumers buy what they don't need, and don't buy what they need. But we're not even talking "brain fitness", we're talking supplements, books, classes, tapes… Information is power, and I think most people, not all, would benefit from first of all understanding the basics of cognition, and second what are some key pillars to enhance cognition, and third how can we use specific tools for specific purposes. Let me provide an example. One key ingredient for good mental exercise is: Challenge. It probably makes little sense for young minds to play more videogames, and older minds to play more crossword puzzles. The level of Challenge would be very limited, because they're already very familiar with those. But what if kids start doing crossword puzzles and older adults master new videogames?

Peter Whitehouse: How about schools and universities etc.? They seem to be in the brain health business.

AlvaroF: Couldn't agree more! it is clear that education level is one of the main ingredients in building a protective cognitive reserve. Now, what they could be doing better to be full "brain health" providers would be to incorporate other aspects and tools, and eventually even assessments to pinpoint an individidual's needs and best course of action.

Anna G.: Aren't there ways of increasing brain health that are not products (i.e., fitness, self learning, nutrition, etc.) that are just as effective?

AlvaroF: Yes, we jumped into the product discussion too early. In the book we start with a much more comprehensive discussion of main lifestyle factors, and of "nonproduct" brain training techniques such as meditation. Now, products also play a role. And a key takeaway is that most interventions do NOT substitute each other, but they AUGMENT each other.

Peter Whitehouse: Where do we spend out money individually and socially for best value?

AlvaroF: BIG question.…as an overall theme I'd say, Spend more time and money on noninvasive interventions that build capacity. The starting point in all this is that day after day we see how malleable core mental abilities such as attention, working memory, self-regulation, processing…are. So, let's all be mental capitalists by investing in our capacities. This framework is different, but complements, the standard medical model based on diseases.

Anand Deoskar: I think a really interesting question is what stimulates individuals to think? What is the key motivating factor for each individual to apply their brains to speak up, to challenge themselves..

AlvaroF: Great question. Last year Marian Diamond opened our annual virtual conference. After the conference we had lunch and I asked her, what do you think is the most important personal characteristic you'd like everyone to have? Her answer: curiosity. Curiosity will drive us to learn, and master new realities, and thinking come handy then.

Nasrin Lakhani: How would you finish the phrase "Investing in our mental capacities causes/enables.….….…"

AlvaroF: …enhanced wellness, control of one's destinies, and longer productive lives. It also helps protect against decline by delaying it (not preventing it).

Guest: Alvaro, Have you had any communication with insurance companies to see if they intend to pay wellness dollars for people to take brain health and wellness courses? They frequently pay for gym memberships for physical fitness — are they getting active in mental fitness?

AlvaroF: Yes, and no. Insurance companies now see this mainly as a marketing opportunity — if more consumers show they care about this, the insurers will follow. A few of them are doing their own trials to see if they'd like to offer products for free or reimburse them, but it is still in the very early stages. The key is that consumers keep driving interest otherwise, insurers say they have a trillion other important things to do. The same goes for payers and providers: consumer interest can motivate them to take action, and that would help enhance the rationality and maturity of the field.

Gerard Finnemore: Another issue is that the medical profession (often in the role of gatekeepers) tend to be skeptical about cognitive training/enhancement. Usually, this is due to ignorance.

AlvaroF: Well, yes and no. Sure, there's much ignorance about cognition (please ask your doctor to define what "working memory" is), but also they play an important role to protect from the usual non­sense consumers are exposed to.

Rick Moody: This is one step in a long journey...Bye to all

About Author Alvaro Fernandez :

Alvaro Fernandez is the Co-Author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, recently featured as one of the Best Books on Brain Fitness. <a href="" target="_blank"></a> is a leading clearinghouse website tracking the latest information on cognitive training, cognitive health and brain fitness, combined with brain teasers and games to test your brain.

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Article Added on Saturday, July 21, 2012
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