Cognitive Training – Is Brain Training Effective for Sports, Productivity, and General Performance?

By on September 8, 2020

One of the core ideas I aim to promote on The Bioneer, is that we can and should train every aspect of our performance and health. Losing weight, improving cardio, or lifting heavy weights in constrained movement patterns should not constitute a comprehensive fitness program.

If you want your training to directly benefit your everyday life and even open new opportunities, then simply improving cardio is a limited approach. Likewise, obsessing over the big three lifts will have diminishing returns – especially if you ignore things like rotational strength and hip mobility.

Does Brain Training Work

But for me, the biggest omission is brain training. Why work so hard to improve your body and not pay any attention to brain function? After all, most of us would notice a more direct and profound impact from increasing brain function as compared with strength or endurance. In the digital economy, skills like the ability to focus, to manipulate data, and even to make the right impression on someone all play a huge role in determining success.

The main issue?

Brain training, also called cognitive training, is a somewhat controversial topic.

We now know that due to brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to grow and change shape in response to environmental pressures – it is at least somewhat possible to train the brain. It’s no surprise then, to learn that countless apps, services, and programs have sprung up to try and capitalize on this opportunity: charging large amounts of cash to “strengthen the brain” and “increase intelligence.” Usually, such packages extrapolate wildly from the scientific evidence and charge a lot of cash for results they can’t guarantee to deliver.

Less insidious are helpful suggestions: such as using dual n-back to improve working memory, or exercising to enhance general cognitive performance. There are plenty of studies supporting the notion that dual n-back training can work wonders for your working memory, and that physical fitness directly benefits memory, mood, and focus.

Brain training apps

But even then, there are questions. To what extent can you expect your memory to noticeably improve if you start running? How much running do you need to do? Is there an upper limit as to how much it can benefit you?

More troubling: do exercises like dual n-back improve working memory across the board? Do they have “near transfer” for similar tasks? Or do they only improve working memory for that task and others like it?

In this post, I will seek to answer those questions and provide a prescription for those looking to begin improving their brain function.

The Problem With Brain Training

The big problem with cognitive training research, is that it is a very broad topic and a nebulous concept to measure. How can you tell if a task has truly improved useful brain function, beyond the kind that can be tested in a controlled setting? Called “near transfer?”

How can you tell if that benefit was worth the effort you put in to get there? And how do you structure a “program” around that with progressive overload?

Cognitive Training Effectiveness

So much of cognitive training research centres around the use of computerized tests and games, which makes it difficult to know if those measured effects actually have any use in the “real world.”

For example, the dual n-back test is a challenge that involves holding onto data and manipulating it using working memory. The goal is to look out for repeats in a series of number, but where the conditions become increasingly complex. One study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement (study), found that this could indeed effectively improve working memory. Thus we would hope to see an increase in the individual’s ability to hold information and manipulate it on the fly. This could result in improved decision making, better mental math, and much more. I made a whole video about this, so check that out!

To determine this effect, the study used a number of strategies. These included a test of general fluid intelligence (an IQ test) to which there was no measured benefit; an object n-back task (the same thing but using real-world objects) for which there was a clear benefit; and a “task switching” test, for which there was a less pronounced benefit. The study also used an EEG to measure brain activity, and found increased alpha activity in the frontal regions of the brain. The results were also being compared to another test, called the a “complex span task.”

virtual reality brain training

So, if we break this down, we see that dual n-back was unable to increase IQ scores – which are rife with their own issues to begin with! It’s hard to draw much of a useful conclusion from the EEG findings, and the object n-back test is really just the same test using slightly different objects. You’re still not going to find yourself in many situations all that similar to this in the real world. Task switching is a more interesting result, showing that this could improve serial-tasking in the workplace, thereby allowing a person to switch from one activity to another more effectively and with less of a cost to productivity. But even then: this is measured using a very artificial test that doesn’t really represent anything we’d do in real life.

And keep in mind, that in order for this type of training to be useful, it must also be more beneficial than real-world activities like chess or practicing math! Otherwise, why not simply perform those much more interesting activities?

Specificity

What I find really interesting about this, is that there are some very clear parallels to functional training. Functional training is physical training that provides “real world benefit” either in an athletic context, or in day-to-day life. For example, many people will work on building a huge bench press and lifting 1.5-2x bodyweight. But in reality this is a task you rarely ever need to perform in the real world. If you ever do use pushing strength, it’s unlikely to be lying down without any rotational element. If you haven’t trained your ability to keep your core locked while driving through the shoulders and pecs, then you won’t be able to transfer that power without falling over or hurting yourself. A more useful real-world equivalent might be the standing cable press, which becomes a much more compound movement.

Functional Brain Training

And so it is with brain training. We can improve our “working memory” but if the setting is highly artificial, we might find it doesn’t hold up in a real-world setting.

This is especially true seeing as working memory is, in all likelihood, multi-modal. We tend to talk about working memory in terms of 7+/-2. That is to say, that a person can hold onto 5-9 digits while trying to find a pen to write down a phone number.

But working memory is also responsible for a football player’s ability to remember the relative positions of all their teammates on the field while they run in the other direction. Working memory allows them to predict the trajectory of the ball they saw being kicked before they turned to run. And it’s what will allow them to turn and kick it straight through the opposition without stopping for thought.

Can we really describe this as 7+/-2?

Working memory is likewise what allows you to visualize a scene that you wish to draw in your mind’s eye: or your visuo-spatial scratchpad to use the technical jargon. This is a limited capacity for most of us, until we go to sleep. Suddenly, the brain is capable of conjuring entire worlds for us to explore, with their own rules and physics.

The brain is capable of conjuring entire worlds for us to explore

We do not experience the world in discrete, packages of data that accurately reflect the world around us. Rather, we clutch onto disparate bits of information and then use these to form an impressionistic idea of the world around us. A patchwork creation that is “useful enough” rather than perfectly accurate.

And so, it should come as no surprise that working memory works best in this manner (study). When an athlete uses their working memory, they need to remember not only who is on the pitch, but where they are in 3D space, the speed they are moving, and how that relates to their own speed. The best way to train it then, may in fact be one that puts the individual in a realistic, multisensory, emotionally-charged setting.

This also makes sense in the context of neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert’s belief that the brain evolved for movement. I prefer to describe this as “communicate with the environment.” This is also, of course, why we have bodies! As Wolpert described in his excellent TED talk, we are really Bayesien inference machines: we make predictions based on large amounts of imperfect data coming in from our senses.

The Brain and Movement

It also provides another explanation as to why we see activation in the cerebellum – a brain region primarily responsible for handling proprioception and “body sense” – when engaging in abstract cognitive tasks.

How to Train This Way

So, how might we practically train working memory?

Often, the best place to look when it comes to cutting-edge training, is the world of athletics. This is where a lot of money is spent trying to optimize human performance.

And cognitive training makes a LOT of sense for athletes! After all, the outcome of a game or match is seldom predicated on the objective strength, speed, or endurance of the athletes in question. Here, there is an absolutely tiny amount of difference between any two candidates.

Brain and body training

Instead then, that difference in performance comes down to the way the players perform on the day. It comes down to the decisions they make, their ability to stay focussed, and much more.

So, how might an athlete train their working memory in order to make better decisions in the heat of contest?

One study found that using the Simon Task – an activity that requires participants to make different physical responses to different stimuli – could help improve a lacrosse player’s ability to target the right part of a goal quickly (study).

Another study looked at the use of a 3D-multiple object tracking task to successfully improve the decision-making of football players (study). This is one of the first studies to show a useful transfer effect between non-contextual cognitive training and an actual sporting event. Other studies have also shown that athletes have a generally higher-proficiency when it comes to performance in these tasks (study), stating: professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes.

So while using 3D object tracking tasks might be of some use to athletes, it’s also true that sports themselves are a fantastic form of brain training that the rest of us could benefit from!

Moreover, the best way to support the extremely specific learning process described by the Bayesien inference making model of the brain, is through exposure to that sport. Our brain is a learning engine that refines its ability to make predictions based on exposure to stimuli.

In short, you become better at hitting a ball as it bounces by watching a ball with that precise weight and texture bounce over and over again. Could you gain some benefit from simply watching sports then?

VR Training

Certainly playing computer games might have some benefit for real-world decision making. One study found that 3D action computer games could improve decision making speed with no loss in accuracy (study). This should come as no surprise, as computer games require heated decisions based on large amounts of information, all immersed in a 3D space. That said, it’s worth noting that this study was funded by the Entertainment Software Association – demonstrating another issue with researching cognitive training: that there are often a lot of vested interests involved. It’s also worth noting that the decision making gains were once again tested using artificial testing programs.

I personally believe that there is a huge amount of potential benefit for playing computer games at a high level: especially when they make the jump to virtual reality for a truly multi-sensory context. I also believe that “brain training games” should actually learn a thing or two from 3D titles like Devil May Cry or Overwatch. And the military clearly agrees: as they have been using eSports to recruit drone pilots and fill other roles for some time now.

The have been using eSports to recruit drone pilots and fill other roles for some time now.

Whatever the case, many sports coaches are now selling cognitive training as a part of their programs. These protocols often involve running between numbered cones, or carrying out complex sequences of events and responding to commands. Seeing as this type of training immerses the athlete in physical movement while asking them to perform mental tasks, there is a fairly high chance that it could be beneficial.

The ultimate goal – I believe – is to create a form of training that has the complexity and inherent enjoyment of a 3D action computer game, but with a physically demanding and sensory rich context.

Aspects of Cognitive Performance

But of course, most football players are not Albert Einstein. Why don’t we see more nobel-prize winning athletes?

The answer may be related to the more modular descriptions of the brain.

That is to say that this is a different type of intelligence, and one that has little relation to the kind of quick decision-making and reflexes required by most sports. This is not to say that I subscribe to a theory of multiple intelligences where each works entirely independently of the other; but there’s no denying that you can train for specific skills and abilities. Just as someone who goes on lots of long runs is training their “body” but not their strength specifically, so can learning to predict the movements of players on a pitch benefit the “brain” without that transferring over to abstract reasoning and creative problem solving.

Training the Brain

But we can nevertheless take the lessons we’ve learned from looking at this type of training and apply it to other areas. Areas like:

  • Memory
  • Creative problem solving/divergent thinking
  • Focus
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Self-monitoring
  • Emotional hardiness

The key is that this training should be as multi-sensory as possible, and as close to the specific skills and abilities you want to benefit.

We can see an example of this used by Navy SEALS: the hooded box drill. This is a particularly intense mental exercise that involves placing participants in a hood that blocks their sight and hearing, then pulling the hood off in an unexpected combat situation. This is intended to not only desensitize them to fear and shock, but also to train rapid decision making and orientation.

This is a step above most things we consider “brain training.” But it’s not impossible to replicate with, say, virtual reality.

The more multisensory and grounded the activity, the greater the likelihood of seeing real transfer to other skills and situations.

For most of us, this usually means taking up new hobbies and activities that already exist: playing an instrument, reading (especially aloud), rapping, exercising, learning a language…

How to start cognitive training

Keep in mind that the activities you engage in every single day – such as your career – are likely to have the biggest impact on your brain function and may even alter aspects of your personality. CEOs may come across as more alpha and be more intimidating in social settings because they have been trained to believe that’s the case. The “Winner Effect” shows how a history of success – especially in competitive settings – can result in physical changes in the brain that correlate with increased assertiveness and more.

A Prescription

So with all that said, how do you go about training your brain?

Well, dual n-back is a perfectly good start as it will also enhance your focus and concentration. But beyond that, I recommend taking up as many extra-curricular activities as possible that will represent a broad range of different cognitive skills.

Great places to start include:

  • Sports – Team sports, combat sports, sports that involve aim
  • Dance/complex movement
  • Physical exercise
  • Action computer games
  • Music
  • Language learning
  • Meditation
  • Social interaction
  • Rapping
  • Reading aloud
  • Juggling
  • Programming
  • Art

Of course, most people don’t have the time or inclination to adopt all these practices. The key is to start with a few, to find the ones that most apply to your own goals, strengths, and weaknesses. And to adapt your own training protocols using what you have learned here.

Final Thoughts

This post has been rather in-depth and still I have only scratched the surface of how we might effectively tap into the full potential of brain plasticity. You could write an entire book on this, and perhaps I will!

Another issue with measuring the results of brain training, is that it’s hard to distinguish between physical changes within the brain versus the use of learned strategies and skills. Consider that the traditional “limit” of digit storage as 7+/-2 can be overcome with strategies such as “chunking” where groups of numbers are combined into a single, longer number. Or using other mnemonic strategies that I’ll definitely be discussing on this channel in future. Achieving a flow state meanwhile could also be considered a skill as much as a reflection of inherent “focus.”

Flow state

Likewise, whereas some forms of mental exercise see very limited results, others have transfer in areas you wouldn’t expect. For example: practicing mental maths has been shown to improve emotional self-regulation!

And of course, there are countless other aspects of brain training that work in entirely different ways – that don’t strengthen particular areas or network of the brain. For example, the very process of learning new skills will increase plasticity, thus helping you to learn every other necessary skill.

Then there’s nutrition. Or how about the simple fact that you can drive more energy to your brain using cardio and other methods to improve metabolic rate and cardiovascular health.

There are endless ways to improve brain function, and I have a hunch this is going to be a MASSIVE topic in the coming decades.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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