How to find a good brain fitness program

Image courtesy of HAAKON BIRKELAND

Brain games or brain training

Brain fitness is a growth industry. And along with any growth industry comes the good oil, and the snake oil.

These days, many electronic and computer games use brain principles in their interface, as this provides a useful way to make things challenging.

For example, we’ve already talked about how The Moron Test uses some basic brain limitations as part of making the game challenging.

But The Moron Test, and most others, are designed to entertain, not to improve brain fitness.

Those that do make brain fitness claims, electronic or not, must factor in some important brain considerations, and it’s these considerations, and the programs that claim to deliver, that we’ll have a bit of a look at in coming posts. So let’s start with a cocktail, shall we?

Cocktail Parties

Attention is how we focus on things that are important or, at least, perceived as important. You may have come across what’s been called the Cocktail Party phenomenon.

Imagine that you are a guest at a cocktail party and all around you is the general hubbub of cocktail party conversation. It’s a background buzz that you’re kind of aware of, but which doesn’t interfere too much with what you’re doing. You manage to hold a conversation with someone and filter out what’s going on around you.

Until someone mentions your name

Then, senses on high alert, you cock your ear to the source, and turn your eyes to focus on where it came from, searching for more information. Now, all of your attention is being directed to this new, enormously important (it’s your name, after all) stimulus.

What you’ve just done is shown how attuned the brain really is to what’s going on, and how well it filters what is, often, extraneous information. In the first instance, and without conscious control, you orient to the noise. It’s novel, and important, and stood out against the general background noise.

Then, you turn the full power of your visual system to see what happened, and where it came from. (Note: the brain space devoted to vision is, by contrast with our other senses, truly massive.)

You’re searching for information. Maybe you find some more and follow it up. Maybe you don’t, and you return to your conversation. All the while, your brain was busy filtering. While you were looking for the source of your name, you  didn’t feel your shoes on your feet, or hear the car driving past, because your attention was directed to the noise.

Paying attention has a cost

It’s not called ‘paying’ for nothing.

It’s helpful to understand that attention is a limited resource. Let’s say we could measure it and discovered that you have 100 units of attention, whatever those units are.

In practical terms this means that, at any one time, you can devote all of that attention to one thing, or spread it across a number of things. In short, when you spread it, you don’t get 100 units per thing, but 100 units across all things. (Lurking underneath here are conversations for another time about multitasking vs focus…)

At the party, let’s say, you’re concentrating (paying) 100 units on the conversation you’re involved in. The moment you hear your name elsewhere, all of that attention is diverted to the new thing, and the conversation disappears into the background.

Many things you do don’t take much attention because they happen automatically and without too much conscious awareness, and so not much of your 100 attention units is required. These are things that you’re extremely skilled or practised at, or which are very simple. In many cases, the brain does them by itself, without permission from you. Fine.

But understand this

Attention is a crucial, crucial function, and we’re way, waaaaay better at selective attention than anything else.

It’s the front door of memory, because we remember only what we pay attention to. If our attention isn’t selective, we’re more easily distracted, and will remember less. Which is a pivotal component in developing brain fitness.

Consequently, it’s a function well worth sharpening. And even though attention comes in more than one flavor, we require repeated, focused attention to improve any attention function. In other words, practice!

Sharpening attention

Real life requires us to use attention in different ways, such as

  1. Selective attention – focusing on one thing (attending to one thing while ignoring others)
  2. Sustained attention – continuing to focus on one thing (paying attention in class and not falling asleep)
  3. Divided attention – focusing on more than one thing at a time (driving while on the cell phone)
  4. Alternating attention – focusing on two things alternately. One, then the other, then the first, etc. Like reading a recipe then completing the next step, then back to the recipe, and so on.

Product promises

I guess this is the pointy end of brain fitness sales talk. Attention is a key function to improve and, with it, we notice some real life benefits.

Improving the ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time, in divided attention tasks, and to alternate attention quickly, helps us in some practical ways.

Driving, for example, requires us to do both. You might need to watch the cyclist on your left and also attend to the indicator of the car on your right, while being aware of your following distance behind the car in front.

You might then look back and forth between a car approaching, and the cyclist, while you endeavour to change lanes.

Naturally, there are benefits in safe driving and, if you’re older, in keeping the ability to drive, for longer.

In other areas, attention training should help improve general productivity, as we find ourselves more able to concentrate for longer periods with better focus.

If it’s memory training you’re after, attention training should be a key component of the package. As we said before, you remember what you pay attention to. And nothing will come without practice. As yet, although there are some fascinating possibilities for making this really easy, there is no magic bullet.

Alongside this ought to go some common memory techniques that make it easier to remember the things you want. We’ll talk more about this soon.

So here’s the take home bit

Any product, program or advice on brain fitness, needs to include attention as a fundamental element. There are others, too, and we’ll come to those but, for now, this is a great place to begin.

Without attention there is no memory, nor is there deep thinking, and there is no effortful use of your brain’s circuits. Without use, there is no growth, and no gain.

Attention and practice. Make sure any program you’re investigating has them, and can show you them.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Selective attention, Sustained attention, Divided attention, Alternating attention

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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