Brain Training: Practice Keeps You Fit

Regardless of which of the theories holds true, all of them indicate that individual differences cause deviations in outcome. These variations are believed to arise from genetic predisposition, level of education and intelligence (Scarmeas and Stern, 2003 & Stern et al, 2005). Not surprisingly, these variables are all intertwined. Intelligence is, for instance, not only known to be a predictor of level of education but also a heritable trait. Obviously, environmental and personality aspects play an important role and co-determine whether intelligence will come to full expression. Consequently, factors such as socio-economic background, culture, support and motivation cannot be ignored. In addition, to complicate matters even further, intelligence can be subdivided into several components. Therefore many IQ tests are made up of several subtasks that all measure a different form of intelligence. A person that has excellent verbal skills may therefore very well have weak memory capabilities (Stern et al., 2005).

In summary, intelligence is a collection of complex processes that may develop differently in each individual. Keeping our mathematician in mind, we might conclude tentatively that cognitive reserve is restricted to regions that the specific individual is experienced in. This could be compared to the physical representations in the brain. In the picture below two homunculi are displayed. These famous pictures show how much space the brain uses on average for the proper sensory and motor functioning of your body parts. For example, lips are better represented than toes. Thinking of the sensitivity and ability of movement lips possess compared to toes, this distribution is logical. Highly experienced musicians have been found to have increased volume in specific areas of the brain (Kelly and Garavan, 2005). Well-developed cognitive skills may, in the same way, take up more space in the brain than weakly developed skills. The only difference is that cognitive skills are less clearly localized in the brain. However, in many cognitive tasks the prefrontal cortex plays an important and integrative role.

In conclusion, the adult brain is able to reorganize under the influence of practice. Creating optimal cognitive reserves would in that case require repeated practice of all of these skills. The best-trained areas or networks and the accessory skills, should then be best protected against age-related weakening.

The Nintendo brain-training program Brain Age, co-developed by neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, seems to support this idea. The exercises range from reading classical literature out loud to drawing pictures and performing simple mathematical exercises. Kawashima claims that persons with mild cognitive impairments showed less decline while using the game two to five times a week, compared to those who had not performed these exercises. These results sound promising, but it is hard to determine whether they are truly due to the training program. Furthermore, other researchers who also developed brain training programs state that practice needs to be carried out at least daily if positive results are to be seen. In addition, Kelly and Garavan (2005) warn that there may be confounding effects: simply becoming familiar with tasks may increase performance. Also, exercise might train users on aspects of the tasks that have nothing to do with the cognitive skill that was initially aimed for, but still improve the task outcome, for example the motor skills required to perform them.

All things considered, exercising your mind definitely seems to have a positive effect on the cognitive performance of the brain. It is, however, still unclear exactly how beneficial this outcome is. In any case, the exercises should be performed on a very regular basis to experience some benefit and one should take into account that a broad range of cognitive skills have to be practiced in order to obtain an optimal result. Furthermore, practice should take up an as-yet-unknown minimal amount of time per day. Be aware, as with all commercial activities, not all is as straightforward as companies make out. Finally, if puzzling is just not your thing, do not worry. Social relationships have also found to be important contributors in becoming and staying a healthy, happy elderly person. One can only imagine the positive influences that group brain training could have.


Kelly, A.M.C., Garavan, H., (2005). Human functional neuroimaging of brain changes associated with practice. Cerebral Cortex, 15, 1089-1102.

Robertson, I., Murre, J., (1999). Rehabilitation of brain damage: brain plasticity and principles of guided recovery. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 544-575.

Scarmeas, N., Stern, Y., (2003). Cognitive reserve and lifestyle. Journal of Clinical and Neuropsychology, 25, 589-593.

Stern, Y., Habeck, C., Scarmeas, N., Moeller, J., Anderson, K.E., Hilton, H.J., Flynn, J.,Sackeim, H. & van Heertum, R. (2005). Brain networks associated with cognitive reserve in healthy young and old adults. Cerebral Cortex, 15, 394-402



General Information

Kandel, E.R., Schwartz, J.H., & Jessell, T.M. (2000). Principles of Neural Science. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


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