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Can you really train your brain? What can we do to sharpen our minds?

Books and video games that claim to stimulate grey matter are little more than useless, according to the experts. So what can we do to sharpen our minds? Don’t run out and buy a Nintendo DS — the best option to keep your brain in shape is physical, not mental. Dan Roberts reports:

So is brain-training just a big fat con, or are there concrete, scientifically proven strategies to improve mental function? According to the authors of a new book, The Rough Guide to Brain Training, there are – as long as you don’t expect miracles. The book is co-written by Tom Stafford, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sheffield, and puzzle maestro Dr Gareth Moore – whose Cambridge PhD in artificial intelligence suggests his brain is working reasonably well. It features 100 workouts, each containing old favourites like Sudoku as well as new puzzles. Regular tests break up the workouts and help you track your progress.

“There are two incontestable facts with brain-training,” says Stafford. “First, humans are amazing at getting better at anything they practice. We’re the learning species – if you want to learn pi to a hundred digits in a weekend, or to memorise a deck of cards or master Ancient Greek, you can. Second, it’s very hard to show that when you practice one thing you get better at another. The problem with all this brain-training stuff is that you might get better at doing puzzles, or remembering number sequences, but no one has found the Holy Grail of brain-training – ‘far transfer’, where you practice one thing and get better at an array of very different things.”

This, according to the sceptics, is the fatal flaw with expensive brain-training gizmos: if you practice doing anything often enough, you will get better at it. This capacity to learn is what makes the human brain so miraculous. But if you gorge on, say crossword puzzles, although you will inevitably become more adept at completing them, there’s no evidence to show that this will make you better at memorising historical dates, or doing long division.

There’s also good evidence to show that the most effective brain-enhancing tools have a physical, social and emotional component. “One study in an old people’s home found that the best tactics to stave off dementia were reading books, playing board games and musical instruments and taking dance lessons. Three of those are physical as well as mental,” says Stafford.

This throws up another key point: the best exercise to keep your brain in tip-top condition is in fact physical, not mental. Kawashima’s claim that a healthy supply of well-oxygenated blood to the brain is crucial for its function is accurate. When starved of oxygen, brain cells, quite literally, die. This is what happens when we suffer a stroke: the blood supply to the brain is stopped and neurons perish because they lack oxygen, resulting in paralysis or aphasia (loss of speech). “I freely admit that a book like this is not the best way to train your brain,” says Stafford. “The best way to do that is through exercise – there’s far better evidence to show that that will help your brain to function well than anything from the brain-training literature.”

Sergio Della Salla, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, adds that our current obsession with quick fixes desires a simple, “magic bullet” solution like the electronic games. In fact, the answer is a multi-faceted one. “Rather than telling people to exercise a lot, have a healthy lifestyle, read books, keep up your sexual stimulation, go to movies, maintain a wide circle of friends with whom you engage in healthy debate, we are told that playing 10 minutes of Nintendo will turn us into Nicole Kidman,” he comments wryly.

Rather dispiritingly, Della Salla – who speaks for pseudo-science busting charity Sense About Science – says that by far the biggest predictor of developing dementia is genetic (“so you should choose your parents wisely”). Maintaining physical fitness and mental sharpness may, at best, offer a slight protection for dementia and delay its onset or severity. “Even if you do everything you can, you might still get Alzheimer’s disease, because diseases hit you sometimes, and diseases like Alzheimer’s are pretty common,” he says.

Rather than seeing brain-training as some miracle cure that increases our intelligence and cognitive functioning then protects these into old age, it’s best to treat it like a gym workout.

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