Brain training

Business systems may once have been designed for the Industrial Age. But, in the Information or New Media Age, star performers are paid to think, says Linda Ray, co-founder of the Neuresource Group, a business that builds “brain friendly organisations”.

In short, it focuses on teaching business leaders “attentional intelligence”.

“We all suffer from bright shiny object syndrome because our brain is wired for novelty,” says Ray, who has a postgraduate degree in neuroscience and leadership. “Our question is how do we become the boss of our attention.”

According to Ray, attentional intelligence is an important part of brain training that supports leaders to build new neural connections, reduce stress levels and bring their attention easily back to what matters.

“One of the revolutionary insights to come out of neuroscience research over the last decade is that of neuroplasticity. We now know that the brain has the ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections, something that continues throughout life.”

While the Neuresource Group, that has offices in Brisbane and Perth, is one organisation supporting companies and corporate individuals to become “high performing”, an increasing range of “brain training” programs and apps are available to those who want to sharpen their cognitive abilities or that of their staff.

According to SharpBrains, an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience, the digital brain health market is currently worth more than $1 billion and, by 2020, is forecasted to reach $6 billion.

It says staying mentally sharp outrates social security and physical health in adults over 50 as the top concern and predicts that employers will increasingly use digital tools to enhance mental performance and wellness in employees, addressing the causes of productivity loss in the workplace.

Robert Wood, a Professor of Psychology Melbourne Business School and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, has worked extensively with companies globally including Dubai Ports World, Saudi Aramco, Dow Chemical, Westpac, Santos, NSW Police, Qantas and ANZ in the development, implementation and evaluation of training programs for senior executives and other leaders.

Some of these companies took part in an Accelerated Learning Laboratory focused on the development and applications of flexible expertise in leadership roles, he says. The result: “They showed significant improvements in strategic thinking and leadership skills.”

This led Wood and colleague Dr Damian Birney, also a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, to help the ABC develop Active Memory, a personalised, scientifically-structured brain training app that exercises memory, flexibility, attention and knowledge.

“Even small improvements in these cognitive functions can potentially have a significant impact,” says Wood while Melissa Firth, Acting General Manager of Digital Business Development, ABC Commercial, says Active Memory has drawn considerable interest from businesses running wellbeing programs for their staff.

Other current major players in the brain training program/app field include:

lumosity.com, that claims to collaborate with researchers from 36 universities worldwide and offers games that incorporate neuropsychological tasks.

www.BrainMetrix.com, billed as an educational website that encourages brain fitness, tells users: “Here you stretch and train your brain to the limit, train and test your memory, or test your reflexes.

www.BrainHQ.com is a brain training system “built and tested by an international team of more than 100 top neuroscientists and other brain experts” with exercises that are "scientifically designed" -“more than 70 published papers (and counting) show real benefits from using them” – that can be personalised.

At www.mybrainsolutions.com, more “scientifically designed exercises target attention, memory, flexibility, stress reduction and positivity”, developed with “a research network of 350-plus scientists”.

While those who are expected to be mentally sharp 24/7 may well be lured by such promises, there has been robust debate within the scientific community about some of the claims brain training programs and apps make.

This year The Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to share their views about brain games and offer a consensus report to the public.

They found claims promoting brain games were frequently exaggerated but also believed that cognitive training produces “statistically significant improvement in practiced skills that sometimes extends to improvement on other cognitive tasks administered in the lab”.

As findings have accumulated, however, compelling evidence of general and enduring positive effects on the way minds and brains age has remained elusive, they said.

However Wood believes: “People who engage in brain training become more confident in their cognitive skills, which contributes to more effective use of knowledge and memory in everyday tasks like recalling conversations, organizing data and adaptive problem solving.

“This may be a placebo effect, but if confidence increases use of working memory and existing knowledge, that may be enough of a benefit in itself.”

Dr Chris Hatherly, National General Manager – Research, of Alzheimer’s Australia, says current research strongly suggests brain training can produce short and medium term improvements – “you can improve your problem solving abilities and building new neuron pathways”. Yet he too says there is much less evidence these specific tasks translate into improvements in real world cognitive abilities.

Nevertheless, Alzheimer’s Australia www.rightdementia.org.au has developed yourbrainmatters.org.au and released its own app Brainiac, a game of skill that uses the international Scrabble dictionary.

So where does that leave the powerbroker who wants to shore up his or her ability to deal with the neurological challenges of business?

Hatherly is quick to point out that those who want to stay ahead of the pack in cognitive abilities would do well to look at lifestyle factors including exercise, a healthy diet and quality sleep.

Meanwhile, over the next three years Active Memory’s researchers will address gaps in research to date on the extent to which brain training can improve conversation recall, mental arithmetic, systematic thinking to adaptive problem solving in one of the largest studies of its kind, funded by the Australian Research Council.

At the same time, some neuroscientists suggest that, before investing time and money in brain games, users consider what economists call opportunity costs: an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, or pursuing a pastime that may well have its own cognitive reward.