In winning the gold medal in the 200m butterfly in Beijing, Michael Phelps swam 7% faster than Mark Spitz did when he won the same event back in 1972. Phelps would have beaten Spitz by 14 meters. More remarkably, even the slowest swimmer in the 2008 Olympic butterfly final would have beaten Spitz by 5 seconds. This doesn’t diminish Spitz’s achievements. It just shows us how much more we know today about training for peak physical performance than we did in 1972.

In the past few years brain training has begun to establish itself as a field with the same kind of proven practical benefits as physical training. New studies describing improvements in everything from children’s math scores to the prevention of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s show up on a weekly basis. A study from the spring of 2008 even demonstrated that with the right kind of brain exercise leads to an increase in intelligence.

Some recent examples:

• Scottish Study: Computer games boost math scores

Scottish educators had 600 children in 32 schools use a brain game for twenty minutes per day over a ten week period. Compared to children who hadn’t been using the brain game, the students improved their scores on a post test by more than 50%.

• New brain fitness program to fight memory loss

The Alzheimer’s Association of Australia has endorsed brain training as a way to maintain good brain health into later life. In randomized, controlled trials, program participants more than doubled their processing speed and had gains of more than 10 years in standardized measures of memory and attention.

• Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brain Power

In the spring of 2008 university researchers published a study showing that demanding training of the brain’s short-term memory produced increases in fluid intelligence of more than 40% in less than 20 days.

I Use My Brain All The Time, Why Do I Need Brain Training?

Just as a sedentary life won’t keep us in top physical shape, achieving peak mental function needs more than everyday mental exertion. Scientists have found that a program of focused, structured mental exercise stretches and tests our thinking in ways that stimulate the growth of new nerve cells in the brain and a remapping of neural connections. Far from being a fixed gray lump, the brain can grow and restructure itself with dramatic implications. Intensity and novelty are key elements of successful brain exercise. The particular brain training program that’s right for you will depend upon your goals.

Academic Success & Learning

As the study of Scottish schoolchildren demonstrates, supplementing traditional study with brain training can help children get the most out of the time they spend at school, improving academic performance and making them better life-long learners. Teenagers taking standardized tests, or adults applying to graduate school, can now add brain training to their pre-test regimen. And whereas traditional test preparation only helps with the tests being taken, an appropriate brain training program can provide a broad increase in thinking ability that will carry across into the student’s eventual program of study.

When helping children with learning dysfunctions educators increasingly turn to brain exercise as a preferred alternative to accommodations. While an accommodation works around the disability, brain exercise tackles it head-on. By testing and strengthening the area of weakness under conditions that stimulate plasticity, the child can reduce or even eliminate the weakness altogether. (One of the pioneers in this approach, Barbara Arrowsmith Young, founder of the Arrowsmith School, has successfully helped hundreds of children do just that.)

Career Success & Self-Improvement

Many of those engaged in careers that demand creative problem-solving and focused mental activity can use brain training as a way to stay sharp and in peak mental form. Unfortunately, the demands of the workplace tend to produce poor conditions for brain improvement – competing demands for focus and attention, staples of the modern workplace – disrupt the brain’s ability to form memories and stimulate new cell growth. A brain training program that demands complete focus and trains core areas of cognitive function (working-memory, processing speed, and left-brain right-brain interaction) can make us significantly more effective and successful in the workplace.

An interesting outcome of the recent upsurge in brain training technologies has been the finding that brain exercise can lead to improvements in areas that at first seem unrelated – such as musical ability and self-esteem. But when we reflect on the brain’s central role in any and all aspects of thinking (including feeling) this begins to make perfect sense. If we’re already engaged in maximizing our potential through activities such as physical exercise, yoga, reading, therapy, mindfulness meditation, etc. adding a program of mental exercise makes perfect sense.

Life-Long Mental Health & Well-being

The UCSF Memory and Aging Center reports that for each decade past the age of forty-five we lose about 10% of our cognitive capacity. Joe Verghese, M.D. (New England Journal of Medicine, volume=348, issue=25, 2003) found that people can reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms by 64% by adding a brain exercise to their weekly schedule. He also showed that people who engage in brain exercise four times a week have a 47% lower risk of dementia than those who do so just once a week. Senior centers around the country have begun to introduce brain training programs. But clearly if we want to avoid mental decline we should begin to engage in regular mental exercise much sooner, while we’re in our thirties or early forties.

Several recent studies have also connected brain health with mental health. In one, researchers from UT Southwestern Medical Center showed that the effectiveness of anti-depressants can depend upon the growth of new nerves in the part of the brain called the dentate gyrus. Although anti-depressants themselves can stimulate this growth, so too can the training of working-memory. Another study showed that stress, a cause of depression, inhibits brain cell growth. Effective brain training can create a virtuous cycle of brain exercise, challenge, reward, and cell growth that helps combat and reduce the impact of depression.

Author's Bio: 

Oxford-trained scientist, author, and technologist, Martin Walker is a member of The British Neuroscience Association, Learning and The Brain, and MENSA. His company Mind Evolve Software publishes free information on the field of neuroscience and brain training as well as effective and affordable brain fitness software under the brand name Mind Sparke.