Cross-training your brain

Those who play role-playing games know the importance of stats. You need to pump up your Strength if you want to wield massive swords. You need a high Intelligence score if you want to really make it rain. In a lot of these games (the Dark Souls series comes to mind, but also one of the best games to have ever come out on the Sega Genesis), you improve one stat at a time, and maybe another stat if you can afford it because of all the grinding. Story of your life, right? Not so fast, casuals (even though ‘casual’ is kind of an insult in gaming circles). Stat-boosting in real life isn’t so cut-and-dried: increasing a stat could increase others. Get jacked in the gym to increase your STR? Guess what – you’ve likely also increased your CON, and maybe your CHA indicative of your improved confidence and body image.

According to this week’s Featured Article, it may even increase your INT and probably your WIS. Something to think about?

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Public Domain (Author: cristofer angello caballero thorne, 2015)

Brain-training may be one of the hotter self-improvement things that come to mind (nnnngh…sorry), although some studies cast doubt on its effectiveness. Perhaps there’s something missing – some have even recommended transcranial direct-effect stimulation, or tDCS. According to some blog that I ran into some time ago, it appears to work and may even help those with brain injuries. However, some may not opt to have electrodes and live current shot through their brains (not any more than is already there), so perhaps there’s other ways to help your learning. Talked about quite a few studies in which an exercise regimen seems to improve on the results of cognitive training. Like these previous studies, it’s not like Ward et al. were going to subject their volunteers (N = 318) to physically and cognitively demanding exercises, like modern existentialist burpees. They also wanted to see if tDCS would provide any improvements over and above exercises.

The volunteers were divided into three conditions:

  • Games – cognitive training only, playing 6 computer games that targeted things like executive function and working memory
  • Exercise and Games (EG) – cognitive training and exercises like cardio, battle ropes, kettlebells; also used sham electrodes to act as a control (a placebo, really), should be noted they did not do exercises at the same time as the training
  • Exercise, Stimulation, and Games (ESG) – same as the EG group except the electrodes have a higher current to where they actually work; important to note that they didn’t do exercises and get electrodes at the same time, and they didn’t get either at the same time as the cognitive training
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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain (Author: Filippo Fantolini, 2013)

Like the previous studies, exercise appears to increase performance in five of the six cognitive games, although the authors did mention that the reasons “are not fully understood.” There may be some hypotheses behind it, such as more neurons forming as a result of exercise, especially in the hippocampus, which helps process long-term memory (that’s learning, baby!), among other things. The subjects under the ESG condition – these are the ones who had the working electrodes – did better in two of the six games.

The takeaway (from my point of view anyway) is that yes, hooking up electrodes to your brain can improve your learning. There are no small number of studies that have shown this. Think about it (heh) though: how many people, especially in the near future, will have access to safe tDCS methods? Different government entities have different standards of safety, keep it in mind (heh, again). What about affordable methods? We need to learn better now – wait a minute! You’ve got running shoes, don’t you? A jump rope? Kettlebells? A gym membership? A martial arts class? Why wait for electrodes – we’ve got a good learning booster, right here, right now, my good casuals! (yet another reason why recess must not die)

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Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain, Environmental Protection Agency/National Archives and Records Administration (Author: Jack Corn, 1974, uploaded 2011)

And now, we move to increase our stats…

Featured Article: Ward N, Paul E, Watson P, Cooke GE, Hillman CH, Cohen NJ, Kramer AF, Barbey AK (2017). Enhanced Learning through Multimodal Training: Evidence from a Comprehensive Cognitive, Physical Fitness, and Neuroscience Intervention. Scientific Reports 7:5808. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-06237-5.

Featured Image: Public Domain (Author: profivideos, 2015)

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