Brain Training

Brain training, is it a fad or is it sticking around?

One thing is for sure, it’s getting a lot of airtime right now.

Just as our world becomes more focused on physical fitness, it makes sense that we are all interested in making the most of our brains. We’d all love a no-fuss way to double our brains’ capacities, but when you look at the science of neuroplasticity, it’s not such an easy task.

We talked to Dr Nicola Gates, a Clinical Neuropsychologist to understand more about brain training.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

“Fundamentally, our lifestyles can have a significant bearing on whether, and for how long, we spend the later years of our life disabled or living fully,”1 says Dr Gates.

“Our brains are significantly influenced by the health of the body and the experiences we have.”

1. It’s called ‘training’ for a reason

To expect your memory skills or attention span to quickly increase with no work is wishful thinking. This is why it’s good to think about brain training on a similar level to a physical workout – you can’t expect to be running a marathon without putting in the hard yards.

“To stimulate brain change (positive neuroplasticity), the brain and cognitive change (two distinct concepts: one is structural and one is functional) would take significant amount of stimulation, novel stimulation,” says Dr Gates.


“You need to get to a threshold point of regular challenging stimulating novel activities to induce any form of structural and cognitive change. And it takes a considerable amount of time and intensity.”


2. There are differing degrees of brain change

The fact is that you may have done some form of brain training today, but it probably isn’t the high-level skill you’re hoping for.

“Think of a new fact you’ve heard – perhaps that there are now eight continents. You did not know that fact and now that you’ve remembered it, it would imply that you’ve changed your brain. Change and training is all on a continuum,” says Dr Gates.

“When you learnt to drive, you changed your brain. When you acquired a skill you changed your brain. Your brain didn’t have that in there beforehand and now you’ve got it.”


3. Brain health is essential for brain training


“I have a big-picture view to brain health and the thing about cognitive training, brain training etc. none of it happens in a vacuum,” says Dr Gates.

“If people are going to ‘train their brain’, it doesn’t make sense to have a bottle of wine at night. It doesn’t make sense to have an untreated mental illness. It doesn’t make sense to avoid exercise. It doesn’t make sense to be eating unhealthily. All of these things are associated with reduced brain and cognitive reserve."

"There’s no point doing one thing to boost your brain in one part of your life and blocking it off in the others.”

4. You can’t have brain health without complete health

Dr Gates’ research has made clear that brain health can contribute to the risks around chronic disease. “Our brains are significantly influenced by the health of the body and the experiences we have,” she says. “There are four key steps to achieve optimal brain function and reduce clinical dementia. We need to:

* boost brain health (through diet, gut health, heart and more)
* build brain reserve (through exercise, mental activity and social connectivity)
* reduce brain burden (including stress and depression; and
* develop a wise mind (a satisfying life and positive ‘mindstyle’)

By taking care of our brain we also care for our body and mind, and ultimately flourish.”2

1 Gates, N. (2016) A Brain For Life. Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers
Gates, N. (2016) A Brain For Life. Sydney: Harper Collins Publishers.

Brain Training 

If you have a high intellectually demanding job, you probably need down time, which will boost your brain.

But, if you spent your day in a process job, and you can do it with only 10 percent of your brainpower, you’d be advised to do something really demanding on the train, like learning Latin. It really needs to be an individual life whole of life approach,” says Dr Gates.

“We know that it’s really good to engage your brain and it reduces your dementia risk, but we also understand that constant engagement can have the opposite effect. So mindfulness, relaxation, meditation and those quiet-down times are actually really important,” says Dr Gates.

The main thing is to be patient and kind to yourself.

“In this journey towards optimal brain health we need to start with a positive mindstyle, one of self-compassion and kindness. There is no scorecard to measure your lifestyle against, no pass or fail, so no self-recriminations are necessary.”


Dr Nicola Gates

Dr Nicola Gates is a registered Clinical Neuropsychologist.

Dr Gates is an internationally recognised researcher with multiple peer reviewed publications and has been involved in interviews and talks in the general media including Studio 10, The Project and on the ABC.


Author of A Brain For Life and Speaker and Director of Brain and Mind Psychology, Dr Nicola Gates has over 20 years experience working with adults to promote optimal health for the brain.



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