There Are Many Important Dimensions to Brain Fitness
Just as physical fitness is about more than the strength of your biceps, brain fitness is much more than just the strength of your memory. To help in the definition of personal performance targets, we need to develop a better vocabulary for describing the full breadth of key brain functions. In fact, understanding this breadth is a critical piece of the brain fitness puzzle.
“Cognition” describes our “thinking” abilities- it’s about processing, coordinating, strategizing
and responding to information. This includes a range of critical brain functions such as the ability to remember, pay attention, and make decisions. While there are many ways to categorize the key areas of cognition, one useful approach is to focus on the following four areas:
1. Recall measures the strength of your memory. It includes the ability to remember specific information (e.g., facts, ideas, experiences, etc.) as well as how to perform tasks (e.g., opening a door, tying your shoes, etc.).
2. Attention measures your ability to focus or concentrate while ignoring distractions and irrelevant information. Attention is a fundamental brain process that enables you to perform a wide range of activities (e.g., driving a car). Many activities require a person to divide attention among many things, while others require a shift of attention quickly from one task to another.
3. Processing Speed measures the time it takes for your brain to process information and/or respond to it. An increase in processing speed can make you feel more alert and better able to react. A decline in processing speed can make you misunderstand what people are saying, or make it difficult to follow instructions.
4. Executive Function measures high-level thinking skills such as planning, making decisions, solving problems, and reasoning. Executive function skills are required for everyday activities such as setting goals, organizing events, and playing games.
Meanwhile, “emotional well-being” describes how you “feel”. Emotional well-being allows you to calmly handle day-to-day challenges, maintain a positive outlook, adapt to change, and understand and care for others. One way to make sense of emotional well-being is to break it into
five key areas:
1. Anxiety is a feeling of fear or apprehension involving physical and/or mental experiences.
Anxiety appears in the form of physical symptoms (e.g., sweating) or as a feeling of
increased nervous energy. Moderate, short-term anxiety is a normal part of life, but it can
cause physical and psychological problems if it’s chronic.
2. Stress is a response to demands or changes in one’s environment. It involves emotional, mental, and physical components that each serve to help meet challenges. Moderate stress can be positive; for example, it enhances alertness and motivation, which increases abilities. On the other hand, longer-term or high levels of stress can weaken emotional, mental, and physical capabilities.
3. Mood can be described as a predisposition, attitude, or state of mind. It can include positive emotions like happiness or enthusiasm for everyday life. It also includes more negative states such as sadness.
4. Emotional Control includes the ability to evaluate your feelings, manage negative emotions, and handle conflict.
5. Emotional Recognition enables you to pinpoint feelings (in yourself and others) and to understand the ways in which your behavior may affect the emotions of others. This skill helps you to connect with others and better engage in social interactions.
The brain fitness movement is still in its early stages. If we want to pursue and achieve truly meaningful improvements in our capabilities over time, we need to adopt a perspective that enables us to understand, discuss, and track the full range of important brain functions.
Part 2 of 3 from Richard Ambrosius, the Vice President of Outreach and Group Programs of NeoCORTA, a brain fitness company that provides consumer-oriented brain fitness assessment and action planning tools. Patrick Brannelly is NeoCORTA’s Chief Executive Officer.