Brain Fitness

Given the explosion of research into brain structure, organization and function, we may expect that, just as its sister "physical fitness", brain fitness, too, will become a full-fledged field of scientific investigation. This is because the concept of brain fitness seems to cut across several major concepts (such as learning, plasticity and environment) in the field of brain research.

Below is a tentative definition for the concept of brain fitness.

"Brain fitness is the ability of the brain to learn what the organism needs to know in order to survive in a changing environment."

It is apt that the concept of brain fitness should have waited for the 21st century to emerge. No other civilization has witnessed greater inter-generational divides and changes so rapid that a significant portion of knowledge learnt by the parents' generation may be outdated for the following generation, creating a need to rapidly assimilate new learning and devise new information processing circuits in the brain for generational updating. As man is transforming his civilization from sectarian to global, from a knowledge-limited society to an ever evolving open-knowledge one, he will need to create environments that produce fitter brains capable of maintaining a life-long ability to learn. Arguing for the possibility of brain fitness implies levels of brain plasticity so significant that brain function can be enhanced or rehabilitated by the manipulation of environmental influences and that these, in turn, will continue to further affect brain plasticity and the ability to learn in a never-ending cycle.

Brain fitness implies that, due to the wonders of brain plasticity, skill learning must inevitably lead to skill mastery. Yet, we know that, despite adequate intelligence, appropriate instruction and sufficient opportunity for practice, some people cannot master the skills they are taught. For example, individuals with dyslexia have difficulty master reading, individuals with dysgraphia writing and those with dyscalculia, arithmetic. In a wonderful tour-de-force many among these individuals show extraordinary compensation ability and, despite impaired reading, writing and arithmetic skills, succeed in achieving goals which require those very skills. They use what is available in the environment to compensate for their brain's inability to master a certain skill. For example, an individual with dyslexia will guide his reading by listening to the oral readings provided by the teachers and parents. His brain learns to process written language in a way profoundly different from that of other reading brains, which can decode letters and sounds on their own. This compensation will take place provided the environment (parents, schools, libraries, publishers) supplies sufficient oral reading materials. Therefore, brain fitness implies, the ability of the brain to rely on more than one learning style and one problem solving strategy. As is made clear by the previous example, the development of those alternative information processing circuits is impossible in the absence of rich environmental input. However, a clear functional goal is also important to achieve brain fitness. To remain with our example of dyslexia, understanding the general meaning conveyed by the written text is the goal, not success in reading the isolated letters and words. In summary, brain fitness is more likely to develop when the environment provides several parallel sources of information, in our example, both the written text and its oral reading. However, although such richer environment are conducive to learning and improve brain structure, organization and function, they are not sufficient. Research on brain plasticity has also taught us that, in order to be successful, learning must confer a survival-oriented behavioral advantage to the learner.

The greatest challenge to the validity of the brain fitness concept is posed by the hopelessness associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Whether all human brains can achieve fitness and continue to learn and develop in order to survive will, in the future, be investigated using the tools of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, education and the social sciences. This research will guide neuroscientists, parents, educators, psychologists, nutritionists, doctors, governments in designing environments that are conducive to the continued development of a fit and well-functioning brain at all ages and for all individuals.