For a quarter-hour or so, a few times a week, Winn Van Brimer’s brain gets a workout. The founder of Little Rock, Arkansas, executive search firm Windmolen Associates sits down at his computer and logs onto Lumosity, a cognitive fitness training site, to puzzle over a series of problems, games and challenges designed to boost his memory, attention, problem solving, flexibility and processing speed.
After six months of his brain training regimen, Van Brimer says his overall scores have risen from ranking in the 46th percentile of people his age to the 97th percentile. “I don’t know how closely I can correlate it to business and business performance,” Van Brimer says. “But I can tell you I have to believe it helps.”
He may be right. Van Brimer says he’s always struggled with one mental skill critical to his work: connecting names with faces. After brain training, he went from 48th percentile to 96th percentile on that skill. “I know this is directly improving my performance both in recruiting and business development,” he says. “Training my brain to remember faces better is a game changer in what I do.”
A lot of others apparently agree. Lumosity has nearly 40 million registered users, and that number has grown 20 to 25 percent every quarter, says Joe Hardy, vice president of research and development at San Francisco-based parent Lumos Labs Inc. “We attribute Lumosity’s growth to its broad appeal and the universality of the program’s benefits,” Hardy says. “Cognitive training offers something for everyone.”
A Growth Market
Cognitive training certainly offers business opportunity. About 30 or so companies provide products and services in the space, estimates Michael Merzenich, co-founder and chief scientific officer of one of them, San Francisco-based Posit Science. Posit Science, which offers the BrainHQ training system, is just the latest cognition-related company that Merzenich, a longtime prominent brain researcher, has founded. He estimates his enterprises have trained approximately 5 million children and adults.
Services with similar offerings for brain fitness enthusiasts include Happy Neuron, CogniFit and Dakim. Until recently, most cognitive training has targeted people with brains compromised by injury, illness or aging. Little study has been done on the general population now embracing cognitive training, and no one has specifically looked at whether it can help business owners.
Entrepreneurs could likely benefit from being smarter. “Owning a business is one of the most cognitively challenging jobs out there,” Hardy notes. “Business owners have to process information quickly, balance projects, switch between tasks, divide their attention among tasks and remember customers' names."
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Cognitive training’s selling point is the ability to make the business owner’s most important organ—his or her brain—faster, more efficient and more effective. And some studies say it works. Hardy cites one peer-reviewed study showing, on average, users experienced more than 10 percent improvement in working memory and more than 20 percent improvement in divided attention after 10 hours of Lumosity brain exercises.
Merzenich says brain training can make you smarter as measured by the most familiar method of quantifying intelligence, IQ tests. “I can drive an improvement that may be 10 or 15 IQ points in flexible intelligence,” he says.
Hardy adds that studies have found that working memory is correlated with high job performance. Prefrontal cognitive ability has been tied to performance ratings managers received from supervisors. “The prefrontal cortex supports cognitive functions such as working memory, executive function, focus and reaction time, which are all abilities that can be trained,” he says.
The key question about brain exercises is whether doing them makes you smarter, or just better at doing the exercises. Some studies suggest cognitive training provides only a modest boost to regular daily cognitive activities.
Merzenich, however, says that brain training does translate into real-world skills. “If I can, in the same amount of time, think my way through 20 alternative ways to solve a problem when I might have gotten through only 10 before, I absolutely am more intelligent,” he says. “There’s no question we can move the meter.”
Brain training doesn’t, however, impart knowledge. A brain gym rat might be able to learn more faster, but doing cognitive exercises can’t substitute for subject matter instruction. Brain improvement may also be limited by a previous injury or illness. Merzenich says as many as 30 percent of workers in a typical company have some sort of prior brain damage that affects cognition. For these people, training is about bringing them up to normal, he says.
On the flip side, brain training may not help you much if you’re already near the top of your game. Van Brimer, for instance, is a math major who scored in the 94th percentile the first time he tried the Lumosity problem-solving exercises, which are often math-related. After six months, he’s gotten up to the 98th percentile, but further improvement is clearly going to be limited.
Training also costs money and time. Posit Science charges $14 a month or $96 a year for its BrainHQ program. Lumosity gets $15 a month or $80 for a year’s membership. Training is most effective if engaged in for a minimum of 10 or 15 minutes at a time, preferably three or more days in a row, Merzenich says.
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Brain training is safe, with no negative effects appearing in the many studies conducted so far. It’s also convenient, with programs accessible from any Internet-connected computer. Lumosity even has a smartphone app for smartening up on the go. And it lasts. Merzenich says studies have shown people who take training still show benefits years after they stop working at it.
Required initial investment is low. Most brain gyms offer free trial memberships. Merzenich says before trying one out, it’s a good idea to check for scientific validation, including the presence of scientific advisors and university-based researchers.
Van Brimer would like brain trainers to offer more and different exercises. He thinks this would limit the effect of just becoming better at playing the games. But meanwhile, he plans to keep doing it, and perhaps encourage his employees to take it up.
Hardy expects brain training to become a workplace benefit as common as company-paid gym memberships are today. Merzenich agrees. “This is a train that really hasn’t gotten out of the station,” he says. “But when it happens, you’re going to see it spread very rapidly.”
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