Is Your Brain A Muscle?

August 16, 2011 by Geoff Nixon

Can The Brain Improve With Exercise?

A recent New York magazine story published by Pro Bronson and Ashley Merryman  detailed an experiment where a teacher was able to impact math scores by having children read out loud a scientific paper on how the brain is a muscle that will respond to exercise.   The knowledge of this opportunity encouraged students to work harder and a new improved trend was established.

In another world, far away, in the world of neuroscience, the idea that the brain is like a muscle has received an enormous amount of attention since the famous ferret experiment in 2000 that proved that the brain is basically tissue — like muscle — that can be called to action for any purpose.   This is brain plasticity.

The obvious implication is that brain is like a muscle — new tissue is available for a specific task if that task is exercised correctly.  It is known for instance that violinists have much more brain activity related to movement of their fret-board fingering hand — the accuracy and speed required for this exacting task is met by the brain devoting more resources to developing skills beyond what is needed for normal function.

The Opportunity Of Brain “Muscle”

IQ is not strictly  “fixed” — a majority of children will  see their IQ scores change by more than 15 points, 2-3 times in their lives. For most children, these changes are somewhat random, based on good teachers, maturity patterns, environmental factors, etc.

But for a growing group of families, who have researched brain training programs, and are constantly aware of the cognitive impacts (good and bad) of their child’s activities — e.g., generally musical instruments are good, video games are bad —  the opportunity to impact the way a child learns through brain exercise is very real.

Brain Fitness Programs

Consequently, brain fitness is one of the fastest growing areas in educational programs for children and adults.

Any improvement in cognitive skill will translate into changes in IQ scores, since it impacts processing speed, working memory, attention and other skills that directing improve test taking and therefore IQ scores.

In fact, some school districts use an IQ measure to track the impact of Fast ForWord, the brain training software we provide to families at home.  The changes in IQ have been quite dramatic in many cases, as seen in this brain research on Fast ForWord.  And yet, Fast ForWord, launched 14 years ago, remains one of only a handful of programs or software that exploit this opportunity to train the brain.

As we stand today, the main difference between the brain and body muscle, is not how it responds to exercise, but rather how much we know about the kinds of exercises that will be effective.  Brain function is integrated and so deliberate changes are challenging to generate.  Body muscle is separated and the path to increased speed, strength or skill is more clear cut.

Arguably however, the gains from brain fitness exercises, while more elusive, are more profound — cognitive gains change lives — and so we expect of the next 1-2 decades a sharp escalation in brain fitness programs.

  • Jessica Duffy

    Teachers are given a responsibility far greater than they know. The “new ” math is exercise for the brain. Parents and teachers, administrators and people without children need to be aware that – cognitive gains change lives.