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Science Reveals: This is how you will build yourself a better brain - Part A

why should I perform a neuro-cognitive training now?

One of the most common questions I am being asked about is, “what is a neurocognitive training”? We decided to dedicate the current post to answer that question.

To understand the neuro-cognitive training, you must first understand a few things about the structure and the way the brain works. Therefore, in the first part, we will review eight facts about the brain. These facts are based on an enormous research effort, which is invested in the last decades in understanding this complex organ.

In the second part, we will address the training features, which are based on the most updated brain sciences discoveries.

In the third part, we will discuss the training results and see what can be expected to follow.

Part one - How the brain is structured and how does it work

Eight facts about the brain

1. The neuronal structure of the brain

The human brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It is comprised of a hundred billion nerve cells and the most important of which are called neurons. Each neuron can connect to up to 10,000 other neurons. The connection between the neurons in the brain creates networks of neurons, on which the brain activity is based upon.

These networks act together and incorporate different regions of the brain, to perform various tasks. Thus, we can find the attention networks for instance, which are responsible for our attention functions, the default network (which operates when we are awake and in a resting state) and other networks.

“Teenage boys report a tremendous improvement in their concentration ability, reading fluency, memorization and memory techniques”, Gil Hadash, director of the Nirim Youth Village

To create networks, the neurons communicate with each other by means of electrical currents and different chemicals substances. The quality of the communication between the neurons is dependent on its frequency. The more neurons communicate with each other, the better their communication will become, and the network will grow stronger.

The first to draft a theory about the connection between the joint action of neurons and the strengthening of their connection, was the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb, in 1949. Hebb is defined as the "father" of the theory of neural networks and the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Every experience that a person experiences, Hebb determined, is encoded in the brain by the neuronal networks. Each time this experience or thought is repeated, the connection between these neuronal networks becomes stronger.

In this way, all the activities we perform in our life alters the brain. The more a person will experience more challenging activities and experiences, many connections will be formed in the brain.

2. Repetition = Learning

As we have seen, if we'll constantly repeat an action, we will convey a message to the brain that this is an important activity for us. Current studies reveal that when our brain ‘gets the message’, it acts in several ways to form a brain infrastructure that will assist us:

  1. It increases the number of connections in the network and the number of neurons involved in it

  2. It enhances the sensitivity of the neurons along the path to the signals sent by neurons who are located before them in the chain

  3. It coats the neuronal pathways of the networks in an insulating substance which is called Myelin. The Myelin helps a faster transition of the electrical signals in the brain pathway and strengthens the stability of the network

  4. It sharpens our sensitivity and enhances our ability to anticipate these situations (Anticipation). Professional athletes, for example, learn to identify repeating patterns in a game. They store them in long-term memory and when they perceive the signs of such a pattern that is about to occur, they react to it faster and precede their opponents

“I am more relaxed, able to better identify the players' position and I know to evaluate their reaction while whistling. In addition, I control my thoughts better and cope better with the stress”, Kobi Lehem, soccer referee

This is how every brain learning process works: Every skill that we acquire creates a matching brain path, which is strengthened as we practice it.

3. The regions of the brain must communicate effectively with each other

The brain is divided into different regions, which differ in their physical characteristics and function. In the past, it was thought that each brain region has its own role.

Today, however, we know that the picture is more complexed. Although certain regions are principal to the activation of one skill or another, on the other hand, even the most basic activities performed by a person depend on the cooperation of different regions of the brain, which communicate with each other via the neuron pathways. No brain region works alone and independently from other systems. Here are a few examples:

  • The motor regions, which are responsible for movement, are also involved in the thinking process and decision-making

  • The equilibrium system is responsible for cognitive development and mental health as well. People suffering from an equilibrium problem can, for instance, also develop anxiety problems, which may even progress to psychiatric hospitalization

  • The limbic system, which is responsible for regulating the physiological processes in the body, such as heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure, is also associated with the ability of emotional-social regulation

  • The regulation of attention is closely related to our emotional state, and the emotional systems allocate enhanced attention resources to what they perceive as an emotional threat on us

Therefore, dysfunction in one region of the brain, or even a defect in synchronization or communication between regions of the brain, can cause difficulties in various areas that appear to be unrelated to the dysfunction.

4. The brain doesn't stop changing throughout our life

Up until a few decades ago, scientists defined the brain as an organ which doesn’t change after the childhood period. Today, after decades of research, it is known on the one hand, that during the course of life, there are indeed times when the change is greater, such as during childhood and adolescence. These periods are a sort of 'windows of opportunity' that enables us achieving a significant change in the 'brain wiring'.

On the other hand, the research revealed, that brain changes are not limited to these periods only. Our experiences and the things we learn alter the brain constantly, as long as we live. The brain's ability to change is called the 'the plasticity of the brain'.

One of the most prominent pioneers in the discovery of the plasticity of the brain, is Prof. Michael Merzenich, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

In a series of groundbreaking studies since the 1960s, Merzenich and his colleagues have shown that our cerebral cortex changes according to the information attained from our senses and experiences.

When Merzenich severed, for example, one of three nerves in a monkey's hand, he found that the two remaining nerves had taken over the area of the cortex that had been previously allocated for information attained from the severed nerve.

From this experiment, we can infer two significant conclusions:

The first - The brain changes regularly, depending on the information it receives.

The second - The brain is frugal and utilizes its resources efficiently. Anything which is not being used is lost, and the excess brain resources are allocated in favor of everything that is being used.

The choice of how to shape our brains, therefore, is ours. If we will practice and improve certain skills, the brain will allocate a brain infrastructure to support them.

"My statistics improved in all the parameters following the training: Points, rebounds, assists and the lost ratio, that has dropped. It made me a much better player", Omri Casspi, an NBA player

5. Act in the right waves

In the brain, there is a non-stop electrical activity, which lasts as long as the person lives, even when we rest or sleep. The electrical signals, that pass between the neurons of the brain, are moving in waves, which are closely correlated to the activity and function of the person: A rise in the frequency of waves means an increase in the Level of the cerebral arousal.

At any given moment there are different types of waves in the brain, but one wave is more dominant than others. When a person wishes to switch between tasks of a different nature, he is also required to change the level of his brain activity (= the wave frequency that he uses), even though he is unaware that he does so.

A person with normal cerebral function passes without difficulty between activities that require different brain waves, without having to give it any thought: In one moment, for example, he talks to a friend and immediately afterward he begins to solve a mathematical equation.

Developmentally immature children or adults who are dealing with various disabilities, such as learning disabilities, attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders, however, have more difficulty in carrying out such transitions.

It is much more difficult for them to 'shift gears in the brain' and move from one activity to another. This difficulty may also be expressed in a rigid character and the absence of flexibility in their lives.

"The players were much more relaxed, they managed to get a lot more directions and apply them on the court, which is perhaps the most important thing for the coach", Oded Katash, Hapoel Jerusalem and Israel's national basketball team coach

6. What is cognition?

Cognition is everything that is related to human knowledge - the knowledge itself, the processes of acquiring it, processing it and its use. It includes, among other things, the language, thought, perception, comprehension, learning, memory, creativity, conclusion deduction, decision making and problem-solving.

7. What is the connection between the neuronal structure of the brain and cognition?

Neurology and cognition are actually two sides of one coin.

In a neurological perspective, cognitive activity depends on our cerebral infrastructure and its function. If certain regions of the brain do not function properly, do not communicate adequately, or the brain does not operate at the correct wave frequency, the person will have difficulties in performing cognitive tasks.

Cognitively, because the brain is plastic and alters according to the activities we perform, cognitive practice will change the brain's neurology. If we'll steadily practice different cognitive skills, we will solidify their networks and greatly strengthen the cerebrum infrastructure which is required for functioning and learning.

"I have to be aware of the position of the player I'm guarding on, and time my action accordingly. When I receive the ball, I need to take control over it and perform an action quickly... The training helps me do everything faster, and in the process of doing so, I think of what I want and what is the right thing to do", Sheran Yeini, Maccabi Tel-Aviv soccer team captain

8. The movement is an essential and integral part for all the high cerebral functions

As we have mentioned in the third section, the cerebral motor regions, that are responsible for our motor functions, are essential for the higher thinking abilities as well, such as memory, learning, planning, decision making, data filtering and language.

Nature is economical. During evolution, when man evolved unique skills, they evolved on the basis of the motor systems that already existed in the brain. This is the reason why the development and practice of motor abilities and motor systems, also have a far-reaching impact on the mind's higher thinking abilities.

In a study conducted in 2014 for example, by Prof. John Stein, Elizabeth McClelland and Anna Pitt of Oxford University, it was found that physical activity has a significant impact on academic achievements.

The researchers studied, in three different studies, the effect of a physical training program on the reading, writing, and math achievements of 348 students, aged 7-13, in ten schools in England.

The results were unequivocal and decisive: Students with learning disabilities, which were within the weakest 20% before the experiment, jumped to an average percentile of 79%, while the national average, of students who are not faced with learning disabilities, is the 77% percentile.

Even after the experiments ended, the students maintained their achievements for at least one year.

"I have just begun studying for the psychometric exam when I started out the program, and immediately I also saw an improvement in concentration and understanding... My ability to read the learning material and to understand more things has improved tremendously. It used to pass before my eyes and wouldn't get into my head", Omer Katz, Beitar Ramla \ Maccabi Tel Aviv goalkeeper

In conclusion, we will recall the main points:

  1. Brain activity is based upon networks of neurons

  2. Repetition of an action strengthens its network

  3. All of our physical and cognitive actions require communication and cooperation between different brain regions

  4. The brain is plastic and is changing throughout life, depending on our experiences

  5. To be able to function at a high level, the brain needs flexibility in transitions between different brain waves

  6. Cognition is all of our knowledge and how we acquire, process, and use it

  7. Neurology and cognition are two sides of the same coin. Cognitive training develops cognitive abilities and the neurological infrastructure of the brain. The neurological structure affects the cognitive abilities

  8. Movement is essential for all the brain's higher abilities, and developing the movement ability improves them as well

Dan Roman and Sheran Yeini in training (Juan Torrijo in a guest performance)

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