The Science Behind Cognitive Training

Cognitive Training 101

The topic of cognitive training is discussed and debated in both the scientific community and across mainstream media. With so much information circulating on the internet, it can be difficult to cut through all the noise and get down to the cold, hard facts. 

At Peak, our aim is to make lifelong progress enjoyable. To achieve this, we have karate chopped through the noise and have provided you with the facts around cognitive training using studies and researchers we have partnered with over the years.  

Let’s get down to basics.

What Is Cognition?

Essentially, cognition is the process behind thinking and developing a person’s understanding of the knowledge that they have obtained. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as, “the use of conscious mental processes” for example: 

  • Perception
  • Attention
  • Memory coding 
  • Retention
  • Recall
  • Decision-making
  • Reasoning
  • Problem-solving
  • Imaging
  • Planning
  • Executive actions.

What Is Cognitive Training?

It is precisely as it sounds, cognitive training seeks to train the brain “using specifically targeted strategies or exercises” (Sheldon, 2019). Anything we do which is different and involves stimulating and challenging the brain can “contribute to building capacity and brain reserve” (SharpBrains 2013).

What Does Cognitive Training Have The Potential To Do?

Cognitive training aims to “stimulate cognitive function over time, leading to neuroplastic changes and improved functioning of the neuron network” (Sahakian, 2019). 

Transparent skull on display with brain
Transparent skull on display

Cognitive Training And Neuroplasticity

Cognitive training is based on the science of neuroplasticity – the idea that our brains continue to adapt and change throughout our lifetime: Based on the challenges we set ourselves, connections in the brain can be reorganised and even new ones can be created. In the same way that the muscles we exercise become stronger, the cognitive skills we use or train can become stronger and those we don’t use as often tend to become weaker

(Sheldon, 2019)

Why Is It Important To Train Your Cognitive Processes?

One of the main reasons is to slow down any possible cognitive decline and to improve your overall thinking and processing abilities. For example, as technology has become an integral part of everyday life, each of us are overloaded with emails, texts and various social media streams – or, in layman’s terms, a constant flow of information and knowledge – all whilst having to simultaneously juggle work or university. The end result? People are having a tough time concentrating and sustaining attention.

Can Cognitive Training Help With Neuropsychiatric Disorders?

There have been various studies conducted to establish the efficacy of cognitive training for healthy young adults compared with adults who have neuropsychiatric disorders; these are “disorders of cognition, motivation and their interaction” (Sahakian et al., 2015), such as:

  • Schizophrenia 
  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

Sahakian notes in The Impact of Neuroscience on Society: Cognitive Enhancement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders and in Healthy People:

These disorders are both common and debilitating and impact on cognition, functionality and wellbeing. Cognitive enhancing drugs, such as cholinesterase inhibitors and methylphenidate, are used to treat cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, respectively.

Sahakian, 2015

Furthermore, a 2018 publication by Mair et al. reported that there has been an increasing number of people who are not affected by these disorders but are still utilising cognitive-enhancing drugs. For example, Mair et al. found that the ‘medicine’ was used to combat “stress and frequent travel leading to poor quality sleep.” In essence, to improve their overall cognitive performance when studying or working.

As an alternative to using pharmaceutical cognitive enhancers, Professor Sahakian offers computerised cognitive training and devices.

Image of mobile phone showing still of Peak game Decoder
Peak game Decoder

Is There Any Proof?

1.     Decoder 

Decoder is a game designed by Barbara Sahakian of Cambridge University in partnership with us at Peak. The design and development purpose was to “target cognitive training of visual sustained attention.”

The Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge conducted the study Improvements in Attention Following Cognitive Training With Novel ‘Decoder’ Game On An iPad. The study investigated the “effects of cognitive training in 75 healthy young adults.” The young adults were randomly assigned to play Decoder, bingo or no game at all for eight hours a day, for four weeks. The results specified cognitive training with Decoder is “superior to both control groups” and substantially improved sustained visual attention. Overall, the data from the study suggests “cognitive training with Decoder is an effective non-pharmacological method for enhancing attention in healthy young adults.”

Image of mobile phone showing Peak's memory training game Wizard.
Peak game Wizard

2.     Wizard

Wizard is  another memory game which we designed and created with Barbara Sahakian. Wizard was designed to improve a person’s episodic memory – “a person’s ability to recall and reexperience specific episodes from their personal past”(Sciencedirect.com, 2019). Professor Sahakian, along with her research team, examined The Impact of Neuroscience on Society: Cognitive Enhancement in Neuropsychiatric Disorders and in Healthy People

22 participants diagnosed with schizophrenia were recruited from public health services within Cambridgeshire to take part in the study. To reduce the placebo effect, participants at the time of testing were not told that the study was about cognitive training. Participants were randomly assigned to the cognitive training game or were told to carry on with “treatment as usual.” Those who were assigned to the game were told to play for a total of eight hours over four weeks. The results demonstrated that the group that played Wizard made “significantly fewer errors and needed significantly fewer attempts to remember the location of different patterns” in testing versus the other group. 

As we’ve highlighted, there are numerous reasons why cognitive training can potentially improve your memory, attention span and focus. There’s no denying that technology has improved our lives and brings us enjoyment by letting us binge-watch our favourite TV shows – on repeat, order a Nandos when we feel a bit cheeky and even turn our washing machines on with our phones. However, we should not let it interfere with our thinking and ability to work and study. 

There are a number of things which you can implement into your daily routine and lifestyle to maintain cognition. These include: “exercise, meditation, sleep hygiene” and “cognitive stimulation” (Sahakian, 2015) in the form of computerised training. It’s never too late to start and starting now could make a real difference to your work, studies and remembering where you put your car keys. We believe there is no time like the present, so download the Peak app today, and start flexing your cognitive processes. 

Discover our latest articles on brain health, cognitive development and wellbeing:

Sources Cited:

Sally Sheldon, Neuroscientists at Peak Labs, 2019

Sahakian, B., Bruhl, A., Cook, J., Killikelly, C., Savulich, G., Piercy, T., Hafizi, S., Perez, J., Fernandez-Egea, E., Suckling, J. and Jones, P. (2015). The impact of neuroscience on society: cognitive enhancement in neuropsychiatric disorders and in healthy people.Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370(1677), p.20140214.

https://www.cochrane.org/CD013069/DEMENTIA_cognitive-training-people-mild-moderate-dementia

https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2013/05/22/does-brain-training-work-yes-if-it-

https://www.cse.iitk.ac.in/users/se367/10/klingberg2010.pdf

https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/brain-training-app-may-improve-memory-and-daily-functioning-in-schizophrenia

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/cognition

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2014.0214

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00002/full#B17

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/episodic-memory

All information featured in Peak – Brain Training articles are provided for informational purposes only and are not substitutes for medical or physician advice.

Sajal Azam

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