Jan 31 2007

Train your Brain

While trolling science news sites for topics for my blog or podcast, sometimes the ads are more fruitful. Today I saw an ad for an iMusic site, which makes the following claims:

“Fact 1: Your brain’s performance levels and your overall mental abilities are largely governed by your state of mind, which is determined by your brainwaves.
Fact 2: Science has uncovered which brainwaves create peak performance mental states for learning, thinking, studying & virtually every mental task.
Fact3: Listening to iMusic, an advanced acoustic technology, automatically dials your brain waves into a peak performance state for any situation or environment.”

This is utter rubbish, but it is very popular rubbish. It’s slick marketing because it uses lots of scientific sounding terminology and it promises to improve you effortlessly. It follows a common theme in such misleading marketing, playing off the notion (wish, really) that modern science can magically and effortlessly make our lives better. Sometimes this is true. I love my microwave and my iPod. So why can’t I make myself smarter just by listening to music?

First, the premise is completely false. Mental ability is not a simple matter of “state of mind,” whatever that means. I guess I can perform better while I am awake then when I am asleep, sure. But assuming you are fully awake, your mental ability is determined by your genetic potential, and the mental skills you developed over your life. That’s it. Brain waves do not “determine” your state of mind – they are caused by it. When you are in a certain stage of sleep your brainwaves reflect that stage. When you are fully awake, your brain waves reflect that also. But it is the underlying brain activity that causes both the brain waves and the mental state. Brainwaves cannot “create peak performance.” It’s nonsense.

But like much nonsense it is exploiting a small kernel of truth. There is a relationship between music and brain activity. For reasons not clearly understood at this time, our brains evolved to have a certain affinity for rhythm and timing. This is likely related to our ability to perform coordinated movements (the same part of the brain – the cerebellum – gives us both rhythm and coordination). An epiphenomenon of this is our cultural like for rhythmic music, and likely also explains why such rhythms make us want to dance – to move in time with the music.

Also, rhythmic sounds can drive certain populations of brain cells to fire in a rhythmic manner (a phenomenon called entrainment). Certain frequencies of flashing lights can do this also (called photic driving). But it is a false assumption and a far-fetched notion that the rhythmic brain waves that reflect acoustic entrainment somehow makes us more focused or smarter.

There is evidence that rehabilitation for certain movement disorders can be improved with acoustic entrainment – but this makes sense. Our movement and coordination is closely related to our sense of rhythm, as I said. Also, speeding up rehab is very different than improving peak performance, so you cannot meaningful extrapolate from one to the other.

The iMusic site, of course, cites their “research” to bolster their claims, but insufficient details are given. My search of the published literature also did not come up with any published and peer-reviewed research that supports their claims. Bottom line, it’s a slick scam.

There is a way you can improve your mental ability – you can exercise your brain. Read, study, write, engage in mental activities, even playing some video games has been shown to help. It takes work, just like doing real exercise can make you stronger, and practicing a sport can make you better. There is no shortcut, quick fix, or easy solution.

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