The best way for me to describe brain training is by telling you what it is not.

Brain Training is not tutoring. The goal is not to help you or your child recall specific information about algebra, U.S. history, or any other subject.

Brain training is about making the brain stronger so you can learn more effectively, whatever you want or need to learn. It focuses on improving the basic skills of thinking. These foundational skills include attention, memory, auditory and visual processing, logic and reasoning, and processing speed.

Brain training can benefit people at any age. I have used it with children ranging from gifted and accelerated to those working below grade level. The training can have lasting benefits for children and teens with autism and Asperger’s. For adults, brain training can provide an edge at work. It can help seniors stay sharp.

Some people associate brain training with rehabilitation for patients who have suffered a head trauma or “head fog” following chemotherapy. It’s helpful for those groups, too, but as a speech language therapist with a focus in neuroscience, I’ve seen its uses go far beyond that.

Independent research affirms my observations. A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that after 14 brain training sessions  (10 during one period, followed by four booster sessions at 11 months and four at 36 months) adults in a cognitively trained group outperformed a control group five years later in the areas trained.

What exactly is brain training?

Brain training is a series of structured activities that feel like games to arouse and strengthen the brain. The games get more challenging as the training goes on.

Here’s the theory behind brain training. The brain is constantly changing. It reacts to and is shaped by the experiences it has. The more often you do new and challenging activities, the more your brain captures and sorts this input.  The neurons fire, creating new connections and new networks, to accommodate the new information. More networking in your brain means better and more efficient processing. In other words, you get smarter.

Brain training uses insights we have gleaned about the brain from current neuroscience research. It pushes the brain to be actively engaged throughout the training with short transitions between activities. Another brain training principle is to use pop quizzes in each session to engage memory.

Brain training addresses several skills at one time. So even if your weaknesses are attention and memory, your brain training activities will also help strengthen your auditory and visual processing. Another key is intensity. Training is frequent. The activities get progressively more challenging because this intensity is what drives the dramatic changes in neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change.

Why brain training works for struggling students

Brain training doesn’t focus on a child’s achievements or difficulties in a particular subject, such as reading or math. An effective brain trainer will test each child individually to determine his cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and set a plan from there. The program should be custom, not one-size-fits-all.  (One side note: I’m not a big fan of computer games for the brain, as they don’t produce the same results as one-on-one training.)

If children have weaknesses in auditory processing and processing speed, for example, the training will be more intensive in these areas. However, the trainer may continue to refine some of the children’s stronger brain foundation skills. Sometimes brain training activities combine a child’s strength and weakness, which really helps bolster the weaker skill.

The idea is to improve students’ cognitive skills so they can learn any subject they desire, from their ABC’s to zoology. The training faces each student’s cognitive weaknesses head on to build lasting improvements in these skills. Students become more confident when they have an easier time learning.

If you’d like to try a few brain training games at home with your child – or yourself! – here are a few possibilities:

* Target slow processing speed by having your middle or high school student time himself reading two pages of text. Set the timer the next day for this same time and have your child push himself to finish two new pages in his book of about the same length.

On the third day, set the timer for 10 seconds faster. Have your child try to beat his previous time reading two additional pages of new material from the same book. Continue this pattern of two days at the same speed and decreasing the speed on the third day. Your child should be reading at rates that allows him to still comprehend the material.

* I love games to work on processing speed. Change any game you have into a race. Some of my favorite speed games are simple card games such as Super Circles TM or 7 Ate 9 TM. There are many games that build strategy and promote better logic and reasoning.

How brain training helps gifted and talented individuals:

No one likes brain training more than this group. They love competing against themselves. Gifted and talented people just like anyone else have patterns of strengths and weaknesses.  Because they already have strong skills, they are able to boost their skills quickly by being introduced to new and novel activities that demand peak performance.

Typically, gifted youth and adults seek brain training to improve attention, memory and processing speed. To improve an individual’s ability to handle distractions, we present more distractions so that they learn to put “blinders on” and learn to hyper-focus. Working on divided attention is a core brain training strategy. You want to have the ability to perform in the range of environments you are in daily, not only in a silent, sterile environment with no one moving or talking around you.

Want to try a few brain training games with your gifted child?

* Find something your child does fairly well, such as dribbling a ball. Add another task to this such as counting by 7’s or doing multiplication facts of 12. Try other combinations of physical and mental activities.

* Memory can be enhanced with a technique called “prefocusing. ” It’s mental preparation to remember something. It can be as simple as saying, “We’re going hiking and we should look for these animals and birds.” You are more likely to pay attention and see them if you have focused on looking for them.

Brain training is effective with individuals on the autism spectrum

Although there are various theories about the cause of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, it is well recognized that the brains of individuals with these diagnoses are wired differently. These are disorders primarily of communication. Brain training for this population focuses on building their auditory and visual abilities and their attentiveness to what they are doing – their ability to notice and pay attention.

As with other groups, brain training allows us to build more brain networks that result in better association skills. The more associative pathways result in the ability to demonstrate new communication skills. These include more interest in the environment, interest in other people, better eye contact, more facial expression, attention to detail, ability to handle frustration and not shut down, and understanding of more abstract ideas and references.

Everyone has their own unique cognitive skills profile. However, through the years I’ve seen that individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have strong memory skills but weak skills in reasoning and logic. Cognitive brain training tasks can “rewire” the brain to build the ability to reason. We obtain the most neurosynapses when we work at a challenging level on a novel task below the level of frustration.

If you’re a parent with a child on the spectrum, take tasks the child can do and increase the complexity of these tasks to build skills:

* Target the child’s ability to pay attention both to sounds and sights. Encourage your child to listen for particular sounds or words in stories or recordings. Or play a game of scanning for hidden objects in a room such as the kitchen, finding targeted letters and words in narratives, or figuring out what is missing in categories.  If you have a spoon and fork, what’s missing?

* Work to find patterns “go togethers” during your daily routines. One example is rapidly naming things you will need for the table at dinner time (plates, napkins, forks, knives, spoons, glasses, and salt and pepper). If you are in a carpool line, naming types of transportation or automakers is a quick organizational task. Pattern recognition tasks are a strong base for logic and reasoning skills. These also include “what doesn’t belong” games – three items fit, but the fourth one doesn’t.

* Make a game of scanning people’s faces for emotion. You can make days where you look for happy people, people who look sad, surprised or angry.

I believe anyone can have a better brain through brain training. Keep yours active and focus on developing new skills.

brain trainingDr. Vicki Parker is a owner of The Brain Trainer in Charlotte, N.C. where she provides speech therapy services and has a learning center to build cognitive foundation skills. Her 12-year-old daughter had memory and auditory processing difficulties and has risen above these challenges through a combination of speech therapy and brain training. Learn more at about brain training.