Despite recurring suggestions that he has peaked and that the Brady era will soon see its final sunset, New England Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady keeps pulling out the critical wins. How does he do it year after year, while seeming to defy the effects of aging?
Like most sports, football is a game of decision-based movements – with continuous demands for the right decision to be made in a split-second, amidst distraction, and under enormous pressure. This has become Brady’s trademark. It is a feat of strength of the mind, more than the body.
It’s all the more astonishing because Brady ages with each passing year, and it is well-established that, for most of us, brain performance peaks in the early 20s and then slows with each passing year.
Brady has described how he achieves and sustains peak performance in his book the TB12 Method. He says he discovered a set of brain exercises (BrainHQ) in late 2014 and realized it needed to be a core part of his training. Since then, Brady has led the Patriots to four of five Super Bowls.
Tom Brady’s brain exercise regimen (which you can find at tb12.brainhq.com) is not just fun and games. It’s serious science, developed, tested, refined and validated by a global team of hundreds of brain scientists.
That team is led by Dr. Michael Merzenich, who is credited with discovering lifelong plasticity, with being the first to harness plasticity for human benefit (in his co-invention of the cochlear implant), and for pioneering the field of plasticity-based computerized brain exercise. He is Professor Emeritus at UCSF and a winner of the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience (the highest honor in the field). He also is the co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, a company he co-founded to get the latest advances in brain training out of the lab and into the hands of people they could help. Those exercises are available in the training program BrainHQ from Posit Science.
Just before the Super Bowl, we interviewed Dr. Merzenich about the use of BrainHQ by Tom Brady, in sports, and more generally.
ADM: What is BrainHQ? How do BrainHQ’s exercises differ from other brain exercises on the app market?
Merzenich: BrainHQ is an online and mobile app for the assessment and training of cognitive skills and improvement of brain health and performance. You can think of it as being like a gym for the brain. The training program is built with smart algorithms to personalize each of dozens of exercises to each user within minutes and to continuously make micro-adjustments (based on each user’s performance) to drive brain changes.
BrainHQ is the direct product of decades of research into brain plasticity – the ability of the brain to change chemically, physically, and functionally based on sensory and other inputs.
BrainHQ takes a unique bottom-up approach, in which it focuses on the most elemental building blocks of cognition (such as speed of processing and attention), refines them, and, by improving them, moves upward to higher brain function (such as memory and decision-making) and better life function. You could say that BrainHQ training is much like sports training that isolates and improves the component parts of movement in a sport to improve overall physical performance – BrainHQ breaks cognition down into elemental bits, refines performance, and builds upward.
BrainHQ also is the only commercially-available brain training program with dozens of peer-reviewed papers showing that you don’t just get better at the task trained; BrainHQ training generalizes to standard cognitive measures and real-world outcomes.
ADM: How did Tom Brady’s relationship with BrainHQ come about?
Merzenich: We were contacted by Tom Brady’s training organization, TB12 Sports, in February of 2014. We were told that Tom found our exercises helped his on-field performance, and we were invited to meet with him and his training organization in Foxboro. That began a series of visits to Foxboro over subsequent seasons, and a deeper examination of how BrainHQ could help people achieve and sustain peak performance.
When we first met Tom, we learned that he had already incorporated BrainHQ into his training regimen. We met that first day with neuroscientists on his extended training team, who told us they could see the effects of BrainHQ training in neuroimaging. Tom told us that he could see the results on the field.
Shortly after the first meeting, BrainHQ was incorporated into the TB12 Method – the comprehensive training method developed and refined over the years by Tom Brady and his Body Coach Alex Guerrero, which is the subject of the New York Times bestseller The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance. While most sports training emphasizes strength, we learned that the TB12 method emphasizes physical pliability and resilience. It also gives equal emphasis to recovery and diet. Tom was the first elite athlete to promote the idea that cognitive conditioning is as important as physical conditioning.
ADM: How do these exercises help him perform on the field?
Merzenich: As sports performance expert Dr. Peter Gorman frequently says: “If you think slow, you play slow.”
Simply put: A faster and more accurate brain can make a big difference in the world of sport, where the difference between winning and losing often comes down to split seconds and inches.
Most movements in sports are decision-based. Whether it’s throwing a block in football, a quick dart down the court in basketball, a slap shot in hockey, a lob in tennis, a pass in soccer, or hundreds of other moves in any sport, a split-second movement can change everything. Even when seemingly instinctual, those movements are decision-based.
We know there’s always a gap between when a player receives sensory information and acts on it. We tend to call that gap “reaction time,” and it has both physical and mental components. Most training focuses on improving physical movement. Tom is the first elite player we worked with who appreciated the need to work on the cognitive components.
As plasticity-trained brain scientists, we break “reaction time” down into its five split-second component parts (which we have dubbed with the acronym RADAR): Recognition that something has occurred; Attending to that event; Deciding what to do about it; Accepting the decision by transmitting movement instructions from the brain to the body; and then Reacting physically. Working with Tom and TB12 caused us to focus on how we can make those component parts of decision-based movement more efficient.
While coaches will rank players as “faster” and “better” if they can out-run others by just a tenth of a second, previously, little has been done to measure or improve brain speed by similar amounts. We are excited to be engaged in that work as a result of meeting Tom and TB12.
ADM: Is BrainHQ specifically designed for professional athletes or can these exercises benefit other types of people?
Merzenich: Just as physical exercise is helpful to people regardless of age or condition, so is BrainHQ.
We serve millions of users across a wide spectrum of abilities. In fact, an analysis of our database shows that people seem to have about the same amount of gain from training, regardless of age or starting position. In a study of healthy older adults that gain was about a quarter of a standard deviation, which is about equal to the amount of average cognitive decline a person experiences on standard tests between ages 75 and 85, or 65 and 75 – so you can think of it as 10 years of gain, on average. That’s one of the reasons BrainHQ has been incorporated into some Medicare Advantage programs and is promoted by AAA for older driver safety.
What Tom helped us realize was that the exercises can also deliver important and noticeable gains to people who are already top performers. That’s one of the reasons that BrainHQ is the only brain training offered without charge by the US Military to every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine, and is increasingly being used in other workplaces to improve performance.
I like to say BrainHQ can be helpful to pretty much anyone, from an active duty soldier looking to boost performance to your Great Aunt Edith determined to maintain her independence.
ADM: Do other professional athletes use BrainHQ?
Merzenich: Yes. Many professional, Olympic, and other elite athletes and teams now train with BrainHQ to gain an extra advantage on the field. Most view it as giving them a competitive edge and a strategic advantage, and, at this point, often want to keep it a secret. We don’t talk about who uses BrainHQ unless they have already gone public. Examples of athletes who’ve talked about BrainHQ in the press include Austin Collie (Indianapolis Colts), Brian Hoyer (San Francisco 49ers) Harry Kane (British World Cup Team), Ben Watson (New Orleans Saints), and Wes Welker (Denver Broncos).
ADM: Could users receive the same benefits from simply completing Sudoku or crossword puzzles?
Merzenich: No. In fact, those kinds of casual games are often used as a control activity in randomized controlled trials of BrainHQ. The key difference in BrainHQ is the science. The exercises have been designed by scientists to quickly personalize to you and to deliver the right stimulus at the right moment to challenge you and move you forward.
If you are having a good day, the exercises get harder, and on a bad day they ease off. The objective is to keep you training at your current threshold of performance, with a target that is only slightly beyond your current ability, to drive you forward. You may do 30 trials (what scientists call “stimulus sets”) in a minute, with each adjusted (in micro amounts) based on your history of performance. No other training does that.
You should do crosswords and Sodoku if you enjoy those activities and want to get better at those activities, but no study indicates they improve your abilities at anything else.
ADM: Which exercises are most helpful to athletes?
Merzenich: The visual processing exercises have the most general applicability to sports. So much of sports is responding to visual events. The visual exercises increase visual speed, visual attention, visual search, visual acuity, multiple object tracking ability, useful field of view, and peripheral vision. Improved visual-spatial and visual-motor abilities also help with balance and gait. So, we knew from the start that the visual exercises would be important.
However, you can always learn more by talking with athletes and their coaches, trainers, and doctors. For example, we learned from Tom Brady that the auditory exercises were helpful. That’s because New England calls its plays descriptively and the change of one syllable can mean the receiver is in a very different place. Every week, a pro team gets a playbook with about 100 plays that may be called against the next opponent. That book needs to be learned quickly. Learning the names of the plays, as well as the manner in which they are graphically depicted, depends on the speech and language center of the brain. Auditory exercises tune-up that system.
Similarly, we were surprised when we noted to a team doctor that one player had been spending time on the social cognition – what we call people skills – exercises. Those were not in the recommended regimen. However, the team doctor was very pleased, because that player had some issues with what we scientists call inhibitory response, or you might call self-control, and the team is concerned about both on-field and off-field behavior.
Other exercises that involve executive function – planning, reasoning, and decision-making – certainly come into play. As do exercises focused on suppressing distraction, attending to the initiation and direction of movement, changes in the visual field, and changes of rules and priorities.
We’ve come to realize that since the brain controls the body, and each exercise is designed to improve some aspect of brain function, probably every exercise can be related back to sports performance. However, we generally start with visual processing exercises, unless there is a particular issue that needs to be addressed.
ADM: What do athletes say about the exercises?
Merzenich: In his book, here are some things Tom has said about BrainHQ:
“As a result of using BrainHQ exercises, I can see more of what’s happening, more accurately, and therefore make better decisions, faster.”
“It’s hard to imagine any movement that isn’t helped by processing information more accurately and split-seconds faster – whether I’m scanning the field for a receiver or opening, reading the defense as I pass through the line of scrimmage, seeing defenders rush me, or taking the right step at the right time.”
“Although a lot of my brain training focuses on visual processing, there are also auditory exercises that target my speech and language processing, which includes remembering plays and play names, and processing what I hear on the field (including through the speaker in my helmet).”
“Studies show that, after doing these brain exercises regularly, an average user improves his or her processing speed, reaction time, visual acuity, visual search, multiple object tracking, useful field of view, peripheral vision, attention, memory, executive function, balance, and gait. Those kinds of abilities improve my performance in sports and in life.
ADM: How can readers try out BrainHQ and learn more about the program?
Merzenich: Anyone can try training on the exercises used by Tom Brady at tb12.brainhq.com. Registration gets you access to a different exercise every day. Subscriptions cost as little as $8 per month and get you general access to all of BrainHQ, including dozens of exercises, the personalized training, extensive monitoring and reporting on your progress, and a wealth of brain health information.