November 23, 2017
The Sydney Morning Herald
Sarah Berry

As science progresses along with our understanding of the intricacies of the human body, we discover new ways to tweak our behaviour to achieve our potential.

We can adjust our nutrition and the way we work out. We can also use breath work and stress management techniques like mindfulness, which researchers have found improves performance in athletes by keeping them alert and relaxed during periods of high physical demand.

“Just as physical exercise must be performed with regularity to train the body for performance success, mental exercises must be practised with regularity to benefit the athlete’s attention and well-being,” said the authors of a new study which found just 12 minutes of meditation a day made a difference.

It is enhancing this relationship between our brains and our bodies that has experts intrigued, because while we know that exercise can change our brains for the better, it is becoming clear that exercising our brains can improve our bodies for the better too.

In his new book, American Football star, Tom Brady reveals he uses brain training games for an unusual reason; to improve his athletic game.

“I can see more of what’s happening, more accurately, and, therefore, make better decisions, faster,” Brady writes in The TB12 Method: How to Achieve and Sustain Peak Performance.

An accidental discovery

Dr Henry Mahncke is the CEO of Posit Science, the maker of BrainHQ, the brain exercises Brady uses.

The exercises were not created with physical performance in mind.

“Our earliest research focused on helping people with cognitive deficits, particularly the typical decline in cognitive performance from normal ageing,” says Mahncke, who developed the exercises alongside his university professor, Dr Michael Merzenich, who helped to develop the cochlear implant. “Beginning in our late 20s, most people begin to experience a slowing in speed of processing and declining accuracy in processing sensory information. At first, the effects are small but accumulate over time, and become increasingly noticeable as we age.”

Before testing on their target market, they tended to try out their prototypes in the office where most of the employees are in their 20s and 30s.

“From that in-office testing, we knew that the exercises worked in healthy, younger populations, but that was not our focus,” he explains.

Then, in 2013, Tom Brady contacted them to say the neuroscientists on his personal training team had recommended the exercises and he had been using them for six months.

“Through imaging, those scientists [on his team] could monitor how the exercises affected his brain. More importantly, he noticed how they affected his performance on the field,” Mahncke recalls.

“That’s when we went back to our data sets, and began to appreciate what had been there all along – brain training can clearly help peak performers go from good to great brain performance.”

Based on his experiences, Brady decided to incorporate brain exercise as one of the pillars of his TB12 Method – along with pliability-focused physical training, physical recovery and an anti-inflammatory diet.

For the next three seasons, Mahncke worked with Brady and saw his team, the Patriots win three conference championship games and two Super Bowls.

“When something begins to change in sports, it seems to change all over,” Mahncke says. “Many other elite athletes and teams had similar insights about the widespread implications of brain speed and accuracy for sports.  We now work with a large number of pro and elite athletes and teams.”

Split seconds matter

Mental and cognitive fatigue affects everything from running to decision making, can “negatively affect performance” and increase the risk of injury, wrote Aaron Coutts, a professor in sport and exercise science at the University of Technology Sydney, in a paper last year.

One study found that mentally fatigued soccer players couldn’t run as far or kick a ball as skilfully as players who felt sharp.

So there is value in keeping athletes mentally fresh.

Mahncke says it comes down to the brain’s plasticity – our ability to “train brains” to be faster and more accurate.

“We take a unique, plasticity-based, bottom-up approach, in which we first address the most elemental cognitive abilities – attention and speed – and then use those improved foundational abilities to drive gains in higher cognitive functions, such as memory, planning, decision-making and reasoning,” he explains.

“When it comes to sports, most movement is decision-based. A player is continuously taking in information and making decisions how to react to it in a split-second. By improving your ability to process information, quickly and accurately, you can improve your play throughout the game.

“Sometimes teams measure their fastest player by seeing who has the best time running 100 metres …  However, that’s not really the best or fastest player. You want players who react the fastest and with the greatest accuracy to what happens in the field of play. Reaction time is really important in sports. Reaction time is highly dependent on brain speed. Split-seconds matter.”

A vision of improvement

For those wanting to try brain training exercises to improve their physical performance, Mahncke suggests a certain kind.

“Visual exercises target all sorts of cognitive skills that are obviously relevant to sports, including: visual speed, reaction time, visual attention, visual search, visual acuity, multiple object tracking, useful field of view, peripheral vision, working memory, and decision-making,” says Mahncke, noting that they have created a set of exercises based on their work with Brady. “The visual-spatial and visual-motor systems are also key components of balance and mobility – that’s a great example of how brain performance controls physical performance.”

For those not interested in the formalities of brain training exercises, we can simply seek novelty – learning and trying new things – which has been found to benefit cognition.

“There is value to seeking out novelty at any age. Your brain is healthier if it gets a workout from continuously being challenged by new things – especially those outside your comfort zone (in order to keep you challenged),” Mahncke says.

There is a caveat.

“If you learn a new language or musical instrument, or take up skiing, ballet, yoga, or other activities that are intensive, repetitive, progressively challenging, and filled with novelty – the health of your brain, as an organ, should benefit – until you have some basic competence with that activity. Of course doing the same thing for years and years isn’t challenging to the brain – a person would have to constantly change their activities like this to continue to get brain benefit.”

The choice of method is ours, but by working our brains and keeping them engaged and challenged, we not only reduce our risk of brain disorder and decline (a new study found exercises may reduce the risk of dementia by nearly 30 per cent), we have the potential to improve our physical functioning as well.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in brain health,” Mahncke says. “In many ways, it is similar to the changes in understanding about heart health in the 1970s; however, these changes seem to be larger in scale and happening very quickly.

“I believe that just as physical fitness became a normal aspect of modern life, so will brain fitness. We can now monitor brain health, and prescribe brain exercises to improve it, with a device we carry in our pocket. That is changing everything.

“And, it’s not just about ageing or about sports performance. It is hard to think of any activity which would not be improved by a faster and more accurate brain.”