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Robert M. Bilder, Ph.D.

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Personal Brain Management: Ready for Prime Time?

Posted: 07/08/2012 10:50 am

It defines who you are, whom you love, what you dream and hope for in your future. To some its activity defines life itself. It is your brain. But it does not come with a manual, at least not yet. This is now changing. There are now major forces driving a revolution in personal brain management. The first is the awe-inspiring proliferation of neuroscience, which today has about 20 identified subdomains including cognitive neuroscience, social and affective neuroscience, and neuroimaging. Second is the rapid rise of positive psychology, which aims to help people achieve greater happiness and well-being, including our more primitive hedonic needs and our higher aspirations for meaning and purpose in life. At the intersection of these movements is positive applied neuropsychology -- the systematic study of brain mechanisms underlying well-being. Can you use what we know about the brain to change your own brain, to better achieve your own values and goals?

I came to prioritize personal brain management while working on a talk for TEDx San Diego. I first planned to talk about our Phenomics project at UCLA that involves more than 50 scientists trying to map complex links from the genome up to complex behavior, specifying myriad molecules, cells, and brain systems in between. When I realized this topic was too geeky even for the TED audience, I cleared my mind and contemplated the theme for this meeting -- the Next Wave. Then it hit me. We have reached a tipping point where we do know enough about how the brain works to change the way we use it. Personal brain management is the next phase of human evolution. By the time I finished preparing this 12-minute talk, I had persuaded myself that this is the most important thing I can be working on right now.

Since then I have developed a course on Personal Brain Management (PBM) at UCLA and have given related talks from various perspectives -- particularly, how PBM can be applied to advance creative achievement, social media, human resources, arts and architecture, child development and teaching. I even gave a lecture on how to be your own brain fitness coach. I believe we are now at a most interesting point on the crest of the PBM wave, and like any big wave, there is both amazing and exciting potential, along with risk.

The potential is literally life-changing. Every day we see new, credible scientific evidence that shows we can, through systematic exercises, actually change the structure and function of our own brains. There are examples showing how these changes may take place within a few hours of activity, even though most studies show that it really takes more time to produce structural brain change. Solid research shows some exercises generalize -- that is, by practicing one cognitive activity, other skills also improve and it is possible to become smarter. A wealth of data now shows how some ancient contemplative practices (meditation, yoga, tai chi chih) change our brain function and also change the neural regulation of inflammation, with possible links to a broad array of other healthy outcomes. The amazing promise is that by embracing PBM we may achieve the holy grail of living longer, better, happier, illness free, and creative lives.

What are the risks? As with most new technologies, there is a "hype cycle," and we are now riding the peak of inflated expectations. These early times are marked by a "snake oil" phase of premature commercialization, with some aiming to profit on the promise and excitement before the products have been proven effective. Good news is that most of the activities are unlikely to cause great harm; those that are ineffective are generally just a waste of time and money. A challenge today is that there is no easy way to separate the possibly effective from the probably ineffective. A quick tour through "app stores" provides a few crude indicators, like how many "stars" customers give to the products, along with cryptic reviews, sometimes from thousands of purchasers. The careful consumer might attempt to weed through these in hopes of gaining insight. But all these stars and comments comprise anecdotes, not evidence. Vendors are now treading in murky waters between the land of toys and the land of medical devices. If they try to make claims that their product actually targets a "medical" issue, then the product falls under the regulatory powers of the Food and Drug Administration as "medical devices," and getting this approval demands real evidence. Rather than face this hurdle, most sellers prefer to treat their goods as "novelties" or "games," and the message that these games are going to help you become smarter, richer, or live longer are only implied -- although sometimes implied aggressively.

We are trying to tackle these challenges at UCLA through systematic training that involves education and experience for our students, staff and faculty. This year we started the first UCLA Summer Institute on Brain-Mind-Wellness, which includes full courses including Personal Brain Management, Mindfulness Practice and Theory, and Integrative East-West Medicine. We are also launching a new series of UReviews to provide student-faculty expert surveys of wellness apps, which we hope can serve as a kind of Consumer Reports in this domain, offering unbiased, free information about the credibility and validity of claims made by vendors. We hope that these efforts will help inspire a next generation of students, investigators and inventors who will promote the promise of these new tools for managing our brains, and provide a counterweight against false claims. In the meantime, caveat emptor.

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