Brain Training Has This Surprising Effect

"Brain training" kind of sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it's actually a pretty simple concept: According to, brain training or cognitive training is a technique used by educators and health care professionals to create new pathways in the brain. Brain training can help improve functions such as attention, memory, problem-solving, and more. Basically, it can help rewire how we think — but does brain training work? A new study that looked at brain training found that it can work, and it actually could have pretty big implications. The kicker? It all has to do with faces, and people's perceptions of faces. It sounds convoluted, and it honestly kind of is, but that doesn't make it any less interesting or important.

Researchers at Brown University used a functional MRI machine to measure participants' brain activity while they were shown pictures of faces. Participants rated each face, while a computer algorithm sorted through their brain responses into faces they liked and faces they disliked. Then, researchers used brain training to try to see if they could change people's minds — to get them to view faces they found neutral differently. Strap on your seatbelts, y'all, because this is where things get confusing.

Basically, the training tool used involved disks. Participants were shown a picture of a face they previously rated as neutral, and then they were shown a picture of a disk. The goal was to make the disk bigger using their brains. If that doesn't sound like what goes on in a superhero training camp, I don't know what does. I imagine it looked something like this:

In all seriousness, what participants weren't told was that when they thought a certain way, the researchers would make the disk appear bigger, thereby rewarding this particular type of thinking.

For some participants, researchers would make the disk grow when brain activity mirrored what it looked like when they saw faces they liked. For others, it would get bigger when their brain activity corresponded to faces they didn't like. The remainder didn't do any disk training.

At the end of the study, people who were "rewarded" for their positive responses rated faces they previously saw as neutral, as more positive. Likewise, those who were rewarded for negative thinking patterns saw neutral faces as more negative. Basically, the study found that brain training can work. Neuroscientist Rafi Malach says, "These results are fascinating in showing how nonconscious brain activity can be utilized to modify brain function and behavior in a targeted way."

Though research is still at an early stage, the results have important implications. It suggests brain training can possibly be used to help treat phobias; for instance, by showing someone a picture of something they're afraid of, and then using brain training to have them begin to view it more positively. Others note that it could be used to treat depression. I also wonder if this study — in particular, with the faces — could be used to combat implicit racial biases. I'm sure there are many other, less literal potential applications for the study as well. Even though further research needs to be done, this study shows that the brain, and therefore our thinking, is malleable, and brain training could be an effective tool in helping people suffering from mental illness and solving other complicated issues.

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