How Do We Know If It’s Working?



All right. Welcome again to the Better Brain Fitness podcast. As always, I am joined by my co-host, Dr. Tommy Wood. How are you doing, Tommy?

Yeah, I’m good. Nice to be back.

Yeah, good to see you today. Feels like we were just doing this right? It’s the way life is these days, so as you’ve probably gotten used to by now, the main format of this show is us trying to, uh, answer, uh, questions from you.

So if you have a question for us or if one pops into your mind as you’re listening to this episode, please feel free to send it our way. There is a link in the show description where you can do so. You can also go directly to And, um, we have an excellent one today. This was submitted by Rick and it was submitted by audio.

Hello, my name is Rick Brodsky. I’m from Connecticut. I’m a big fan of Brainjo, and I have been learning for quite a while. I play other instruments as well, and I, I gig on upright [00:01:00] bass and I am a big fan of engaging in learning in general because of the benefits of of brain health. And so I actually have, uh, two questions.

One is, how do we know when things are going well for us in terms of brain health and our practicing or learning in music? And how do we know when it’s not going well? Like, what signs can we look out for that would suggest that we’re getting a good workout and it’s good for our brain versus, uh, doing other things that maybe are not beneficial.

Okay. So Rick had, uh, two questions there and we’re gonna address the first one in this podcast. Both of the questions are excellent and so we’ll get to the second one in a subsequent episode. But, to recap, his question is kind of how do we evaluate our efforts for sort of cognitive stimulation in the name of brain [00:02:00] health?

So if we’re engaging in some form of cognitive activity and we’re doing so at least in part to benefit our brain, are there ways to know when that’s going well, when it’s doing good for us? And is there anything to look out for that would indicate things aren’t going well? Last thing we wanna do is be doing something we think is in the name of good health and it’s actually undermining our health.

So again, a really challenging question. I certainly don’t have all the answers, I don’t think anybody does at this point, because there are a lot of unknowns, but hopefully talking through it will bring up some useful topics and the ways of thinking about it and provide some food for thought and some sort of helpful ways to think through the process.

I also realized, as I was thinking through this question that it brings up so many things we could probably go on like a hundred different tangents, so I’ll try to keep focused. And it’s an area where our thoughts are going to continue to evolve. So it’s a good conversation to be starting off to kick start that evolution.

And I already know I’m gonna wake up [00:03:00] tomorrow and have five more things I wish I’d said so I’m just gonna have to accept that. One of the challenges here too , really a challenge in all of health is that there are going to be specifics here that are largely individual, especially when we’re talking about cognition.

We kind of address this a little bit in the past episode as well, and it’s why you’ll hear us talk about general principles a lot so that hopefully you can take those and then kind of apply them and understand how to apply them in your own situation. I’ve realized, and I think Tommy’s realized when it comes to lifestyle interventions, the only real way to have sustained success is to try to train a person on the set of general principles and how to apply them, rather than trying to give sets of rules about do this, eat this, you know, do this exercise, whatnot. It’s not sustainable. So back to this question at hand. So because in the realm of physical fitness, athletic performance and athletic training, is in a much more mature state in this area and in answering questions of [00:04:00] this kind, we’ll once again kind of borrow from the concepts that have been developed there.

So I’m kind of partly thinking of this from the standpoint of an athlete training for a sport and then this instance, maybe say we’re, we’re thinking of an athlete that’s training for a skill sport of some kind, since it’s a bit more analogous to what we’re talking about than say maybe pure endurance or pure strength sports.

So imagine you’re a trainer or a coach and you’re trying to sort of evaluate how an athlete’s doing over. time. And this is something we both have some experience in, Tommy, even more so, and he’s worked with many, uh, elite athletes and still I believe is working with Formula One drivers as one of the many hats he wears so I look forward to hearing, hearing any perspective he has on this topic.

But back to, um, imagining being a trainer, so what’s the thing you’re going to care about the most? Gonna be performance, right? The nice thing about that is that it’s both the thing you care [00:05:00] about and it’s also your best metric for evaluating how you’re doing.

Now in terms of performance, if you’re thinking about some kind of cognitive activity, particularly some skill you’re developing, where you are on a learning curve is going to shape the sorts of things you’re looking for and how you would evaluate it, right? The biggest progression or progress you make is in the early stages of learning, where it’s pretty easy to see gains and performance, and those gains diminish as you improve.

So, as you ascend in expertise, you’re working harder and harder for smaller and smaller, smaller results. So it gets harder to assess performance or at least progression from that standpoint. And you’re also spending more time maintaining the adaptations that you’ve built rather than stimulating new ones.

But still our best metric is, is performance, and that will be our primary one. Another reason why complex, multi-dimensional cognitive skills like music, dance, language learning, skill sports [00:06:00] are so well suited towards being good brain building cognitive activities is because there’s such a long progression of knowledge and skill acquisition and it’s really endless, and also it involves so much of the brain.

So the fact that these things take a relatively long time to get good at and are very feedback rich, meaning it’s pretty easy to get feedback about how you’re doing. You know, if you play the wrong note, you know, you’ve played the wrong note in music. All those things are really fantastic when you’re looking at it from the lens of brain health.

The challenge is if you’re not performing well, you know, not progressing, the challenge is figuring out why, and even figuring out not what constitutes not performing well is another challenge, cause we can’t predict, right? We can’t predict the future. We don’t know what should be normal, but I think it’s helpful to think of the extremes, right?

So maybe if you’re not making progress, even in the beginning phases or you’re clearly[00:07:00] regressing and so forth. So if there’s a performance issue, going back to our model, it could be on the stimulation side or some issue with how you’re practicing, how you’re training some in something ineffective.

People in Brainjo hear me say a lot that the goal of practice is to stimulate the brain to change and to steer it in the direction we desire. So effective practice ticks off those boxes, and, shameless plug, the whole point of the Brainjo Method is to help provide people with a training path that accomplishes those things.

And same with the book, the Laws of Brainjo, which is about the science of effective practice or effective brain stimulation. And another big one on the training side of the equation or the brain stimulation side, which I didn’t even think of initially, but I think is probably the most important takeaway from this episode, is that a sign that it’s not going well is that you’re not enjoying your practice, you’re not enjoying the [00:08:00] training process. So it should be something you really enjoy. It should be something you look forward to. If it’s requiring a lot of willpower and a lot of discipline to get you to do it, then figure out why and, and make a change.

The no pain, no gain trope, I think has done a lot more harm than good. And I think it ties into all this cultural baggage we have around pleasure and pain. Because the thing is we are wired to enjoy the things that are good for us. That’s the whole point of our reward circuits, right? To encourage us to do things that are good for us, that promote our survival and discourage us from doing things that aren’t good for us.

And the only scenario is where those things are misaligned, where we experience reward for something that isn’t good for us is in settings of what we’d call environmental mismatch, right? So when we are in conditions, we are giving our brain inputs or putting it in environments where those reward circuits weren’t in when they evolved.

Examples for [00:09:00] that would be drugs of abuse. You know, cocaine goes straight to your reward circuits, and it’s not good for you, and it’s because our brain didn’t evolve In a world where cocaine was abundant. Junk foods would be the same thing, right? They’re expressly designed to maximize pleasure circuits.

So in those particular situations, pleasure can be decoupled from the value of that thing to our health because our brain didn’t evolve with those things around. But that’s not true of cognitive activities, right? In the case of cognitive activity, you should go for the things that feel good.

So think of the satisfaction you feel when you solve a puzzle or you read a profound new idea or a concept or you hear a new song that you really love. That’s your brain saying, this is really good for us. You don’t have to feel bad about that feeling. Right. We love listening to music and we love playing music because our brain loves it and we should lean into that feeling heavily.

And we should try to maximize the joy and satisfaction from it because that’s our brain telling [00:10:00] us this is great, so we’ll want to pursue more of it. So I think how we feel when we’re doing these things, when we’re training, is the best possible feedback we could want because it’s coming directly from the thing that we care about and the thing that we’re trying to influence, which is our brain.

It’s our brain’s way of telling us whether this thing is good for it or not. And you couldn’t ask for a better feedback mechanism. So I think, like I said, I think if you remember nothing else from this, remember that if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, figure out why. That’s the only sustainable path anyways.

And don’t think that you have to suffer just for it to be productive. It’s just the opposite. Personally, you know, I have to force myself to stop usually when I’m playing music or practicing. So that’s the stimulation side. So if things aren’t going well, you’re not, um, progressing performance is an issue, those are the things to kind of think about on the, on the stimulation side, I would say.

And then, and then there’s the support side of the equation, right? So, all the growth, repair and recovery that’s [00:11:00] happening that we’re stimulating during those training sessions is happening when we’re not training.

So anything that interferes with that process will impair performance. And I would say probably sleep is going to the most important thing here, at least the most common issue that might undermine gains in this area. And that’s because memory consolidation happens during sleep. We know that not only is sleep essential for memory formation, but certain stages of sleep are also critical.

So there’s still a good bit of debate over this and a lot of research to tease out, you know, what’s happening when during different sleep stages, but we know that at least that is true. It’s critical for memory, and it’s not just quantity, how much sleep, but also the quality of the sleep, whether you’re progressing through those stages, you’re getting enough of each, and sleep, you know, in this scenario is a zero multiplier. Meaning if you’re not getting it, you won’t adapt to cognitive stimulation because it’s [00:12:00] necessary for it. If you’re engaging in cognitively demanding tasks, probably focusing on getting really good sleep is going to be your best return on investment in terms of trying to maximize the adaptations to it.

And then there’s making sure the brain is adequately nourished, right? That it’s getting all the nutrients that are needed for effective, you know, remodeling of its synapses. So all of the lifestyle factors that support the brain’s ability to respond to stimulation matter here, including a diet that includes all those nutrients that are important for the brain, and that doesn’t include things that would undermine growth, repair, and recovery.

And then potentially supplementation if it’s necessary to provide those essential nutrients and something I’m sure we’ll, we’ll talk about more. And so as we’ve discussed in prior episodes and in the initial one on our model, we need both. We need effective stimulation of adaptation. We need to make sure the brain has what it needs.

And then there’s also the possibility of over-training, right? So training itself is a [00:13:00] kind of stressor. It’s taxing, it requires energy, in the physical realm especially, can be inflammatory. And the benefits come in our body’s response to that stimulation, right?

What we don’t want to do is train so hard that we exceed our body’s ability to recover from that stressor. So this is probably an even bigger concern in the physical realm because certain physical activities can be such powerful systemic stressors, but I think it still applies in the cognitive realm as well.

So again, your performance and your enjoyment, I think are the two keys here for directly evaluating how things are. So, related to Rick’s question, could there be other secondary signs beyond performance that might indicate that things aren’t going well from the perspective of brain health that might serve as another source of feedback that perhaps you’re overdoing it.

And I would say that things like your overall mood and [00:14:00] sense of wellbeing are probably the most useful because those are still direct reflections of brain health. You know, we get irritable when our brain isn’t happy. So, irritability, fatigue, lack of focus, a lot of these things, not coincidentally, which are signs and symptoms of not sleeping well.

So when we’re talking about things not going well from a brain health perspective, we’re talking about insufficient growth, repair and recovery. And the reason we feel so crappy after a poor night of sleep is because there’s been insufficient repair and recovery from the prior day.

So we’ll experience signs of insufficient repair and recovery pretty much the same way, regardless of whether that underlying cause reason is a sleep issue or something else like overtraining. So an area where, again we’re kind of just at the beginning. We have lots to learn.

I think that a lot of the answers that we seek here can be found in analyzing sleep. And getting smarter about using sleep data to [00:15:00] tell us how we’re doing in this realm, I think has a ton of promise, and I predict that I think we’re gonna see a lot more tools emerging along these lines. So, analyzing brain activity during sleep as a means of assessing the overall levels of stimulation, as well as even globally assessing brain health.

So again, I’m gonna think of more tomorrow I know, but I’m gonna stop there and turn it over to Tommy, who has, like I said, lots of experience working with optimizing health in elite athletes, where all of these issues are extremely important and can spell the difference between winning and losing.

So, anything to add to the topic, Tommy?

Yeah, I was listening to you talking the listeners here may or may not know that you and I sort of prepare responses to our own questions, but we don’t know what the other person is gonna say. Right. So I’m, yeah, I kinda like that. It’s like it’s intellectual tennis we’re playing.

So I’m, I’m responding to you in real time. So there are a couple of threads that I’m interested in, in pulling on here that. The first [00:16:00] directly related to athletes. And so if you’re training for performance in a given sport, it’s very common to experience plateaus, right? So you’ll keep training and you make no movement in some given metric of performance or muscle growth or strength.

And, you know, that may be a sign to consider recovery and other factors, right? You talked about that. But sometimes it may be a case of should you be switching up the type of training that you’re doing, you know, backing off, you could be over training as well. Related to this, there’s this sort of notion in athletes that they’re very fit, but they’re not necessarily very healthy, right? So a Tour de France cyclist is incredibly fit, but you know, you ask them to pick up something heavy or jump on a box, and they can’t because they just don’t have the musculature or the physiology to do some [00:17:00] other movements outside of sitting in a cramped position, racing up a mountain.

So, sort of from that, I wonder in the first sort of like plateau idea is there a point where somebody who’s training for brain health may say, you know what, I’ve plateaued in this specific thing, should I be doing something else? Right. And maybe they’re doing something else. It relates to this concept of trying to get, healthier, as well as fitter, right? So you have a broader range of experiences and a broader range of skills. Does that make sense? Do you have some idea when you get to a point where you reach a plateau, maybe you’ve done some of these other diagnostics, you know, it’s not my recovery, it’s not that I’m doing too much. You know, I’ve sort of reached a plateau here. Where do I push through and where do I say, well, maybe I should be doing something else?

So this super important, I’ve talked a little bit about this before in terms of kind of the 80 20 of learning, and I, I think there is definitely a [00:18:00] cutoff point where you’d say, you know, if you’re looking at, through the lens of brain, where you’d be better served moving to another activity than continuing to try to reap gains from that particular activity where you’re up against this phenomenon where you’re having to just put more and more into it for the same benefits.

And so that there is this tension between optimizing to get as good as you can get at something, or, you know, peak performance, which is what an professional athlete’s gonna be doing versus optimizing for health.

Those things will be aligned to some extent for sure, but then there are definitely points where they’re not. And that’s, I think a super important thing to be mindful of. So it also gets back to this reframing of, of anything is thinking about the earliest phases of learning, being the time when you’re getting the most benefits.

So it’s really great to suck at things, right? Even though [00:19:00] we resist, you know, it does not feel good, you know, to go from something where you feel masterful or, you know, you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot, and then going back to feeling like you’re incompetent.

We resist that more as we get older, but that’s, you know, really good for us.

And so related to that, that actually leads us really nicely onto the second point that I had, which was, you tell you saying that if something’s good for your brain, it feels good. If I could go back 25 years and tell 13 year old me that while I was sucking at learning the piano, that would be, you should feel good.

You should feel good about this. Maybe, um, you could talk a little bit more about particularly in the early stages when you’re really bad at, because what feels good is being good at something . And so being bad at something does not feel good, even though it’s good for us.

Right? So how do we sort of build that into the model that you were describing?

So I think a lot of what you describe reflects a problem with [00:20:00] how we either learn things or how we’re taught. So the way that music may be traditionally taught doesn’t lend itself to being a rewarding experience for quite some time.

So there are ways of designing how you train and how you learn to change that, right? So that’s one point is that, design it so that there are small wins at every point in the progression. The thing we find rewarding is actually not getting to become like really good, it’s actually making progress. That’s the thing we love, right? Once we get, once we’ve made that progress and we’ve hit a new baseline, we’ll want the next thing, right? And that process does not stop no matter what level you get to. So, the real key to being rewarding is not, you know, oh, if I get to this place, I’ll finally feel happy about this.

It’s how do I make consistent progress each and every day? And in fact, it’s easier to do that when you’re at the beginning stages because everything has progress. [00:21:00] Right? So it’s more about is there something with how you’re practicing or how you’re training that’s not giving that reward. And that’s why people will give up so commonly is because it’s not rewarding so that they stop. And I think the other thing too is that this tendency to feel frustrated by ineptitude is really something you see the older you get. You don’t really see that with children, right?

So that has more to do with sort of baggage that we’re bringing or the stories we’re telling ourselves about what we should and shouldn’t be capable of, right? Yeah. Well, I’m a grownup I should be good at this, you know what I mean? When in reality, all of your capabilities are simply a product of what you’ve trained your brain on.

So kids don’t have that baggage, so they don’t care if they suck at something, they just do it and then they get better at it and they like it and they keep doing it, you know? Yeah. Whereas we feel a little bit inept and we’re like, I’ll do something I feel better at.

Yeah. So, no, I think that’s, I think those sort of like additional nuances are helpful for some people based on where they are in a [00:22:00] given learning process, so that’s great.

Yeah. All right. Well, I think that’s it for this particular episode. Thanks again, Rick, for a very thought-provoking and great question. And once again, if you have any questions that were spawned by our discussion here or anything else you want to ask us related to brain health and cognitive activity, we’ll do our best to answer them.

So you can submit by clicking on the link in the show description or going directly to All right, that’s all for this episode we hope to see you in the next one. Thanks everybody. Bye-bye. Bye.