Brain Games: Exercises to improve focus, memory and creativity

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Anshu Bahanda: Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda, and today we’re going to talk about neurobic exercises, which are cognitive exercises that stimulate the brain. And as you know, at Wellness Curated, we help you lead a healthier, happier, more hopeful life by giving you tips, tools, and techniques with the very best. And to that effect, we have today Arnie Gotfryd, who is a bioscientist, an entrepreneur, and an educator. And he’s the CEO of Maxi Mind Learning. Welcome to the chat Arnie. 

Dr Arnie Gotfryd: My pleasure. 

AB: Now, let’s start with telling our listeners why you started Maxi Mind. 

Dr A G: I’d love to tell you about how I started Maxi Mind. Among our brood of children, we have one who was really challenged— emotionally, sensorily, [in terms of] communication, academic learning, reading, writing… Nothing worked well for him. None of the experts were able to help us with him. Medication that was prescribed was poison for him, and nothing was helping. We really needed to do something. My background is in biosciences, and I started shopping 20 odd years ago, before Google— for those of us that are old enough to remember [on] Netscape. So I was looking for scientifically-developed, medically-endorsed techniques that I could procure, learn and apply, that are fun to do for kids, that had some good traction and with a good company backing it up. And I settled on my first intervention, which was a neurofeedback-driven cognitive training platform for consumers. It worked beautifully until my kid pushed back and said, no more dad, I’m done. So that was part of the problem, because he got bored with it. So then I started looking for other things, and I found some sensory integration exercise things, which were fabulous. And then after four or five sessions, he pushed back and I couldn’t get a neuroplastic change. They just got temporary transient relief. And I’m trying to encourage him, but you couldn’t buy them or sell them. So we were stuck again. And the cycle continued until things started to get better. And I was brought into the private school where he was going, to help other children. The principal asked me to help other people’s children. That became a passionate hobby for about six years. I thought, this is too good to keep to myself. How do I roll it out? So I had a plan, my wife agreed, our spiritual mentor gave us a blessing, and we mortgaged the house, bought technology, hired teachers, and gave it away in three private schools for three months to 40 children. Today, the methodology has been templated, and there have been 1300 unchanged children through the program. And we’ve had a consistent 90% plus success rate with a life change in focused learning and self control. That’s the Maxi Mind story in a nutshell. 

AB: Wow. Thank you for that. For our listeners. Can you explain the difference between, say, ADHD and difficulty in focusing?

Dr A G: It’s a very good question. Just yesterday, one of my colleagues approached me complaining about a doctor. He used colorful terms. A 53 year old who had been very highly functioning up until the previous year, had personal crises, one after another in his life, and he had tremendous trouble focusing and self regulating. And he’d gone to the doctor, who diagnosed him with adult ADHD, gave him pills, and said goodbye. It wasn’t a bona fide ADHD. Now, having said that, ADHD is only defined by traits. It’s not a disease. So if the traits go away, you could say it’s not in remission, it’s gone, because it’s only defined by behaviors. So what’s the real ADHD? To give a very simple answer, if you take care of other life factors and it doesn’t go away, maybe your brain is wired that way, to be restless, impulsive, distractible, disorganized, and maybe you need to address it in order to be happy and successful. 

AB: So, with your program, you deal with ADHD. And can you help people get off medication? And are there examples where people have still needed to stay on medication?

Dr A G: Well, of our clients, there’s usually about 100 kids in the program, the significant majority come because they want to avoid medication for their children, and the significant majority of them are successful in that. 

AB: But are there situations where people still need to go on medication or have to carry on with medication?

Dr A G: Very good question. See, to me, medication is a Band-Aid. It doesn’t cure anything. But sometimes your life situation requires a Band-Aid while the healing processes. So to only take the BandAid is not the answer. But to take the Band-Aid while doing something that will promote healing, that could be an answer. Now, those children are in the small minority, but there are cases where somebody needs to just stay on medication. But I want to give you one little fact, and then you decide. In France, and in the United States, Canada there’s a huge disparity in medication rates. So for every 20 children medicated in North America, there’s one medicated in France. 5% of the medication rate. 

AB: Wow. Do they have children without ADHD?

Dr A G: No. They are as spacy and restless and impulsive as any other child today. But they don’t have pharmaceutical companies. They buy the meds from North America. So, why do we solve this problem in this way? Because it’s the easy way, and there’s an indoctrination process. 

AB: Also, how does your program help if you give us an example? And also, who all does it help? Because from my understanding, do you help beyond just ADHD? Do you help people who are autistic, the elderly, people with short term memory loss, and people with trauma induced memory loss? Do you have neurotypical people as well?

Dr A G: How to answer seven questions with one answer. I guess the shortest answer is yes. I was very confused. Why one methodology— I mean, we tweak it, we customize it, we individualize it, but it’s one methodology providing a substantive solution for a vast diversity of children and adults. And I was always confused by it. I didn’t understand, I didn’t grow up with that idea, until I saw research that was done using FMRI data of children with ADHD, autism, OCD and neurotypicals, and compared them. The diagnoses proved irrelevant. What proved substantive was the white matter connectivity profile and the behaviors, those were highly correlated. And the conclusion of this multiparty study, and for many of them that have been done— it’s not just one study, is that if you could find an intervention that will boost white matter connectivity in the brain, meaning strengthen neural networks, then you should be able to resolve all these different diverse conditions. And that’s really what underlies it. Strengthening networks in the brain addresses a large proportion of all these issues. And we’ve had cases from ages three to 83. 

AB: Wow. From what I have heard, gaming like something like Super Mario 64, might help with neuroplasticity. It might help develop the hippocampus and therefore spatial memory. So are there games, digital and otherwise, that you recommend that people can use to help them?

Dr A G: Not really. The slightly long answer is games do and do not help. They do help because by exercising the brain with anything that’s challenging and doing it repeatedly, you will improve, at least in what the game teaches. How generalizable and transferable that is, is up for grabs. My gold standard is to show me the science, show me the number of users, show me the medical endorsement, show me the traction in the marketplace where you see outcomes. So whatever the measures are of efficacy, that’s what speaks to me. Not claims, but efficacy measures. So because it doesn’t show well, therefore I’m not interested in them. I’m interested in things that create a life change a substantial proportion of the time. I know how a mother feels, I know how a father feels, I know how a child feels that cannot do what others can do. And I want to take away that pain. And to do that you need to dig in. So you need frequency, intensity and duration in a program, doing the right things with the right frequency, intensity and duration, and then you’re in that field of a 90% plus life change in diverse areas. That’s my space. Those games don’t do it. 

AB: And tell me, Arnie, what about neuroplasticity? Can you give us a quick explanation of neuroplasticity?

Dr A G: One sentence— it’s the brain’s ability to change itself. So you’ve got 1000 billion neurons with 1000 trillion connections. Your brain is changing all the time. It’s a brand new science, meaning 50 years ago nobody knew about it. But the pioneers of 50 years ago were proven right and some of them were my mentors. But it’s a real science and it has tremendous and wide applications and it gives tremendous hope for transformation, and anyone can benefit. 

AB: Lovely. And just coming back to your example with the gentleman who you trained. So how much time typically does someone need to spend on your program and what does it involve?

Dr A G: The classic program is two or three times a week, 40 sessions of 50 minutes. It involves a personal trainer guiding you through movement and tech exercises while listening to engineered sound stimulation. It’s engineered classical music through bone conduction headphones. There’s an arm band that detects mental focus and concentration, and defocus and lack of concentration, and it rewards you with success outcomes on the screen by working on yourself to space in— space in you win, space out you lose. And so that balance of movement, music, and tech with a personal trainer, a 50 minute session, 40 of them— that’s gold standard Maxi Mind brain training. 

AB: And tell me, let’s talk about the benefits of neurobic exercises. So we know that it helps improve memory and focus. Does it help with things like mental health? So with mood and anxiety and things like that?

Dr A G: Yes, yes. So there are other modalities for emotional regulation. So with a child, once you settle down the neurology, the emotional takes care of itself. But for older kids, teens, adults, we’ve already written the scripts of dysfunction into our memories. So you’re shooting yourself in the foot all the time. We’re getting into anxiety for the kids with our classic program, we add different flavors of biofeedback-driven cognitive training, HRV (Heart Rate Variability) biofeedback, and vagus nerve stimulation. This will also help. 

AB: Would you say that all age groups would benefit, or would you say it’s best to be done while your brain is still developing?

Dr A G: Yeah, you know, the old story is, for example, autism, they say you’ve got a five year window. The person who introduced us to each other, Anshu, Jonathan Alderson, wrote a book called Challenging the Myths of Autism. And I think the first one that he trashes, as a Harvard educator with many thousands of children that he’s helped, he’s just at the top of the pecking order. He’s a superstar in this world of autism treatment. And he says that a five year window is baloney. And the neuroplasticity story is really for any age. An 83 year old client of ours was depressed. She talked in small, tight circles, and couldn’t remember from 1 second to the next. We did a very watered down program because she couldn’t do all these fancy exercises, no computer, just music and movement within her physical abilities, which were moderate for an 83 year old, and it lifted the depression. It took away those tight circles of communication, which became conversational, so that it extended her short term and working memory, and it was like turning back the clock five years for her, and it persisted. 

AB: Wonderful. Wow. 

Dr A G: Yeah. 

AB: Wow. So now we come to the moment that everyone’s waiting for. We want you to give us some neurobic exercises that we can do at home or that people can do at home, which will help them build focus. Because I have friends who are not even able to read because they can’t focus on that. These are neurotypical people. But our lives are such that there’s gadgets everywhere. You’re jumping around from one thing to the other. So focusing has become so hard. Can you help us with that?

Dr A G: On Amazon, you can get a wobble board, a circular board, I think it’s about 16 or 18 inches in diameter, branded with Amazon. 

AB: What board?

Dr A G: A wobble board or balanced board. An Amazon product. The only reason I mentioned it, because it’s inexpensive, it’s functional and it’s a brand people understand. Get that and a few bean bags, bean bags you could toss. For under $30, you have delivered to your door a neurodevelopmental tool kit. You show me that balance board and those bean bags in your home and then I will send you a 16-page PDF that tells you what to do with a beanbag while standing on a balance board. From easy-squeezy-peasy to highly challenging, I can tell you that typically within 20 minutes on a balance board, if you do a pre and post-test of reading, writing, even an ocular eye chart, 80% of people will find improvements in 20 minutes. 

AB: Wow. 

Dr A G: However, they will go away. But if you do it, let’s say ten minutes a day, five days a week, for six weeks, again I promise you results in focus, reading, comprehension, [your] spirits lifting— different outcomes, overall outcomes, you’ll get a neuroplastic change. 

AB: And you’re saying ten minutes a day, 20 minutes a day…

Dr A G: Give me ten minutes a day, five days a week. Ten minutes a day, five days a week, six weeks— you’ll see the difference. If you do 20, you will be wise because really, 20 to 25 is really the sweet spot. It’s a full, intense workout. 

AB: Okay, so just the wobble board. Forget about the beanbags to begin with. 

Dr A G: No, you need the beanbags. Wobble board plus beanbag. Because balance is the key. But the vestibular challenge is enhanced by having bilateral coordination. Let me put it this way. Chesterton said there are an infinity of angles. He was a Brit, I forget his name, G.K. Chesterton. But he had a great statement. There are an infinity of angles at which a man falls, but only one where he stands upright. So we all know what normal functioning looks like. But once there’s dysfunction, there’s many, many ways of being dysfunctional. So just like a person can be emotionally out of balance, mentally out of focus, but there’s also physical balance. And the discovery, an amazing discovery, is that these emotional and mental balances are addressed by addressing the vestibular sense. Our alignment with the force of gravity, from our spiritual tradition, our alignment with the direction up, not the direction down necessarily the way you view it, but in any case, this balance issue, once you’re crossing the midline, you’re tossing a bag back and forth, you’re really stimulating your full balance sense and the way it connects your other senses. 

AB: How many bean bags did you say?

Dr A G: One is enough. 

AB: One. Okay. Wonderful. And tell me, once we’ve improved our focus, whether it’s using this exercise or using your techniques on your website, what happens if we stop? Do we reverse?

Dr A G: Well, any teacher knows that over the summer it is brain drain. So it’s normal when people do nothing and they walk away from skills, they get rusty, but they don’t lose them. They go back in the recesses of their long term memory and then you have to dust them off and practice them again. But it doesn’t take so long. So the same is applied here. The skills that you get, you keep. They become like scaffolding for the building. You build your life on those neural networks because success leads to success. So as you could do a slightly higher function that allows you to reach the next higher function. 

AB: Okay. And from what you’re telling me, typically if you do something, some kind of neurobic exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day, six weeks, you should see a difference. Correct? 

Dr A G: Correct. 

AB: Wonderful. Arnie. We end normally with a rapid fire round where we quickly summarize something for people to take away. So, what you do benefits everyone. But is there any way of testing when someone really needs to start neurobic exercises?

Dr A G: Fantastic. My rule is, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. If you find that you can achieve just by working hard, if you can achieve by letting go, you’ve got mental social techniques of achieving your potential and you’re not plateaued and you’re growing as much as you want to grow, or you’ve got a motivational issue and you need to motivate yourself, whatever that is— just work with yourself and with the others around you. You don’t need it. That’s my opinion. But if you find that your brain is getting in your way, then yes, the longer-shorter way, meaning may take you longer, but you’ll get way better results at the end, is by addressing the deficits with proper brain training. 

AB: Okay. Arnie only one exercise that people can do anytime, anywhere, without any equipment?

Dr A G: Okay. No equipment. One exercise. A few things come to mind. The first is stop. Your mind is racing. It’s not allowing you to focus, just stop. Tell yourself to stop. Next, breathe. We all know our breathing exercises, for years we’ve talked about it. Oxygen, our brain is hungry for oxygen. 30% of our energy demands are here (points to the brain) and I need oxygen to metabolize ATP. The brain needs oxygen. Don’t deprive it, breathe deeply. The next thing would be, you can do it yourself, no tools— align. We have a spirit, we have a mind, we have emotions, we’ve got a physical body. You align it, and in turn your mental function will be magnified. The last one, there are four things that you can do anywhere— so the fourth one is to move, get up, walk around, do a few jumping jacks, go back and sit down. Your brain will be on fire again. 

AB: Thank you so much, Arnie, for this incredible chat. I’m sure a lot of people will benefit from it. And thank you [to the listeners] for listening in. If you enjoyed this chat, please do share it, press like and subscribe to us. Thank you.