Professor Faubert had the pleasure of being interviewed for a Neuronfire podcast by Dr.David Bach, who introduced him as the ‘world’s preeminent expert in visual perception’. David Bach, MD, is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist and Founder and President of The Platypus Institute, a research institution focused on how to radically enhance cognitive functioning and the human experience. After reading research from the Faubert Lab in detail, Dr.Bach wanted to delve deeper into how visual based training can deliver improvements in cognitive abilities. Here we cover some of the key points discussed.
Nothing is as Obvious as it Seems
Professor Faubert started out his career decades ago in artificial intelligence and found that “…when it comes vision, nothing is as obvious as it seems”. The old thinking that brain functions like perception and cognition are separate is not true, it’s much fuzzier, and integrated in very complex ways.
When it comes to seeing, we detect energy through light waves, however, that information does not provide meaning. There are perceptual qualities that go beyond energy processes and require high-level cognitive functions to process the world around us. For instance differences in attention can literally change the way we interpret what we are looking at.
Professor Faubert’s interest in athletes evolved out of trying to understand the demands required to process dynamic scenes. These include everyday things like crossing the road, driving or navigating a shopping center. But it’s elite athletes who actually make a living from processing dynamic scenes, and have remarkably superior abilities.
The question is whether this is because they’re exposed to these kinds of scenes and simply get used to them, or if it is because their brains adapt to these demands at a fundamental level to get better at dealing with them.
What Makes Them Different?
To test this, Professor Faubert compared elite athletes to university students on NeuroTracker. What was found, unsurprisingly, was that elite athletes were initially better. However, the interesting thing is that elite athletes also got better at NeuroTracker much faster than university students, even though NeuroTracker was a new and neutral task to them. So their brains are somehow built to be more plastic, and more adaptive in learning to process dynamic scenes.
The holy grail for Professor Faubert is if this kind of change in NeuroTracker ability (an abstract task), can achieve improvements in real life functions. So he trained soccer players on NeuroTracker and evaluated their performance in competitive play. He found a significant improvement in their passing decision-making accuracy, yet no difference found with controls.
Dr.Bach emphasized the importance of this kind of transfer to real life performance:
“…the studies are absolutely rock solid…(Professor Faubert) can take elite athletes, people who look at fast moving targets for a living, retrain their brain because of neuroplasticity, so that…their cognitive function allows them to see things more quickly. And that translates into a 15% improvement in passing efficiency. Now in professional sports where a 2% or 3% edge can make the difference, that’s an extraordinary finding. I’m excited about this. This work basically teaches us…that you can train even the world’s best visual brains to become better, and that translates directly to into performance improvements.”
The Pivotal Role of Plasticity
Neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to physically adapt to specific demands to perform better.
The big surprise for Professor Faubert was the finding that elite athletes have ‘residual plasticity’. He explained the meaning of this for world-class athletes,
“The fact that they are there…is because they are more plastic. I think that’s one of the criteria. You would think that this brain is optimal at the highest competitive level, that it’s reached its maximum potential. But maybe they are there because they can acquire new potential so much more rapidly and so more efficiently. It’s been fascinating actually.”
Elderly populations are known to have natural changes in brain functions that lead to a reduction in real-life abilities. For example, when something is moving quickly they may not have the same capacity to track it at a cognitive level. For Professor Faubert, the question is, are these processes still plastic in older people?
“What’s very interesting is we did a study on just that. In fact, we saw no difference in the plasticity between the elderly and young adults. Of course, their abilities are much lower to start, but the progression rate was the same. We’ve shown that that change…actually transfers into something meaningful for them. We looked at their ability to read body movement cues. We saw that their ability…was improved dramatically.”
Dr.Bach and Professor Faubert concluded on the importance that this these kinds of improvements typically require only 2 hours of total training, and that cognitive training can be both practical and useful for improving almost anyone’s lives.
You can listen to the free podcast here:
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