Archive for December, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 19th, 2011

We’re in the process of reworking our website so it will reflect our new emphasis on wellness and peak performance in the corporate sphere. In the meantime, I’ve been working up white papers that talk about our core offerings. Posting the text of the first one here. It’s about enhancing corporate effectiveness using empirically validated cognitive training to make team members smarter, sharper, better at complex reasoning, and better in control of their focus of attention and their emotions. Enjoy!

A Choratech White Paper

Increasing Corporate Effectiveness through Cognitive Training

 By Philip E. Toman, Ph.D.

Owner, Choratech

  

Introduction

Behind all human success lies the functioning of the human brain. More than ever before, technological, economic and demographic realities are such that well-functioning brains are among corporations’ most valuable assets. At the same time, developments in neuroscience have made it possible to improve many aspects of brain functioning through non-invasive means, enhancing both productivity and personal wellness. Choratech brings scientifically validated tools for cognitive and self-regulatory enhancement to the corporate space, offering personally coached cognitive training programs that enhance workers’ effectiveness and efficiency, lengthening their productive careers and increasing their quality of life.


Problem Statement

In the contemporary economy, organizations’ most valuable asset is the collective brain capacity of their personnel. Information and knowledge are the major carriers of value in the current global economic and technological climate. Therefore, it is more important today than ever before that organizations have team members who are intelligent, attentive, imaginative, and good at managing stress.

 There are several factors that make brain function a particularly relevant concern for organizations in the early 21st century. These factors include technological developments, changes in the workplace, and demographic trends.

 Factor 1: Technological developments

 In the last fifty years technology has allowed us to store and manipulate far more information, in far more ways, than ever before in history. The advent of computers and, more recently, the Internet and mobile devices has led to an explosion in the quantity and variety of information at our disposal. As is often the case with technological developments, the human impact of these advances has not simply been one of increasing convenience and decreasing the amount of work to be done. Instead, new technologies have created a world that is increasingly complex and that contains a dizzying amount of information which impinges on us from all sides, during nearly all of our waking hours.

The modern workplace is one where multiple communication technologies are simultaneously active, and the automation of simple tasks has required employees to function at a higher level, making more decisions and monitoring more streams of information concurrently. At the same time, the boundaries between private and work life have been blurred by digital media, with increased interpenetration between work and personal life.

 Consequently, “information overload” has become a prominent feature of the contemporary workplace. It has become increasingly critical for people to be able to sort, weigh, and prioritize among multiple pieces of information, to “multi-task” efficiently, to remember accurately, and to focus their attention on what is relevant while ignoring what is potentially distracting.

 The human brain was not designed to operate in this type of environment. The context in which our brains developed was slower and less complex, and allowed for focus on one thing at a time. The result has been that our brains are increasingly taxed by the demands of the environment, both at work and outside of work. This creates failures in cognitive performance, and sets the stage for stress-related problems.

 Factor 2: Specialization and expertise

 Much of today’s economic activity is linked closely to the productivity of people with specialized cognitive abilities and skills, people who were hired at a premium, essentially because of what they can do with their brains. This is especially the case in the high-tech and professional sectors, but also at the higher management strata and in specialized segments of other types of organizations.

 Choratech refers to those whose cognitive functioning is particularly mission-critical as cognitive thoroughbreds. Like the equine variety, cognitive thoroughbreds are expensive to secure and keep fed and watered, but they are richly rewarding (and a joy to behold!) when they are doing what they do best. Their contribution is often the difference that gives the edge to one company over another in a highly competitive climate – the spark of ingenuity, the burst of energy, or the flash of insight that allows for the job to be done that little bit better.

 Cognitive thoroughbreds are a major investment, a precious and sought-after commodity—and they are worth investing in, if there is a way to hone their already keen abilities to an even higher level of acuity, while enhancing their well-being and their ability to make the most of their talents both on and off the job.

 Factor 3: Demographic trends

 Western economies and societies are undergoing major changes resulting from the aging of the “baby boomer” generation, combined with historic low birthrates. The first “baby boomers” (defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) are just this year arriving at the end of their working years, at least as defined by the traditional retirement age of 65. At the same time, corporations and governments face an unprecedented challenge in the form of low birthrates and a shrinking pool of workers to continue the economic legacy of the baby boomers and to provide the means by which to care for the needs of a massive cohort of aging citizens. Policymakers are in a panic as to how they will deal with the coming surge in retirements and, soon afterward, rapidly escalating costs of supporting and providing healthcare to huge numbers of elderly citizens, co-occurring with a shrinking tax base due to demographic decline.

 The corporate sector also faces a challenge in the form of the impending loss of a large group of its most experienced and knowledgeable workers, the pressure of having to provide post-retirement benefits to a large cohort, and an insufficient pool of young, well-educated workers. In the meantime, even for younger workers the cognitive demands of an increasingly information-dense environment—and having to accomplish more with fewer brains—will continue to grow. Given the small pool of qualified workers, it will be in employers’ interests to maximize the cognitive effectiveness of their workers regardless of their age. Notably, decline of core cognitive abilities has been shown to begin in the early 20s and to proceed in roughly linear fashion through the remainder of the lifespan, making cognitive enhancement a potentially valuable tool for the entire workforce, irrespective of age.

 These demographic factors converge to create an environment in which there will be significant pressure to lengthen the span of people’s productivity and independence, both from the people themselves, and from the need of employers (and governments) to delay and soften the economy’s transition into the post-baby-boom era. Enhancement of cognition through scientifically validated training holds out the promise of accomplishing this, in a way that is effective, affordable, and highly scalable.

Previous Options

The problems posed by the technological, social, and demographic factors listed above are striking businesses with new force and urgency, although it has always been acknowledged that people are limited by their cognitive ability, and that these limitations are felt most keenly in cognitively intensive settings, or where cognitive capacities have been diminished due to the effects of age, injury, illness, or stress.

 In a very real sense, if these limitations were not seen as problems previously, it was partly because it was not imagined that there could be any conceivable solutions to them. The idea of enhancing cognitive ability was simply not in anyone’s universe of possibilities, including those whose job it was to study cognition scientifically.

One perhaps unfortunate byproduct of the way psychological science developed in the last century has been a rather persistent pessimism about the possibility of changing basic cognitive abilities. The early history of psychology included a strong tradition of quantitative trait measurement (called psychometrics), which was a necessary and positive step in bringing behaviour within the purview of scientific study, but which had the unintended effect of subtly encouraging scientists to think of the traits they were measuring as fixed and immutable. Later on, with the rise of computing machines in the 1950s and onward, cognitive science began to use computers as the dominant metaphor for the functions of the brain, again with the unintended consequence that brain capacities were considered “hard-wired”, fixed and unchangeable.

 As a result of these intellectual trends, it was widely thought in scientific and professional circles that there was really nothing that could be done to improve cognitive ability directly. Where problems or limitations were present, the only solution would be to work around them through the use of compensatory strategies or technology. Certainly, it was widely thought that it was probably at least mildly beneficial to keep one’s mind active, perhaps by doing crossword puzzles, taking courses, and so on; but no one took seriously the idea that cognitive abilities could actually be increased through targeted effort.

 The closest things to what might be called “solutions” to the problem of cognitive limitation in the corporate sphere have reflected this general pessimism about the possibility of change. Corporate training programs have focused strictly on imparting content (e.g., skills training), and promoting the use of assistive tools and strategies (e.g., training in time management or in the use of productivity software), rather than aiming at the direct improvement of cognitive functioning per se.

Choratech Solution

Choratech represents the application of a new way of thinking about the possibility of change in human cognition.

 The conceptual and empirical basis of all of Choratech’s programs is the science of brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and change the way it deploys its resources in order to adapt to changes in its environment and the demands being placed on it.

 The principles governing the brain’s plasticity are better understood now than ever before. What is most noteworthy about the recent science in this area is the new appreciation that a significant degree of neuroplasticity is maintained throughout the lifespan, rather than being present only in the brains of still-developing children, as was previously assumed. In a real sense, brains never stop developing, because they are constantly modifying themselves to the changing demands that are being made of them.

This lifelong capacity for growth and change has made possible new interventions that can bring about significant changes in brain functioning simply by providing brains with the right sort of experiences and challenges at the right times. Scientific work in this area has demonstrated that lifelong brain plasticity can indeed be harnessed, with remarkably beneficial effects not only for cognition, but for emotional functioning, general health, and quality of life.

 Choratech’s mission is to select the most effective scientifically validated plasticity-based tools for the enhancement of brain function, and to deliver them in a way that is designed to meet the needs of corporate customers.

 Typically, cognitive training takes place by means of game-like computer software that is used for a period of 20 to 30 minutes, on a daily or near-daily basis, for a period of several weeks. The software is adaptive to the user’s performance, and is designed to stretch the selected brain system maximally by maintaining the difficulty level near the outer limit of his or her current capacity.[1] Over the course of training these limits move outward, resulting in better and better cognitive functioning that transfers to improved effectiveness in everyday life. These effects have been shown in scientific studies to remain undiminished across follow-up periods of over a year.

 Choratech is committed to establishing its work on a scientific foundation, which means that training technologies are selected only if they have been shown in published research to have real-life effects. It also means that Choratech collects research-quality data before and after training, and at follow-up intervals, for the purposes of establishing a scientific database whose results can be published in academic journals. These data include an automated, web-based battery of neuropsychological tests and a set of research-derived questionnaire measures of self-perceived cognitive and emotional functioning.

Effects

Cognitive training has numerous effects that are relevant to corporate effectiveness. These effects vary depending on the specific targeted function(s), but generally include the following:

 Effect 1: Improved concentration

 Users of cognitive training show increases in sustained attention and resistance to distraction. They are able to maintain their focus on the task at hand for longer periods of time, while more successfully suppressing or ignoring interference from distractions like ambient noise in the office, ringing telephones, alerts or alarms generated by their computer workstations, or their own non-task-related thoughts.

 Effect 2: Improved short-term memory

 Users show increased ability to maintain information in mind across task-relevant periods of time without forgetting. For example, when reading a lengthy written text or listening in a meeting they have clearer memory for what has been said previously. This allows them to make better sense of what they are reading or hearing currently, while decreasing the need to go back and re-read or clarify.

 Effect 3: Improved ability to manage complex information

 Cognitive training increases the user’s ability to hold in mind and consider multiple streams of information simultaneously. This allows for greater effectiveness on tasks that require information from multiple sources to be integrated, or those having multiple sequential steps whose inputs may themselves be products of previous steps. It also allows the individual to view the same problem from several different vantage points, and to consider various facets or aspects of a problem at the same time.

 Effect 4: Better self-regulation

 Cognitive training has documented effects in improving self-direction and self-control. Already mentioned is the improvement in users’ ability to control and direct their focus of attention. Importantly, though, cognitive training also increases the capacity for other types of self-control. For example, users have shown documented improvements in their ability to resist impulses. One study published in 2011 showed that heavy drinkers who completed a cognitive training program (identical to one of Choratech’s product offerings) responded less to habitual impulses to drink, leading to less alcohol consumption. Users often indicate that after cognitive training they are more patient and less prone to act on impulse. They are more able to stick with tasks that are difficult and unrewarding, and are better able to manage and organize their time without being excessively captured by their feelings or wishes of the moment. Their emotional responses also tend to be better regulated, which leads them to be more effective not only at getting things done, but also at getting along with others.

 Effect 5: Quality of life

 Although less tangible and less directly linked to the corporate bottom line, cognitive training research has resulted in documentation of numerous effects on quality of life, from increases in self-reported well-being to variables such as usage of medical services and involvement in motor vehicle accidents. Users feel smarter, sharper, and more vigorous, resulting in increases in confidence.

Implementation

Choratech’s cognitive training programs are set up to be run almost entirely remotely. We consult with executives or HR professionals on the particular needs of their businesses, resulting in a tailored solution that selects training programs and groups of potential users for maximal organizational benefit. Users are introduced to the science of neuroplasticity and the practical aspects of their cognitive training at a group training session. They then complete online assessments of self-reported cognitive and mental functioning, as well as neuropsychological tests of their performance. The cognitive training itself is done daily, usually for 20 to 30 minutes a day, for a period of several weeks. Each user’s performance is tracked by a Choratech coach and remote support is provided to ensure full follow-through with the training regimen. The assessment battery is repeated several weeks after the completion of training, and again after a follow-up interval of several months.

Summary

Organizational success is ever more dependent on the ability to capitalize on human resources, and the primary human resource of our own or any other time is the brain, with all its dazzling and mysterious capacities. In a real sense, the success of all earthly human endeavours stands or falls on the operations of human brains. Until recently, this truth was merely academic, given that there was no available way outside of the classical disciplines of education, training, and character development to influence the ability of brains to do the work that was demanded of them. However, recent developments in the science of neuroplasticity have made the direct enhancement of cognitive function a real possibility.

 Choratech’s purpose is to take research-validated applications of the science of neuroplasticity and make them available to corporate and organizational customers. One of the means of doing so is through cognitive training, which has been demonstrated to be effective in increasing people’s ability to sustain attention, resist distraction, manipulate complex information, and engage in the fundamentally human processes of self-direction and self-regulation.

 Choratech’s cognitive training programs are embedded in a consultative process that identifies corporate needs, matches users to cognitive training tools, coaches users through to the completion of time-limited training regimens, and measures outcomes empirically.

 For more information about corporate cognitive training, or to learn more about its scientific basis and range of applications, please contact Choratech.



[1] Other applications use the principles of biofeedback, training users to modify neural processes by showing them direct, moment-to-moment information about their ongoing neurophysiological state on a computer screen or handheld device, while another, called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), amplifies or suppresses electrical activity directly in carefully targeted neural sites through the application of pulsed magnetic fields, with scientifically documented effects on states such as depression, anxiety, migraine, and chronic pain. All of these applications, which can be arrayed along a continuum from completely non-invasive to minimally invasive, are part of Choratech’s product line.