For a society that runs on intellect - this is the Information Age, they tell us, and We're All Knowledge Workers Now - it's curious that Brain Fitness Clubs haven't swept the nation. Honing and toning the body is a perennial fashion phenomenon. Yoga is big this year; last year it was Tae Bo. Beautiful Minds only apply to crazy economists, but everybody aspires to a Beautiful Body.
It's medically accepted that "use it or lose it" applies to the mind as well as the body. A regular program of training would improve mental performance just as it helps with physical well-being. It's easy to imagine an Oprah-ready offering; one can re-use all the tricks that health clubs have developed, like fitness assessments, group work-outs, personal trainers, expensive equipment, and a range of activities tailored to every taste. (There won't be much of a market for spandex accessories, though, and the top practitioners won't be very telegenic.) All it needs is a charismatic entrepreneur who's smart, sexy and a super-seller.
Mental fitness is already established in geriatrics, where Early Boomers buy what it takes to stave off the debilities, mental as well as physical, of old age. Cognitive training can reverse cognitive impairment in many seniors.
The mystery is why it hasn't shown up in the mainstream. Perhaps people feel that their work gives them enough mental exercise, and that they couldn't bear to do any more. However, in the days of farm labor, workers would turn to sport over the week-end and dances in the evenings.
Perhaps it's the association with school. Most people hated school, and mental training sounds too much like being back in class.
Perhaps its the belief that one doesn't need to learn how to think. We all know how to think, just like we know how to breathe and walk; we don't need classes on how to walk around, do we? (Actually, we do; cf. the Alexander Technique.) Sure, occasionally we need some one-off training in a new technique, but after that it's just application - right?
Western disinterest in regular training and study with a teacher of one's craft has always perplexed me. It is taken for granted in many Eastern traditions, whether in martial arts (the craft of killing people) or meditation (the craft of cultivating the mind).
Last but not least, it could be that the term "mental health" in fact connotes mental illness with all the stigmas that entails, whereas "physical health" is something that's a good in itself.
Currently, mental fitness is either a private, personal activity (crossword puzzles, sudoku) or a social one grounded in the humanities (book clubs, philosophical discussions).
However, outsourcing and offshoring are rubbing American noses in the prospect of being put out of their job by smart young aliens. It won't be long before a canny entrepreneur figures out how to franchise getting yourself a supple and sexy mind. Some elements of the offering:
- Meditation to increase concentration and creativity
- Memory training and competitions
- Strategy games - remember the old guys on the sidewalk playing chess or go?
- Mind-body combo activities like combining two senses, or doing complex tasks with your non-dominant hand
- Equipment - expensive hardware to make you feel your subscription is buying something real, e.g. mind-controlled video games (overview)
- "Circuits" - a pre-planned sequence of activities from the above list