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Brain training to become as prevalent as physical training – IntelliGym developer Danny Dankner

Danny Dankner has developed brain-training software for ice hockey players to improve their performance. Image courtesy of Danny Dankner
Danny Dankner has developed brain-training software for ice hockey players to improve their performance. Image courtesy of Danny Dankner

Software that can enhance your cognitive abilities will become as prevalent as physical gyms are today, according to Danny Dankner, the chief executive of Applied Cognitive Engineering, developers of the IntelliGym sports brain-training software.

You are developing brain-training software for football players, can you explain how that works?

‘We do a very thorough analysis of a specific task (playing football). This is done via a lot of observations and video analysis, stuff like that. Then we put together a very detailed cognitive map that entails all the cognitive skills that a player needs in order to be an effective football player. That could be spatial awareness, anticipation, working memory and so on.’

‘With this map at hand, we put together a training environment that looks like a video game that stimulates the exact same cognitive skills.’

Can you give an example?

‘We have found that working memory appears to be an important skill for players, and that is true, by the way, for other team sports as well. Think about a player who runs on the pitch and he has the ball, and there are other players, could be from his own team or the rival team, and they are running behind him. He has a quick look at who is running behind him and then he runs forward. Now, you need to process in your brain where the other players are located and what their trajectories are, even if you don’t see them visually at that moment. This type of processing, of having a bird’s eye view of where each player is located without seeing them, that is a skill that can be trained and acquired.

‘Our training environment is designed as a video game. In the case of football, we use a space battle metaphor. Imagine a flock of spaceships, where you have two teams of ships and some of those spaceships will become invisible. They are still there, they are still part of this battle, but if you want to excel in this game you really need to know where they are even if you can’t see them. So we start the game at a basic level where just one ship becomes invisible and it goes pretty slowly, and then it gets faster and faster and more and more ships become invisible. It was found that when you do that over and over again in the right training context, and you get to a higher level of performance, this translates very, very effectively to the pitch. So next time you are playing football you know where everybody is located even without looking at them.’

Brain-training software, such as one where a player controls one of two competing spaceship squads, are individually adapted to the person’s capability. Image credit: Danny Dankner

Why are you focusing specifically on sport?

‘This technology is not limited to sport, but in the sport world it will be very apparent to see the difference between a trained player and somebody who did not do this training. In the world of ice hockey, since we started training the under-18 US national team, that was 2009, they have won the world championship title six times, which never happened before in the history of ice hockey. So the difference in the performance is really very significant, it is not marginal.’

How prevalent will brain training become?

‘The best comparison is physical fitness. It wasn’t as widespread 30 years ago. Now, if you think about gyms, about people who are going to do their treadmill workout and lifting weights, it’s really widespread. So I see it in the same way. There are always going to be people who are lazy, who are not investing in their brains and in their bodies. But I think there is going to be a growing number of people that realise that investing in your brain, in your cognitive skills and your performance level is important. If you do that on a regular basis that is going to raise your quality of life.’

So brain training will be as prevalent as physical training one day?

‘That’s our vision. That’s what we think. And you see more and more data that is collected that goes in that direction. As a matter of fact if you just think of one example. This is of two people that are about the same age, say, 70 years of age. They have white areas in their brains, white areas are dead areas when you do a scan. You see that the amount of tissue that has been impacted is pretty much the same. But one person is in a wheelchair and can barely function, and the other one looks perfectly normal and you can have a conversation with him without ever knowing that he has anything going on in his brain. So how can that happen? There is data that indicates that the more the brain is active, the more it can compensate for age-related deterioration. So with more and more data like that showing that brain activity actually has an important role in your quality of life and your functioning, I think people are going to invest more time in it.’

'A growing number of people (will) realise that investing in your brain, in your cognitive skills and your performance level is important.'

Danny Dankner, Chief Executive, Applied Cognitive Engineering

You are coordinating the EU-funded BrainPEER project to develop the IntelliGym software for football. What’s been the role of public research funding in developing that product?

‘It’s always the case when you try to take basic science and to make applications in a totally new realm, the amount of effort and the amount of research and the development and the testing and the calibration and the measurement that are needed to put a product like that together is immense. So to a large extent I can say very bluntly that without such publicly funded support, there is no way we could have put this together.’

What’s the next step once you crack football?

‘We really would like to eventually be able to go into other professional markets. If we could help medical professionals, health professionals to make better decisions, that could be huge. Another interesting domain is drivers. If you have drivers who are cognitively trained and can retain their concentration for a longer time, and can have better anticipation, you can reduce the number of accidents and injuries. That again is huge. There are other directions that we’ve been asked about, and that is law enforcement. If you think about police, about fire fighters, national security forces, if you can train them and make them more effective in making better decisions, this could be also very useful. If you can think about students, young students or students at university at the academic level, we can help them get things done better. The opportunities out there are really very, very large.’

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