If it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right...
October 30, 2009 8:15 AM   Subscribe

The old adage 'No Pain, No Gain' appears intuitive when it comes to developing physical prowess. I only started to see gains in the gym after pushing myself to the point where I'd wake up thinking I'd be crippled for the rest of my life. Is the same true for cognitive improvements too?

I'm not normally prone to headaches but I've started to notice that after reading very difficult text books, I am left with a headache varying in severity from the mildly inconvenient to the unbearable. Since starting to play Dual N-back, an insanely difficult game scientifically-proven to improve fluid intelligence and working memory, it has got even worse.

I'll be the first to admit that I've not used my brain properly in a long time. Should I take this as evidence that my efforts are paying off or indication of a more serious health concern? I might be wrong but I doubt that it's the latter because I only have headaches when I engage in something that significantly pushes me to my limits.

A game of Dual N-back is normally followed by the need to lie down and rest for 15 minutes or so. I like to think that the headache is merely an outward manifestation of my brain producing new neurons and better connections. Is there any scientific explanation that might confirm this?
posted by Zé Pequeno to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
When was the last time you saw an eye doctor? Headaches after reading and intense eye activity seem to indicate, to my untrained brain, the fact that you're straining your eyes.
posted by muddgirl at 8:17 AM on October 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Brain tissue itself doesn't feel pain, thus why surgery techniques like the "Montreal Procedure" and similar where the patient is awake and aware during brain surgery are possible.

Nthing possible eyestrain, or simple unconscious habits of tensing up when you concentrate. You frown, your brow furrows, you bend over the object of concentration, your jaw tightens, etc, etc., all of which are wonderful for inducing headaches. Make an effort to keep physically relaxed, and cognitively straining activities will still be tiring in their own way, but not painful. You'll probably even find that you start learning more effectively, as you don't get distracted by all the squinting and tensing up.
posted by Drastic at 8:26 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm in a physiotherapist/occ therapist assistant program, and our program coordinator (who is a PT) has stated again and again that "no pain no gain" should *never* be the rule we go by - she has emphasized the difference between "pain" (body's warning that you need to stop what you're doing - like when I'm running, and I sometimes get a twinge in my right knee - usually a sign that I've been neglecting my strength training, and my knee joint is getting out-of-alignment) and "discomfort" ("wow, that hill was killer, owie quads, time for a slow run home").

Anyway, end of tangent - nthing the probable need for an eye checkup.
posted by purlgurly at 8:33 AM on October 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I have mild myopia (1.25+ in each eye) and was tested recently for some prescription sunglasses. I don't think it's my eyes. Noting Drastic's comments, however, regarding furrowing of the brows, etc. I do find myself scrunching up my face when trying to understand something difficult so that sounds quite conceivable...
posted by Zé Pequeno at 8:54 AM on October 30, 2009

Try some reading glasses. You can get low-prescription ones at a drug store for pretty cheap. I think you'll be surprised how much easier it is to read textbooks and websites with small text.
posted by muddgirl at 8:57 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: When I read a lot I notice my neck hunches over, and my understanding is that can interfere with proper blood flow to your head and definitely cause headaches.
posted by sickinthehead at 9:07 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Your myopia prescription should be a negative number. Hyperopia (or presbyopia, depending on how old you are), which is what you need reading glasses for, would be a positive number. And the two are pretty unrelated, so if you got tested specifically for sunglasses for myopia, it's possible they didn't do a good job testing for hyperopia. You maybe shouldn't be so fast to dismiss it.
posted by brainmouse at 9:21 AM on October 30, 2009

Response by poster: Sorry. Just to clarify, the sunglasses are -1.25 in each eye.
posted by Zé Pequeno at 9:40 AM on October 30, 2009

I believe you are taking the adage too literally. The "pain" comes from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone by doing something more strenuous than your mind or body is used to. While this is physical pain while exercising, mental exercises might leave you tired and maybe a little confused, but you should not feel pain, per se.
posted by AtomicBee at 9:49 AM on October 30, 2009

Zé Pequeno: Is the same true for cognitive improvements too?

It is not supposed to be. You should ask a doctor about this.
posted by koeselitz at 10:00 AM on October 30, 2009

Best answer: Also, it occurs to me that you should probably take a bit more measured approach to learning and thinking. First of all, being brilliant, or even simply intelligent, won't necessarily make you happy; at best it's a convenience and at worst it's just a parlor trick, and the greater part of it is apparently not really due to things we can choose or control. Second, this game may be "scientifically proven" to improve response times and help you get your memory flowing, but be careful that you don't use that phrase ("scientifically proven") to mean something it doesn't. Food is "scientifically proven" to keep you from starving, but you can kill yourself by eating far too much of the wrong things almost as easily as you can kill yourself by not eating at all. Just because it's good for your brain in certain circumstances doesn't mean it's good for your brain in all circumstances.

Chill out. Sit on the couch for a while. Read a light novel. If playing the game gives you headaches, for god's sake don't play the game.
posted by koeselitz at 10:09 AM on October 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

In my experience, intense mental exertion (e.g. studying for finals) doesn't cause pain but does cause intense hunger and food cravings (esp sugar). I guess your brain burns a lot of calories when in heavy use.
posted by rocket88 at 11:32 AM on October 30, 2009

Reading and studying is different for everyone. Some of us need to stand at a lectern (like Donald Rumsfeld), others work best in a carrel without distractions, still others can lounge backwards over a sofa with an iPod and absorb. I would experiment with your personal space if your eyes don't seem to be the problem.
posted by dhartung at 5:02 PM on October 30, 2009

I think you need to take this a little less literally. Physically, you push yourself to the limit and that's the point where you really are building and toning those muscles, not just going through the motions. Playing a video game isn't how you build your brain and I don't know what to tell you about those headaches, but if you regularly engage in critical reading, structured argument, and work to learn complex systems, you're going to spend some time in the beginning feeling a little wiped out and over your head, but in time, you should notice an improvement in your overall thinking.

Boring Tangent: One of my favorite experiences was going on a trip for a six weeks with a suitcase half filled with clothes and half filled with substantive political books of which I pledged to read 100 pages a day. That first few weeks were difficult. I'd be finishing around midnight. But by the time I got back, I'd be reading, cooking, have the windows open with blaring street noise, and still had comprehension that surprised me. 100 pages easily by noon, then go and read more. Now the plural of anecdote isn't data and there's no meaningful metric to this story, but I do think there is something to the concept of "no pain, no gain" applying to cognitive skills. But then, maybe I'm just conceited.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:16 PM on October 30, 2009

I find that reading or doing anything in dim yellow light makes my eyes hurt, and I soon have a big headache right after that. When I read in a much brighter area, especially with white light, this makes ***all*** the difference.

I also realized that I get a huge headache not drinking enough water (like >8 glasses of water a day). When I'm reading, I'm so preoccupied with the book that I forget to drink water, or go to the bathroom, etc.
posted by moiraine at 12:17 PM on October 31, 2009

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