Experienced psychologist and founder of SOFOS Associates Natalia Ramsden says that it’s time for a proactive approach to cognitive health.
I’m a psychologist by background. I did some clinical stuff very early on when I first graduated, and there I saw a lot of trauma and PTSD. Then when I worked in public service I saw a lot of people dealing with substance abuse and victims of domestic violence, so it was my job to then rehabilitate them back into the workforce. I’m always very drawn to the intimacy of an individual, which is probably why I ended up in this one-to-one role rather than a large public health policy role or something like that. I think that the unique complexity of what makes each individual them is quite a driver and an attraction for me.
SOFOS is a brain optimization practice, and I believe we were the first one in the UK. We work with individuals to improve brain health and enhance cognitive function, so we’re purists in that way – we just focus on the cognitive piece. There were a couple of things that came together at the moment SOFOS was born. Firstly, I had a career in consulting, working with senior executives, CEOs, and boards. We would look at intelligence, measure it, and factor it into our judgments around executive capability or their likelihood of success, but we didn’t do anything in terms of cognitive development. Alongside that, you had some really remarkable developments in the world as a whole. The tech world made some major leaps and bounds, and in the scientific community we started to really understand things around Alzheimer’s, dementia, and what prevention might look like, and we started to understand a little bit more about neuroplasticity and how the brain changes. With all of these things coming together, I wondered if we were to take a healthy, high performing population and apply some of these learnings, would we get an enhancement effect? This marked a crossroads from development being quite traditional and really needing a shake up, to applying the innovations coming out in the scientific community to the executive world, leading to a great deal of benefit for individuals and the companies they work for.
We’ve got a pretty stressed out workforce. I think that’s clear across any level of an organisation in any industry that you’re in, and I think that there is a huge cognitive demand on us. We live dynamic, complex, multifaceted lives where we work and have families and have interests, so I think the increased cognitive load is something that is very real. Before Covid, I think our clients were looking for a way to boost their brains, to get an edge, and to be better. Whilst that’s still true post-Covid, I think some of the drivers have changed. People are more interested in sustaining their performance in the long-term, and they’re thinking about their wellbeing, happiness, and performance all together as one rather than separating things like work, nutrition, and fitness.
In terms of interventions to improve cognitive health, it’s very broad. You have everything from simple, straightforward stuff such as what you eat, your sleep quality, how much you exercise, and managing stress levels, all the way through to some of the most cutting-edge innovations including neurofeedback, brainwave training applications, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, nootropics, and different supplements that have been found to have an effect on cognitive performance. There’s so much coming out, and it’s coming at pace. It’s been remarkable to see that research really speed up.
I did an MBA not that long ago, and I don’t recall there being any content addressing the cognitive side of things, and I’d like to see higher education give students the resources to improve the way their hardware functions. We send people off to MBA programmes and we teach them how to put together balance sheets, write up their profit and loss statements, and put together marketing strategies, but actually all of that is resting on their cognitive functions. So why aren’t we talking to these individuals about what they can do to enhance their cognitive function? Why aren’t we talking to them about managing stress levels and what high cortisol as a result of stress does to their brains? It impacts memory, it impacts the ability to make decisions, and it impacts the ability to think strategically, and these are abilities that we all need. Teaching people how to do, say, an accounting course doesn’t have the same value if they’re not cognitively able. I’d like to see everyone, and certainly people in the education system have that information provided to them. You aren’t stuck with what you’ve got – everyone should know that there are lots of things they can do to enhance their ability and intelligence.