Why Brain Training Is The Next Big Wellness Trend
At a luxury spa in Spain, the super-rich are undergoing cognitive optimisation. But what is it? MR PORTER investigates
The SHA Wellness Cognitive Empowerment Unit. Photograph courtesy of The Sha Wellness Clinic
An asteroid hovers in the centre of a large screen in front of me. “Focus on it as hard as you can,” says the doctor behind me. We are in a dimly lit cinema room, and I am hooked up to a sweatband-like device that is measuring changes in my brainwaves. I stare at the rock on the screen and concentrate until it begins to quiver, and eventually, I blow it to smithereens with nothing but my mind. I feel like Matilda aboard the Battlestar Galactica.
These newly acquired telekinetic powers, though exciting, are only a simulation, part of a neurofeedback videogame I’m playing at the SHA Wellness Clinic, a unique medi-spa in Alicante that, among a litany of other cutting-edge treatments, offers “cognitive enhancement therapy”. Dr Bruno Ribeiro, a neuroscientist and psychologist employed by SHA for his cognitive development expertise, uses this technology to allow his patients to visualise their own levels of concentration and relaxation in real time, in order to teach them how to control their minds better.
And it’s catching on. Increasingly, high-powered executives are looking to places like SHA not just to check out of real life, but to check in harder by enhancing their professional performance. “The type of people who come to wellness clinics used to be people with a lot of time, but now it’s the opposite,” says Mr Alejandro Bataller, vice president of SHA and one of three brothers who run the clinic today. “Now, the people who come here, they’re decision-makers and people who have very stressful lives and are aware that they need to reset themselves. They come to learn more about themselves so they can enjoy optimal vitality and brain activity, and therefore productivity.”
To achieve this, there are a number of techniques that Dr Ribeiro practises, including EEG technology and transcranial magnetic stimulation (a treatment used to stimulate dormant areas of the brain). “I’m currently working with someone who needs to memorise the various prices of gold in locations across the world,” says Dr Ribeiro. “For each country he needs to remember two letters, and for the price it’s five or six characters.” Through a personalised programme of memory training incorporating the aforementioned treatments and games, Dr Ribeiro says the memory can be improved exponentially. The implications of wealthy people tweaking their brains… well, is both a little The Wolf Of Wall Street and also indicative of a new side to the wellness industry.
However, “elevating the mind” isn’t as simple as a few brain-helmet zaps and meteor-popping mind games. You can only really achieve it through a finely tuned programme of balanced nutrition, regular exercise and stress management. In other words, the secret behind “optimisation” is the same as it ever was: cultivating your general health and wellbeing. The difference with SHA is that it comes at this goal threefold. “Most wellness clinics focus on the body, but in our case it’s body, mind and spirit and we try to cover all three elements,” Mr Bataller explains. “So for the mind perspective, five years ago we created the cognitive stimulation unit and have been developing it into what it is today.”
The SHA Wellness Clinic was founded in 2008 by Mr Alejandro Bataller’s father, Mr Alfredo Bataller Parietti, a businessman who, after suffering chronic health problems, found that a wholefoods diet free from red meat turned his health around. “When he went back to complete the medical check-up, doctors couldn’t believe it because there was no sign of the original problem,” explains Alejandro. “This was eye-opening for all of us. We started to tell friends and family that we’d experienced something tremendously positive, and we thought, why not share it on a bigger scale?” So they transformed their Spanish holiday home into a clinic, and 10 years later a difficult family experience has morphed into a utopian medispa resort.
The clinic sits high in the hills of Alicante, a collection of contemporary buildings that could easily be a supervillain’s lair in a James Bond film. Everything, from the walls to the grass outside, is pristine, and beyond the glass balconies and panoramic views of the mountains you can see the lights of Benidorm twinkling away in the distance. This feels apposite, considering that it’s hard to imagine any place more cosmically opposed to SHA than the bacchanalian holiday resort. There are no Pitbull remixes or lads-on-tour stag parties gulping from neon-coloured fishbowls at SHA; instead, soft jazz hums from the restaurant speakers, where exquisitely delicate dishes are served in asymmetrical crockery by impeccably mannered and knowledgable waiters. Guests mill around between doctor’s appointments and massages in white robes and slippers, being seen to by some 300 people employed by the spa, including 30 full-time doctors. Everything smells faintly of lemongrass.
Photograph courtesy of The SHA Wellness Clinic
Everyone from Victoria’s Secret models to Olympic athletes are said to seek out SHA’s treatments regularly, and it’s clear that discretion is important to people that come here. This is a place to escape, not an excuse to show off your treatments on Instagram stories (I cannot resist this, however, and am messaged several times throughout my stay asking if I have joined a cult). But one of SHA’s biggest draws is its diverse guests. While there I meet a cast of characters including a UN chief of staff looking to de-stress, a businessman from Abu Dhabi who has been sent here by his boss after a burnout, a highly successful British MD with an MBE in manufacturing, and a Peruvian aristocrat who aims to attend a few of the clinic’s expert cooking classes, shed a few pounds and enjoy herself. Indeed, despite the lack of alcohol-fuelled events, it’s not a bad place to network.
As well as the cognitive appointments with Dr Ribeiro, I am booked onto SHA’s four-day Discovery Programme, which is sort of an extreme wellness tasting menu. My schedule consists of various medical, aesthetic and therapeutic treatments, and includes personal training sessions, various massages, stress-management therapy, cellular bioanalysis, medical consultations and acupuncture. There is a lot to take in, and there are various crossovers of the scientific and the spiritual. My nutritionist inspects my tongue for clues on how I can improve my diet, but she also reads my palms. I am assigned “prescriptions” of hijiki seaweed, sauerkraut and shiitake tea to be taken with meals.
After a few days on a strict (yet delicious) diet and the various treatments and therapies I undergo – and despite my initial scepticism – I start to feel a change. I sleep deeply, and get up early to watch the sunrise from the nearby lighthouse and go hiking in the mountains beyond. My body feels stronger, lighter and more toned. It might be the facial I had a couple of days ago (plus the self-satisfaction that I haven’t had a drink in a week), but my skin seems lit from within.
I leave with a lengthy to-do list of alterations I should make to my lifestyle, and of all the treatments it offers, that is perhaps SHA’s most valuable. The clinic’s goal is not to provide its guests with a temporary week of induced vitality, but to equip them with the techniques and education to incorporate a perpetual “health kick” into their daily lives. “Really, what we focus on at SHA is how to capitalise on your free time,” says Mr Bataller. “It’s a luxury resort, not a clinical institution. We provide you with the tools to make some changes. Not radical changes, just small changes. And as you make them you get more and more passionate about how you feel and keep changing.” So, no superpowers then, but a clearer head, a fitter body and a sharper mind? Depending on how much shiitake tea you can stomach, it might just be worth it.