Training your brain

It's 2009, and what better way to kick a new year off than with a blog post?  I can think of a few better things, actually, but, since I've been lazy with the blogging, let's knock something out today.

I imagine a lot of you were busy killing some brain cells yesterday, but during the rest of your waking hours, a lot of you get paid to think for a living.  Which begs the question … maybe you get paid to write software or trade stocks … but isn't that all just exercising the brain muscle at some abstract level?  Wouldn't it be nice if you could divorce your brain from the subject matter at hand and just train yourself to think faster about everything?

In fact, a burgeoning little industry has popped up around the idea, starting with games like Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!  This relatively simple game sold millions of copies internationally in under a year.  We can surmise one of the reasons is because the premise of the game has such universal appeal … to men, women, and children alike.  You count syllables, match items, and do little math problems … all under the guise of training your brain.  Isn't it odd that the torturous homework of second grade suddenly becomes entertainment when repackaged into a game?

At any rate, the huge success of this game spawned a predictable sequel … and lately, all kinds of clones on social networks have been popping up, because the game concept is so simple to replicate.  "Who Has The Biggest Brain?" is the Facebook equivalent … and it's made even more addictive by that fact that it's accessible to your friends, which adds a bit of a competitive element to the whole shebang. 

That's all well and good … but we come back to the original question.  Does this stuff really help?  So I did a little checking.  Turns out that these brain training games have very little correlation with general brain improvements … although getting better at these games will make anyone feel better about themselves.

The idea of doing something fundamental with our brains, like abstract shape matching or math exercises, and seeing those improvements appear in other areas of our life, such as our jobs, is referred to as the transfer effects of the exercise.  For the most part, people don't actually see a lot of transfer effects from these activities.  What we see are very specific improvements to whatever we're being tasked with.  For example, improving your ability to memorize numbers off a screen won't translate to your ability to remember the items on your grocery list.  That's one less box of Fruit Roll-Ups coming off the shelf.

Keep hope alive, tho.  Most activities don't necessarily produce transfer effects, but that's not to say that all activities don't.  New studies suggest that there are certain types of exercises that produce benefits … it just so happens that the vast majority have not.  The promising activities mentioned in the article seem to revolve around multitasking types of exercises which ask the user to process multiples streams of activities at once.  As studies start to hone in on the types of activities that do work, we'll be sure to see some exciting improvements in this space.  Just don't expect results from the random smorgasbord of activities in any particular brain training game.

I also came across an interesting series of five articles from Psychology Today (Brain Exercises: Do They Work) which details one person's journey through brain training programs.  It's worth a read.  From the same blog, the article Brain Exercises: Better Than Googling? suggests that only one program has gone through extensive clinical trials and been peer reviewed.  That program comes from Posit Science.  The programs from Posit Science are based on the fairly widely accepted notion that memory function loss as we progress through life is not necessarily based on pure deterioration … it's based on a decrease in our ability to pay attention to things.  I suppose, in layman's terms, if you give a shiitake, you'll remember as much as you ever did.  But in the mean time, what these programs do is train your auditory system to help you pay more attention.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it?  It's also expensive … at a few hundred a pop.  Admit it, though … you're curious, aren't you? =)  Shoot me a mail if any of you try it out.

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