• Brain Training – what is it good for? by Dr Jack Lewis

    If your instinctive response was that: “brain training is good for absolutely nothing” – then you might not yet be privvy to all the relevant data. Scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of brain training is slowly but surely growing, , as far as I can tell. Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has been at the forefront of research into computer-based brain training focused on increasing the capacity of working memory for over a decade. He and his team have identified a positive correlation between working memory improvements and IQ score. In other words the better your working memory – that is, the ability to hold several pieces of information in mind for long enough to complete a mental operation – the more “intelligent” you become. Well, to be fair, that’s not quite the whole story. IQ approximates to what we commonly think of as intelligence – but it is blind to a host of cognitive abilities that are very useful for the individual and highly valued in human society; like creativity, social skills, kinesthetic abilities and so on. So a better way to describe it is that improving working memory leads to benefits in a variety of other cognitive abilities collectively known as fluid intelligence, which is vital for (amongst other things) solving problems. Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is: enhancing these mental abilities leads to benefits at school, work and play.

    The last of these is the most pertinent to this particular brain post. There are lots of computer games out there which, often completely by accident, tend to improve cognitive functions that are relevant and useful in everyday life. Parents who bemoan the hundreds of hours a year “wasted” by their children playing shoot ‘em up games may be cheered by the news that such games can actually improve visual perception . They are right to be concerned, by the way. Too much time spent locked into game mode displaces much of the time that could be spent cultivating soft skills. These broadly undervalued  yet completely invaluable set of social skills can only be honed properly through regular, intensive, face-to-face communication. They make many aspects of personal and professional life that take place in the real, as opposed to virtual, world function so much more smoothly that society would be well advised to place a greater emphasis on the importance of ensuring they are cultivated at all costs. However, allotting a finite period of time each day to game play can be extremely good for your brain – so long as you play the right sort of games.

    simonMEMNEON is a good example. Even Stephen Fry – the God-of-Twitter himself – tweeted that MEMNEON was driving him “delightfully dotty.” High praise indeed! The brain behind Memneon, Steve Turnbull, may feel that for me to suggest it is Simon for the 21st century would be selling it short. I would disagree. Simon was the original brain training device and as such was decades ahead of the game. And as with all things people will inevitably take a concept and move it on to the next level. Memneon has done exactly that – it’s like Simon on a high dose of amphetamines. Much tougher on the old working memory circuits. And of course it is by regularly challenging the brain’s cognitive capacities – for several minutes, daily, for weeks on end that eventually your brain reinforces connectivity between the relevant areas and abilities improve. 49 different possible locations for each consecutive disc illumination is sooo much harder to retain in working memory, before reproducing the patter, than just the 4 quadrants of Simon.

    Now that the great potential for brain training is out of the bag all sorts of digital developers are falling over each other in their scramble to capitalise on the growing interest; first catalysed by Nintendo with their launch of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Age on the Nintendo DS. Uptake may have mellowed in the handheld digital console market since 2001 but PC-based subscription services that offer a suite of cognitive training games (like Lumosity) have very much taken over the reins.

    The BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory show made a big fuss of a Nature paper indicating that brain training was ineffective for the under 65′s. To make this newsworthy they, perhaps not surprisingly, felt the need to put some attention-grabbing spin on their non-findings by using the headline: “Brain Training Doesn’t Work” and I’ve written elsewhere about why I think it is too early to make such a bold statement. Finding no evidence to support a hypothesis is one thing. In this case I think that they hypothesis in question is: “computer-based brain training can improve cognitive abilities in a manner helpful and relevant to everyday life.” Disproving a hypothesis is quite another matter.

    Science is all about the balance of evidence. A good rule of thumb is that you should not believe anything reported in a single scientific paper until many other experiments have been done, ideally by other unconnected independent research groups, whose findings tally with the original. There is a lot of evidence out there that brain training does work in older people, but not so much – at the moment – that it pays dividens for younger people. But it’s early days. So I think people should take sensationalist headlines with a pinch of salt and wait to see which way the balance of evidence tips.

    The jury might be out on which aspects of brain training do and don’t work, but I think it is fair to say that there is every reason to believe that it has great potential to do you good and very little potential to do ill – so why not give it a go. 20 million subscribers who perceive some kind of benefit can’t all be wrong, surely?! Well they could be – but in the meantime the placebo effect is at least making them feel sharper, focused, able, etc….

    Please get in touch via Twitter to let me know what you think of my brainposts. If you were kind enough to follow me you could also catch my thrice daily tweets, which headline and link to brain research breakthroughs from lay-friendly sources that I judge to be potentially compelling and relevant to all.

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  • Dr Jack’s review of Brain Training on the Nintendo DS

    INTRODUCTION

    This review comprises my opinions, both as a consumer and a neuroscientist, of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. I have previously (http://www.drjack.co.uk/brain-teasers-brain-training/) outlined my view that brain training is simply a matter of teasing your mental faculties with a variety of word, number and problem solving challenges on a regular basis. In this regard, the greatest advantage of the Nintendo DS brain training over the old-fashioned (but quite possibly equally effective) books of crosswords and number puzzles, is its fantastic convenience and flexibility. You can carry around with you literally thousands of mentally-taxing brain teasers for use during your daily commute, or to the far corners of the globe, and it will take up no more room in your baggage than a small book.

    I have also previously described (http://www.drjack.co.uk/does-brain-training-really-work-by-dr-jack-lewis/) why I think that, despite the BBC’s headline-grabbing publication of research suggesting that “BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK”, I sincerely believe that the jury is still out on that issue. So below you will simply find my considered opinion on how this game rates – as a way to while away some spare time in a manner that probably won’t change your life, but certainly won’t do you any harm and might just sharpen up some very basic, but fundamental, cognitive abilities.

    THE REVIEW

    I promised to review Dr Kawashima’s “Brain Training – How Old Is Your Brain” a long time ago. Why did it take me so long to deliver on this promise? To be honest, it took me months to clock up enough days of brain training to finally unlock all the games. At the very beginning you have access to only 3 (quite dull) brain training games and then, as you complete more and more days of training, you are rewarded by being given access to more and more of the games (most of them much better than the first 3). Slightly annoying, perhaps, but ultimately an unquestionably good strategy for incentivising more regular training.

    Despite being very curious to investigate this brain training phenomenon I only managed 1 session in Mar, 1 in Apr, 3 in May, 0 in June, 4 in July and 11 in Aug. It is interesting to note that the inspiration for training more regularly at the end of July was that this was the very first time I had encouraged someone else to give it a go. When I saw what my girfriend had scored I found that I was suddenly powerfully motivated to keep up my training, whilst over March-June my efforts were distinctly half-hearted. Having more than one person using the same console is clearly the key to nurturing motivation. Humans are naturally competitive and so if it worked for me it should work for you too. So my first piece of advice is, once you’ve got the hang of it, be sure to get friends and family having a go too.

    I know exactly how often I trained over the past few months thanks to the scrollable calendar feature, which automatically stamps each day that you switched on and played. Not only does this allow you to see, at a glance, how dedicated (or in my case slack) you have been with your training, but the 3D floating head of Dr Kawashima, after greeting you at the beginning of each training session, takes it upon himself to praise or berate you according to how long it’s been since your last visit.

    FIRST IMPRESSIONS

    My first impressions of the game were that it was better than I had expected. I was surprised and happy to see that the floating 3D head’s opening presentation explaining the concepts of  brain training included real fMRI brain data to help illustrate some of the key points. I was impressed that Nintendo were brave enough to include some real science, trusting that their customers would not be scared off by it. Quite courageous of them.

    The very first session involves a preliminary brain training game to establish your inital “Brain Age”. Determined to nail it I was nonetheless shocked that I managed to get the best possible “Brain Age” of 20. All those decades of education were not wasted then! Before you start hating me for being a smart alec, let me reassure you that my “Brain Age” soon shot up to my real age and well beyond over the months that followed. The point is that this “Brain Age” score is pretty arbitrary to say the least – it shoots up and down like a roller coaster because it is based entirely on your current performance and doesn’t seem to take any of your previous performances into account. It is merely there to provide you with the impetus to keep on training. Trust me it works – it took me months and months to nail a “Brain Age” of 20 again. And then I never wanted to do it again because I knew I was almost guaranteed to do worse. Whatever your best ever “Brain Age” is – seeing a considerably worse one by your name each and every time you switch on to play makes anyone with a grain of competitiveness want to step up and take it on.

    Over the weeks and months I developed a distinctly love/hate relationship with Dr Kawashima’s floating head. Some of the silly things he says, like: “What wonderful results! I might start crying here…” genuinely made me chuckle, on more than one occasion (invariably drawing quizzical looks from whoever happened to be sitting opposite me on the train). On the other hand, some of his advice on how to keep your brain in tip top condition is very weak and the extremely repetitive observation that doing calculations/reading out loud/drawing from memory/moving the stylus from target to target/counting syllables etc. etc. will “activate your prefrontal cortex and improve your general brainpower” becomes extremely tedious. But on balance, this is one of just a handful of pretty minor gripes. Overall Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS is an extremely smart, convenient and quite technologically-advanced little game that positively encourages people to take an active interest in the health of their brain.

    DAILY TRAINING

    The Daily Training games consists of a variety of ways to tax different clusters of brain areas involved in different cognitive functions. “Calculations” involves performing simple addition, subtraction or multiplication problems that are displayed on one screen and whilst you use the pointer to scribble your answer on the other screen. The aim is to complete a predetermined number of sums as quickly as possible and the punishment for a wrong answer is a (quite severe) time penalty. The format of this challenge is unimaginative to say the least and in the first instance makes you feel like you’re back in primary school. But by the time my training was completed I had performed so many rapid calculations that, as with all things, I improved in leaps and bounds. Being able to perform simple calculations extremely quickly is a useful skill to have and comes in useful in everyday life. Trying to work out if you have enough money to pay for the items you are about to take to the till is one example. So I didn’t resent being made to feel like I was back in primary school too much. I’ve since caught my local shop keepers short changing me once or twice now as a result. I’m sure it was unintentional on their part, but I simply wouldn’t have bothered adding it up in my head if I hadn’t been put in the habit by “Calculations”. Later on you get to unlock one of the mystery games that takes the maths challenges to the next level by making you remember pairs of answers for long enough to perform calculations upon the correct answers to previous calculations. Pretty challenging and completely impossible if you are on the way home after a long session at the pub!

    My two least favourite were probably “reading out loud” and “syllable count”. If I want to read out loud I have a plethora of my own books to choose from. And how anyone but rap artists might benefit from honing the ability to count the syllables in a proverb beats me. It may exercise the brain areas involved in reading and producing words, or in the parcellation of words into smaller chunks, and could therefore potentially yield some improvement in these functions under normal conditions, but they are a pretty dull way to pass the time.

    “Head count” – on the other hand, is a different matter. You have to keep track of a hoard of stick men scuttling into and out of a house, which gives the old working memory a genuinely good work out. This is because it requires you to constantly update the number of stick men currently within the house despite the frantic comings and goings. On hard mode this game is particularly challenging, as the stick men leave and arrive not just through the side doors, but through the chimney as well, which means you have to count the vertical comings and goings as well as the horizontal.

    Another favourite is “Low to High” – where a series of carefully spaced numbers are flashed up on the screen for a very brief period of time and, thanks to the wonders of iconic memory (the impression left on the brain by a flashed image), you find yourself able to touch the squares within which the numbers were displayed just moments before, in the correct order from lowest to highest. If you get it right an additional number is added in the next round to make it progressively more challenging. Once you get up to the heady heights of tackling 7 or 8 numbers it is really hard! A very enjoyable game and one which helps to develop a potentially useful cognitive skill of extracting information from briefly viewed images – excellent for anyone who wants to become a spy, or work in film or TV for that matter.

    VOICE-RECOGNITION

    I was very surprised to find that the Nintendo DS was equipped with voice-recognition software that actually works fairly well. This is essential for a classic psychological mind bender called the Stroop test, which exercises brain areas involved in inhibiting impulsive responses. It involves a colour word being presented on the screen e.g. “red” or “green” or “yellow” or “black”, but the meaning of the word must be ignored and instead the colour that the word is written in must be stated out loud. In other words if the word “blue” is presented in red-coloured font, your brain has to work extra hard to suppress the temptation to say the word “blue” in order to allow the correct response to be uttered i.e. “red”.

    I must admit that the first time I tackled that particular game I found myself thinking: “will this gadget really understand me?” Despite my doubts I was impressed to find that it could recognise most of my speech. Yet if there is any background noise it is completely hopeless, particularly on the train. I would definitely recommend experimenting with different ways of saying the words to help you figure out how best to deliver the word to ensure it is properly recognised. This game is one of the handful of tests used to define your brain age – an extremely arbitrary scale by all accounts – but when your brain age is given as 62 because you wasted 3 solid minutes repeating the word yellow over and over again in voice steadily becoming increasingly loud and irritable you may find that putting some time into finding a voice that it can register accurately pays dividends in the long run. The same goes for experimenting with writing numbers in such a way that no matter how fast you try to write, it is always correctly registered by the software. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is (and how often you find yourself getting frustrated in this way, particularly when on the move) when you see the sum 2+2 and your scribbled “4″ is misread as an “8″. A 5 second penalty seems pretty harsh when you knew the right answer but couldn’t get the damned thing to recognise it properly.

    MEMORY TEST

    Another game in the battery of tests that defines your “Brain Age” includes a memory test. You are given 3 minutes to memorise a long list of words and 2 minutes to recall them. I think Nintendo missed a great opportunity here as there are some great mnemonic strategies that they could have offered here to help you improve memory performance more quickly and to a greater degree. Now that really would have been bona fide brain training! As I already know these memory tricks, I found that this test was an absolutely brilliant forum in which to practice creating memorable links between a random list of words. This is the real challenge in using memory tricks – being able to dream up a potent image of an imaginative scenario whereby two successive words are intertwined and then get on quickly to the next pair of items. If I hadn’t been playing this game I would not have had so many opportunities to practice this extremely useful skill and would not have improved to the point of being able to recall as many as 36 of the 40 words. Importantly this transferred directly into a benefit in my day-to-day life as I was able to quickly dream up some mnemonic links between 10 facts that I wanted to mention in a meeting just 15 minutes before the meeting was due to commence. All that brain training had clearly boosted my memory-making faculties as I recalled every fact effortlessly, which made a good impression on the audience and saved time shuffling through notes and papers to find the relevant information.

    I’ll share some of these mnemonic tricks with you in my next post so you can try it our yourself. So watch this space!


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