I’ve been devouring popular science books over the last year, with a view to writing a book of my own, and there is no doubt that THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Through a series of well-researched scientific breakthroughs explained via a variety of compelling real-life stories, it effortlessly convinces the reader that the human brain is a highly adaptable, “plastic” organ capable of dramatically rewiring itself, at any stage in life, to enable significant recovery from even catastrophic brain damage.
This book is nothing less than inspirational. The 20th Century doctrine of the “unchanging brain” – hardwired throughout childhood and fundamentally unalterable by the end of adolescence – is well and truly turned on its head by this remarkable compilation of case studies to the contrary.
The miracles of modern neuroscience: 65 year old Professor Pedro Bach-y-Rita crawling around on his hands and knees, just like a baby, en route to recovering his ability to first walk, then talk and ultimately go back into teaching, after his brainstem stroke. Ingenious machines, sending computer-generated sensory information to a person’s tongue in place of visual or vestibular information lost to brain damage, enable people to see and walk again. The once seriously learning disabled Barbara Arrowsmith Young now heading up a school that uses novel programmes she developed to treat herself by forcing underdeveloped brain areas to up their game through intensive training sessions.
All of these and much, much more demonstrate that the brain CAN change. All that is required is a knowledge of exactly what is required to encourage those changes to occur – all clearly outlined in this book – and then dedication to putting the hours in to make sure those changes happen. It turns out that neuroplasticity can even explain how the miraculous psychological changes that can be enabled by psychiatric counselling might be underpinned by physical changes in the brain. Sexual attraction, love, pain, obsession, anxiety, compulsions and habits are all fundamentally influenced by neuroplasticity and the sooner the world gets to grips with this the better. Even putting the hours in using your imagination to practice cognitive skills to improve your mental abilities does so via physical changes to the number and connectivity of brain cells.
If I ran a school of brain science I would make this compulsary reading. Partly because the “neuroplastic revolution” that the author, Norman Doidge, envisages is extremely empowering to all people; not just the old and neurologically-impaired, but for every single human being on earth that wishes to improve their brain function. But also because it captures an essential truth about science – professors, medics and other experts who share with us their wisdom are not infallible. They do not, CAN not, know it all. They can only peddle the best of what has stood the test of time since they acquired their body of knowledge combined with the new research that has been confirmed by subsequent independent research. There is always the possibility that they, and their forefathers got the wrong end of the stick – which is almost certainly what happened with the concept of neuroplasticity. Consequently, we must all be critical of what we read and remain open to new findings and novel ways of thinking about how the world, and our own brains, truly work.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!