At 76 I find my brain getting foggy at times (along with most of my peers) during tasks which I once saw clearly. My main concern is to avert dementia which debilitates and aggravates us and them. So I was interested when a brain training product on the internet introduced itself to me. I read the blurb, played a couple of simple but stimulating games and recognized that this could help keep me mentally limber; then I hesitated about the expense. Fortunately, the system patiently chipped away at my resistance and now I’m signed up for the gym. It’s more fun than you’d think and not that expensive. If I keep it up it will be cheap at the price. Use it or lose it.
For most of history scientists believed that once a person reached adulthood their mental abilities were set for life. Decades of research however have established that the brain’s abilities are malleable and constantly change in response to experience. New behaviors and even some environmental changes or physical injuries have been shown to stimulate the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones, altering how we process information.
To be licensed, London taxi drivers are subjected to a two year program of learning to navigate the city’s serpentine streets. They drive around on two wheels with a map on a clipboard, learning the features and street names. To pass the test they have to describe the routes to deliver their passengers without a map. This is known as “The Knowledge”. There are no regular blocks as in New York. The streets of London are a jumble of alleys historically laid down a thousand years ago in the days of handcarts, casually developed and intricately connected. Learning the layout of London streets is a challenge akin to sorting out the neural pathways of the brain; how apt the comparison.
Scientific researchers investigated 16 male London taxi drivers in a study supported by MRI scans; they were each found to have a larger hippocampus (the area involved in memory and navigation) than a control group of 50 healthy males of similar ages and the longer the time spent as a taxi driver, the larger the hippocampus tended to be. Their brains changed in response to their experience. Next time, give your driver a bigger tip.
The next logical step for researchers was to see how the brain might respond to circumstances, rather than waiting to find out. Is it possible to direct that capacity for change, targeting specific abilities? The rate of progress made by neurologists and brain surgeons has leapt and bound in recent times, akin to and supported by the brisk pace of technology.
It’s believed that in repeating an activity, the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue developing, the brain must be exposed to novel experiences that challenge it to adapt and work in new ways. Drawing on this idea, the Lumosity.com program is designed to provide each player with a set of exercises that challenge their cognitive abilities. To begin with they offer simple games to assess your level of performance on which to build. As you progress they introduce new or more difficult games. In participating, you are providing information about brain development which is gathered and reported anonymously to add to the body of knowledge, so there is synergy in this process.
These games are based on neuropsychological and cognitive tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades. Specialist game designers introduce new tasks, in dozens of challenging, adaptive games to stimulate your interest and encourage your work-out. They score your performance and gently encourage you to operate at your best level and stay challenged. It’s entertaining and more comprehensive than the crossword. I like the word games but I’m still crap at math. Numbers raise my heart rate.
At the end of each training session, typically 15 minutes a day, we’re invited to record how it made us feel. I’m happy to report generally “stimulated” and “more alert”.
It seems as if I have a personal trainer dedicated to keeping my brain healthy. I wish I had the energy to do something similar with my body, but now that I spend most of the day sitting down, at least my brain is working out and I feel more optimistic about its future.