Saturday, July 7, 2012

Brain Games

In the fall of 2007 WTIU, our local television station was running a fund drive and offered as a premium the Brain Fitness Program, a brain training program based on a series of games.  Created by Posit Science, the BFB, grew out of the research of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and others exploring neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is constantly changing, adapting, and reinventing itself throughout life.  Before the 1970’s it was generally thought that each individual was born with a particular brain which changed only as it declined as part of the process of aging.  Merzenich and others demonstrated that the brain, even that of an older person, is capable of renewing itself and learning new skills.  (It also used to be thought that after childhood we could no longer make new brain cells, just lose them.  That turns out to be wrong too! Some research indicates that exercise helps the brain produce new cells.)

My copy of the BFP shipped with a CD of the public television show on the research and a copy of The Brain That Changes Itself, a terrific book by Norman Doidge,MD, which recounts some of the main events in the development of this new idea.  The training program itself consisted of six games and emphasized auditory processing.  You would move through a series of activities in which you distinguished first individual sounds, then syllables, followed by short sentences and finally narratives.  There were evaluation components so you could see how you were progressing in each area.  According to these, I made lots of progress though I wasn’t much aware of a difference in my everyday thinking.  Oddly, my sense of smell improved, not necessarily a good thing!

Posit Science now has a new auditory processing program which I haven’t tried.  I did purchase and complete Cortex With InSight, which I liked better than the BFP:  less time per training session, sleeker graphics and functionality.  I also thought the program improved my useful field of view (helpful for driving) and my divided attention.  It did not do much to help either my visual precision or speed of visual processing.  Also, a point not mentioned by the accompanying materials, if your acuity is affected by cataracts or some other condition that will limit how far you can go with these games.  After I had cataract surgery my performance in the program improved dramatically.
The Posit Science training programs have a sterling scientific pedigree but they are expensive and somewhat time-consuming.  A practical alternative for people who don’t want to spend the money or time is Lumosity, a brain training website with a variety of short games covering different types of mental processing, such as memory, spatial sense, and problem solving.  You can try the games free but with an annual subscription you can track your results and compare them with those of people in your age group.  I tend to dip into these for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time.  Lumosity is in the process of bringing out some new games with good graphics and more variety so I’m using them more lately.  I like to work on speed and arithmetic calculations, which are two of my weaker areas.

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