Sixty-Two Days In

I’ve been at it two full months now, and I have to say that I think I’ve been relatively faithful in my efforts.  The workouts they set up for you every day include four different exercises and they say that completing them should take you about twenty minutes.  In one place they recommend that you do the twenty minute workout three times a week.  In other places – and when I actually made contact with them through email – they recommend that you train ninety minutes a week in three, thirty-minute sessions.

I have done far more than that.  I have trained almost every day since I started and more of my sessions have been longer than 30 minutes than not.

I’ve made some progress, buy their reckoning, upping my percentile rating by about five points since the start.  As is obvious from my schedule, I am a little obsessed with this.  It is frustrating and trying in many ways, and getting more so.  I made progress faster at the start and now the challenges are getting tougher and the decisions finer and quicker and I almost despair over whether I will ever gain another percentile.

Someone might argue that this misses the point.  You are not training to beat anyone, you are training to improve your brain function.  But the only way I know of to measure whether it is actually working is the way you measure up to the crowd.

 

One thing about that.  I really wonder just exactly what kind of crowd I am being measured against.  I mean, who in the world does brain training,anyway?  Is this group anywhere near a representative sampling of the population (nobody said that it was – its just other users of the program) or is it heavily weighted toward those, who, like me, obsess about brain power?  In other words, is the group that I am measuring myself against a bunch of smarty-pants geeks who never left the library in college?

 

Also, what percentage of that sample has been at this program for longer than me and have thus gotten smarter along the way?  No way to know that.  I do think that I would test at a far higher percentile if the group was actually a representative sampling of the population at large.

 

Then again, it could be just the other way.  It could be that lots of the folks who use the program are those who have suffered some kind of brain injury, trauma or disease and, thus, are lower in brain power than the general population.  Probably some of both.

I’ve said it before, but I am surprised at how varied my scores are among the several categories they measure.  I am strongest, by far, in what they call “people skills” and weakest in the area they call “navigation.”  I’m surprised at my “people skill” strength.  I don’t think I have the reputation of being a “people person” and I don’t think that most people who know me would think of that as my strongest suit.

The trouble with navigation does not surprise me, though.  As I have said before, I never have been one to have an innate sense of direction, like some do.  One of the tests in this category is called “Right Turn.”  You are shown seemingly identical objects in varied angles and asked to choose whether the objects are identical or are mirror images of each other.   I struggle here.  I still have not gotten out of the first stages of testing here and in the more difficult phases of the first stage I am almost completely lost and find myself simply guessing.

 

I have made progress almost everywhere else, even in the other areas of navigation testing, but this single area – well, there is actually one other area that is a problem for me, but that is for another post – is holding me back on my overall score.

 

I am still gung ho for the program.  I am still willing to accept the premise of it all – that the brain is like a muscle and its strength, capacity, speed and agility may be improved through exercise.  What a wonderful notion!

I’d like to hear from others who are doing the program.

Brain Training: Twenty Days In

Maybe it is just the competitor in me, but I am looking for some meaningful way to judge my performance on these brain training games.  Maybe it is just a lust to be the best at something or to feel myself superior to others, but, darn it, it seems meaningless to go on when you really don’t understand whether you are making progress or not.  I look at the percentiles reflected on my “progress” chart and they don’t seem to change, even when I make progress on one game or another.

Here’s another thing: in some areas, my percentile ranking seems to drop with the introduction of new and harder tests.  Why?  I can understand, of course, why my score – my raw, absolute score – would diminish as the tests get more difficult.  But it does not make sense to me that my ranking relative to every other test taker would drop as I take on harder testing.  It seems like the increase in difficulty would affect everyone.  It’s also very frustrating to keep working and see the percentile numbers drop.

I’m still bought-in and I think I have already started to notice some positive changes.  It may be autosuggestion – I do read the testimonials, over and over – but I find myself concentrating a little better, a little longer, and I seem to be sticking with the work of remembering the name of some character or even the actor who played that character in some old movie.  My recall is often not immediate, but since the training, I seem to be more determined to stay with it and I have found that the effort here is often rewarded.  That is, I do finally remember the actor or character’s name after a longer effort that I would have expended before.

I think I am perhaps a little more attentive in conversations, too, and maybe in a brighter mood, generally.

But I still want to know more about how to do this the right way.  The best, most productive way.  Again, is twenty minutes an ideal session?  That’s what they give me, day by day.  Is that because thy find that that is the best for training or because they find that it is best for their marketing.  Those two goals may not be met by exactly the same2 program length.

Many of the testimonials speak of a kind of “aha” moment, when things “clicked” and the trainee was able to perceive what a wonderful difference the training has made for them.  But they don’t say how much training they had completed before that happened.  How many weeks and months and how many hours and minutes per week?
I am in my early sixties and I can do 65 pull-ups in three sets.  I don’t know where that would put me in terms of percentile ranking for my age group, but I think I’d be way up there.  Point is, I would not be doing that many if someone at the gym had not taught me that I had been doing too many sets and too few reps per set.  I changed my way of going about it, based on that advice – went from doing five sets to doing three sets, and I have in fact gotten stronger.  The progress has not been what I would call dramatic, but it has been steady and real.

This is the kind of progress I am hoping for with this brain training and I am looking for advice analogous to what my friend in the gym gave me about the pull-ups.  Again, the difference between those folks who are serious about physical workouts and those who do not is so obvious and, to my mind at least, so meaningful.  Will brain training make the same kind of difference?

One last note:  I have been surprised at how uneven or varying my percentile rankings have been from category to category.  But the physical analogy is obvious here.  What muscles have I neglected in my life – and how long and how much real effort will it require to get those areas into top shape and what will the dividends for that work and improvement actually be?

Progress?

The response here to my earlier post about how much brain training is too much has been less than overwhelming.  Not a soul offered any advice on the point.  I did inquire of the company, posting the question to them through their “feedback” form. They did reply promptly and gave me something of a response, but they didn’t answer the question.

They did not tell me what their studies might have shown about how much training – how much time per session and how many sessions per week – affords the fastest and greatest progress.  Maybe they don’t have an answer to that one, but I’ll bet they do.  What they did say is that they “recommend” ninety minutes of training per week.  They didn’t really say why, so that response isn’t all that helpful.

It is interesting, though, that this response does seem to vary a bit from the recommendations on their website, where they prescribe twenty-minute sessions, three times a week.  Half an hour’s difference there.  Fifty-percent difference.  That’s substantial.

My personal experience with the program has been rather eye-opening.  I work in a job that demands constant intellectual engagement and people skills – particularly verbal communication – and I was ready to walk right into the Brain HQ program and leave everybody else in the dust.  Didn’t happen.  I did ace certain tests, most of those having to do with speed, but did not do nearly as well in the areas of memory and, most particularly, “navigation.”

I’ve got to say that I do tend to believe this assessment.  I’ve never been one who just sort of naturally knew where he was or how to get somewhere.  I’ve been around people like that – who can walk windowless corridors, turning corners time and again, and still maintain their orientation.  That is, still remember which way they are going and how to get out.  But I’ve never been one of those guys.

As I work on the memory training, I wonder how much of memory loss or memory ability is just voluntary and not organic.  In other words, when you reach a certain age and station in life, does it make sense to remember less of what surrounds you?  Less of what you are bombarded with, day in and day out?  Does time teach us that so much of what we see and hear day by day simply does not matter at all and the task of remembering the days is just to carry so much more mental weight around for no good reason?

The down side to this may be that it is not so much a practical, rational process of figuring out that so many things are not important and we should therefore not tax ourselves with  the chore of trying to remember them, but a process of surrender, of giving up.

Giving up what?  Giving up hope.  Giving up hope that what we meet in our day – what we see and hear – really is meaningful, really might make a difference.  That is, that it is not certain that this day will be like every other day before.  Just the same grind.  The same commute, the same frustrations at work, the same paycheck.  Would our memories work better if we had faith that every day contains something new and meaningful?  That life might anytime open to new possibilities that we only allow ourselves to dream of?  That we are unique beings who are called to contribute in our own unique ways?  That we cannot really be replaced?  That what we say and do makes a difference?

I wonder.  I wonder if we really thought that what we do matters and that there are always new possibilities for us – for meaning and success, our memories might work a lot better.  I think we may start to lose our ability to remember through voluntary disuse – because we become more and more convinced that the details of our lives really don’t matter.

Inaugural Post

A few years ago, I read The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.   That was the beginning of the process that led to this blog.  At the risk of sounding cliché and overexcited, I have to say that it is an amazing and very hopeful book.  Its premise is the idea that the brain itself is an extremely malleable or adaptable organ.  The word that the neurologists use for this wonderful flexibility is “plasticity.”  They say that the idea that the brain is like a muscle that may be exercised and strengthened through exercise is an understatement.  A more accurate expression would be that the brain is a muscle that is strengthened through exercise.   Until recently, conventional medical wisdom grossly underestimated the ability of the brain to adapt – to change itself

The book is filled with astonishing and wonderful stories of men and women who, laboring under horrible injuries and deformities have, through concentrated training, found ways to adapt and lead enjoyable and productive lives.  Although I loved reading these stories – and they make the author’s point very well – my primary interest, and the thrust of this blog, is not in the conquering of deformities and illnesses, but in the improvement of what might be called the normal.  Those of us who live common, unremarkable daily lives – who go to work, pay the bills, watch sports on television and sometimes, in our better moments, wonder what we might be missing.  Saint Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”   I think there may be meaningful parallels between Paul’s two-thousand-year –old admonition and to what today’s neurologists are learning and telling us.

In my later years I have become firmly convinced of the notion that conventional wisdom – what might be called the spirit of the age – is very often completely wrong, and sometimes to the great detriment of those who, wittingly or not, follow it.  My main case in point for now is the whole accepted dogma about diet.  I was one of those who went right along with the government and advertisers in believing that saturated fats were terrible for you, that the single LDL cholesterol number was a definitive, reliable indicator of health, and that eating whole grains and cooking with vegetable oils was the way to avoid heart disease.  All of these dogmas were conventional wisdom here for decades and all of them are dead wrong and all of them have directly contributed to our obesity epidemic and consequent health care crisis.

But this blog is not about diet.  It is about the notion that what we have been fed for years may be dead wrong and may, in fact, be killing us or limiting our lives and our ability to fully enjoy them.  Paul told the early Christians to avoid conforming to the pattern of this world.  This blog will be a journal of my own experiment with brain training and the effort to get out of the mold that “this world” tries – however deliberately or unconsciously – to squeeze us into.

I have started brain training exercises on line and I intend to use this blog to report my progress and any changes that I see.  To bring others with me along my journey.

Come along if you care.  Come along if you dare.