Day 63

I had the day off today and there is snow on the ground and so I spent an extra long training session at the keyboard this morning.  (44 minutes)  Made it through the company-arranged session with five stars in three of the four categories.  Still stuck on Target Tracker, which measures “attention.”  After that, did some memory work and some work on Card Shark.  Some progress in both areas.  My big takeaway today is the reality of mental fatigue.  Its no use continuing to do sets of push ups or pull ups one right after another in the hope of getting more reps the next time.  The muscles get tired and you can actually do less and less.  The progress – increased strength – shows up the next session – one or two days later – after your muscles have had time to replenish and grow.  Hoping to see the same thing with this mental exercise, but still in the dark about how much is too much at one time.

No doubt, though.  You do reach a point of fatigue and rapidly diminishing returns.

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?

Doing It The Right Way

I have been pretty regular about working out for almost all of my adult life.  I don’t think I would have kept my sanity, otherwise, and I have been very fortunate in that my workplace has a very well-appointed fitness room where I can get a workout in over the lunch hour.  But only lately have I been convinced of the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to exercise.  You can do it the wrong way and get up a sweat, but not gain – or even lose – the fitness that you are after.  You may guess that this new thinking might be the result of my immersion into the primal/paleo literature and you’d be right.  But I think personal experience has borne out a lot of the claims that the primal people make.

I suspect that there is a right way and a wrong way to do brain training, too, and the particular issue I’m concerned about at the moment is this: how long  a session is optimal and how often should you train in order to see maximum results.

The site that I am using (Brain HQ) starts you off with what they call twenty minute sessions and they recommend that you train three times a week.  They have their reasons for those limits, I am sure, but I am not convinced that twenty minutes three times a week will give you anything like maximum results.  Most of my “twenty minute” sessions end up being even shorter than that – some as short as seventeen minutes.

My guess is that the twenty minutes, three times a week recommendations are based at least in part on marketing data.  My guess is that 20 minutes three times a week is more inviting and less daunting to the general public than the kind of schedule that might produce faster results and the light-ended recommendations are aimed not at maximum improvement, but maximum business for the company and, perhaps, more customers staying with the program longer and, thus, paying more rent.

That being said, I must add that I do see diminishing performance after the twenty-minute session is over.  One thing this experience has shown me is that mental fatigue is quite analogous to physical fatigue.  After so many mental reps, you just can’t perform like you did at the outset.

So, this post is aimed at getting some feedback from others who have trained on either of the popular sites or services – Lumosity or Brain HQ or who have some other insider knowledge on the points.  What is an optimal time for training sessions?  And how often should you train to see optimal results?

Why Brain Training?

There are many reasons for beginning brain training.  I have more or less dealt with the first already: the idea that brain training is actually possible – that the brain is itself a kind of muscle that will respond to training in much the same way as a biceps or pectoral muscle will.  When you look around these days and see what kind of shape people are in physically, it is very easy to see that, through the abuse of their bodies – through eating sugars, grains and all kinds of processed food – many people are limiting their lives and their ability to experience and enjoy them.

On the other hand, we see people around us who have taken the reins over their bodies and gotten results.  These folks are slimmer, stronger, and more vibrant than most.  What they have done has taken effort – push-ups and pull-ups are not easy, at least not at first – and it is hard to change one’s diet for the better when everything around us pushes in the direction of lazy, high-carb eating.  I’ve made this journey, myself, and it has been an object lesson in how wrong the culture and conventional wisdom can be and in how much better life can be if one can break free from the grip of the culture and get onto the right path.

If our lives – the quality of our existence – are affected by the health of our bodies, how much more might they be affected by the health of our brains?   Daniel Amen, a noted neurologist who treats many retired NFL players and who has written a whole raft of books on the subject of brain health and its effect on the quality of life, says it this way: “The fountain of youth is right between your ears.”

In other words, the health of the brain can make more of a difference in our lives than even the health of the body.  This is an amazing idea.  Again, it is very easy to see improvement in physical fitness and to notice the effect of healthy exercise and diet on one’s life, but what about brain health?  Can it really be true that the transformation we might see through proper attention to brain health could make a more profound improvement in the quality of life than even physical exercise?

I am ready to answer that question in the affirmative.  That’s why I have started brain training.

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.