Book Review: Soft-Wired

Home Economics

The trouble with trying to write a fair review of SoftWired is avoiding clichés.

There are several that are applicable and so maybe I should just list them here and get them out of the way.  Here they are ( some of them, anyway):  revolutionary; earth shaking; groundbreaking; life changing; landmark.

Yes.  This book is all of that.  Its appeal is to basically two groups of people:

  1. those who have suffered trauma to the brain either through accident or disease;
  2. anybody over forty years old

I’m not going to hide the punch line here.  The message of the book – the thing that makes all those grand cliché s appropriate – is this:  the brain is like a muscle and it can be strengthened dramatically through the right kind of exercise, diet and lifestyle.  The book is full of examples of dramatic changes – healings, really – in the lives…

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Report From Two Weeks In

 

I’m back at the Brain HQ training regimen.  Just like I said in my last post here, I gave myself a 65th birthday present of another month’s subscription to the pay-for exercises.  I’ve been hitting it pretty hard – harder than ever before, at least – and I have a few comments that I think might be helpful to others who might be starting the program or contemplating starting.  Here they are:

  1. Yes, your brain can actually improve. It really can.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how disciplined I might be with diet, exercise, rest and positive thinking, there are some things about myself I can never change.  I can’t make myself any taller.  I can’t regrow hair on the top of my head.  And, no matter how hard I would train, at age 65 and a height of 6’0”, I’ll never get to the point where I can dunk a basketball.  There are just some things about our genetic makeup and the wear and tear of the years that nothing will restore or improve.

And when you start the Brain HQ exercises – at least some of them – it’s easy to start feeling like that about the whole brain-training thing.  There are some of these exercises that feel impossible to me.  The images or sounds appear and vanish so quickly that I begin to think to myself that any real improvement is simply beyond my reach.  My ears and eyes don’t work that fast anymore, I say to myself.

But that is just the thing.  According to the extensive and impressive research outlined in The Brain That Changes Itself, it’s not about the hardware.  It’s not about your ears and eyes.  It’s not about those parts and systems within your body that can’t change.  It’s about the brain, and the brain can change.  In fact, it has an amazing capacity to adapt and invigorate itself to whatever challenges are put before it.  Our ability to see and hear things faster and more accurately can actually improve, even when we are way beyond our physical peak.

It’s essential to remember that.  To treat it almost as an article of faith.  To believe, contrary to what we’ve been told all along and what our experience of life to date would suggest, that our brains can change and actually improve in much the same way that our musculature can improve, even when we’re older.  The notion that we might improve our brains in much the same way or to the same degree as someone our age improves his or her body by getting off of the sugar and grains and vegetable oils and getting off the couch and out under the sky, day by day, can be a great motivator.  We’ve all seen people over fifty change their diet and lifestyle and revolutionize their health and appearance.  What the Brain HQ research shows is that the same kind of drastic changes can be wrought in the brain.

  1. It’s going to take some time.

Like I said before, I am re-reading this phenomenal book, The Brain That Changes Itself,  in connection with the restart of my training.  One of the studies discussed in the book is pertinent to the question of how long it should take to achieve substantial progress and how long any progress, thus achieved, will be likely to last.

This study involved submitting a population to rigorous brain-training exercises over an extended period of time.  The subjects in the experiment were tested twice a week on the skills they were working to improve.  They worked Monday through Friday and they were given the weekends off.  They were tested for progress on Mondays and Fridays.  Initially, the Friday testing showed substantial improvement over the week.  In other words, the Friday scores were significantly better than the Monday scores.  But for the first six months of the training, the Monday scores reverted to baseline and the subjects showed no net gain from week to week.

That is, until about six months had passed.  After that, the gains from Monday to Friday slowed down, but the scores Monday to Monday started to slowly and steadily creep upward.  This went on for about four months – when the subjects had been in the program for ten months total.  After that, the researchers saw a plateau and I think the experiment ended. The subjects were again tested some time after the program had ceased and it was determined that the progress made by those who stuck it out for ten months was more or less permanent.

The big takeaway here is that you have to stick with it for a while – about ten months, to be precise – even if it does not seem to be working.  According to the research, even when the test scores keep returning to baseline for six months, the training is still having a real effect which may be converted to lasting gains if the subject perseveres for ten months.

Again, there are some pretty good comparisons to physical exercise.  Distance runners may train for months or even years before the body “kicks in” and the runner notices improvement in speed and stamina.

  1. There are rewards.

This training is hard.  It requires concentration and time.  And it will inevitably cause feelings of frustration and disappointment.  No one would do this – particularly not for a ten-month stretch – unless he or she were highly motivated.  And the only real motivation is the prospect of rich reward.

I don’t know exactly what those rewards will be.  But I am convinced that my brain can be strengthened and sped up and that this will result in a better experience of life.  I am only a couple of weeks back into the program now and I am wondering whether this work has actually affected – in a good way – my mood, my emotional state.  I think it may have.  We’ll see.

Back to the Salt Mine?

 

 

 

 

In Robert Farrar Capon’s stunning book, Between Noon and Three, he explores the Biblical idea of grace – the outlandishness of it and how difficult it is for us creatures – who want to think of ourselves as more powerful and self-determinative than we really are – to actually accept it – that we are saved by the grace of God and not by any of our own merit.  He also challenges the reader with the practical implications of grace in our everyday lives.  He says a lot about it, and it is all worth reading, but he puts the final, ultimate point on it with this question: What would you do with freedom if you had it?

I am with Capon when he says that without grace – without the fact that God saves us in spite of ourselves, in spite of our sin – none of us would have a prayer.  I accept that as propositionally true, theologically true, true in the abstract.  In Christ, we are free.   But when one retires – as this one recently has – the question presents itself more immediately, more practically.  What I did with my freedom before was go to work.  Alright, I know that was an act freely done.  I could have cleaned out my IRAs and headed to Mexico or something, but I freely chose to head to the office, every day for almost 40 years.  That was freedom, but it did not always feel like freedom.  Retirement, as I am blessed to have it right now, with good health and sufficient resources and a happy marriage, does actually feel like freedom.  What do I do with that?

Well, lots of things, actually.  More study, more time outdoors, more creative writing and deeper exploration into all of those old movies that my wife and I love (Last night we watched “I Know Where I’m Going,” a British film produced in 1945 and filmed on location in the Hebrides Islands.  Early romantic comedy – lots of fun!)  Netflix is a wonderful thing.

Part of my study has been to re-read Norman Doidge’s fantastic book, The Brain That Changes Itself.   My first reading of this inspiring work was what got me started on this whole “brain training” thing in the first place – the thing that started me writing this blog.  Well, I did the training for a while.  I subscribed to the Brain HQ webpage and faithfully put myself through the paces there, day after day.  I did make some progress, according to the measurements provided on the site, and I found that I was strong in some areas – like recognizing people’s faces and in visual and auditory processing speed – and weaker in others – like attention span and navigational skills.

But after a while, I dropped off, then dropped out.  Can’t remember exactly why.  Circumstances of life may have intervened.  I may have been discouraged by a slowing rate of progress (or complete lack of progress in some areas).   My fundamental dislike of subscribing to anything no doubt played a role.   These days the advertisers make it so easy to commit yourself to regular monthly withdrawals!  Ech!  You could easily spend your life away just top move electrons around on your computer and television screens.

I did continue to work on the abbreviated training programs that Brain HQ provides, but this was only once in a while and did not allow the kind of feedback that measures progress.

 

But I am reading the book again and I again came to those passages that quantify the effects of this kind of brain training.  I’ll not repeat them all here except to say that the research in this book goes a long way toward proving that the brain is very much like a muscle.  That is, it responds to exercise – particularly the right kinds of exercise – and that with proper training and nutrition, it can accomplish things that are beyond your imagining.  People of a certain age (ahem, my age) were able to restore their memory functions to what they were ten or twenty years before.

I look around and see what people my age have let happen to their bodies and I also look at those who have, through deliberate and faithful effort in diet and exercise, preserved themselves physically and are able to do far more than their lazier peers and in some instances and in some ways can still approach their own physical performance of decades before.  What if you could do that with your brain?  What if your brain were even more responsive to the right kinds of diet and exercise?

And, so inspired, I am giving myself a 65th birthday present of a re-subscription to the paid exercises.  One of the ideas that Doidge touches on in the book is that progress – dramatic progress that comes only as a result of continued, concentrated effort – can be achieved where the trainee is convinced that there will be rewards commensurate with the effort.

They say that youth is wasted on the young.  What could I do with the powers I had at my height of strength now that I have freedom, time and wisdom?  Now, there is a prospect of reward.

 

More later . . .

Coltrane at 90 MPH

He didn’t play Coltrane until he was out of the city.
Till then he would have felt too confined
Windows up, roof closed, traffic all around
All that white noise from the A/C.
All that stopping and starting.
The music would not have sounded right then.
Coltrane has to have room to breathe
Has to have volume.
.
But when he stopped at the last redlight
And saw the long, forested hills stretching before
He slid the disk from its sleeve and put it in
The machine clicked and hummed as it digested
While he rolled down the windows and the sun-roof back
And cranked the volume and waited
And when the light turned green, Coltrane wailed
And he soared.

copyright 2016

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.

How Much Is Enough?

How Much is Enough?

I am about five weeks into my brain training regimen, using the Brain HQ exercises on their website. I have made substantial progress in some areas, but remain almost completely baffled by others. One exercise that gives me the most trouble is what they call “right turn.” You are shown like objects – baseballs, seashells, planets, etc and you have to compare them and decide whether the images are the same or mirror-images of each other. I test way lower on these than in any other tests I’ve yet taken. It’s frustrating, of course. Not only do I feel lost and inferior, I don’t feel like I am making any progress here. Not getting any better at it or feeling any sense of growing understanding or facility for this particular test.
I’ve said before that my trouble here makes me tend to trust the program more. They put this in the “navigation” category, and I have never been a natural in that area. I’ve known people who are. Guys who can drive along strange city streets and still keep an accurate sense of which way they are going. Guys who can walk three or four turns down a blind hallway and still know where they are in relation to where they started. Not me.
They tell you that the way to improve your standing – relative to everyone else involved in the training – is to spend time working in those areas where your scores are the lowest. So I’ve been spending time in Navigation and I have made progress in the other two tests I have worked on in that area – True North and Optic Flow. True North – where you are given a long set of directions and you have to determine the direction you need to go for each step based on the direction you just came from. This involves not only deducing or inducing (never could really distinguish those two things) the direction you need to go, but remembering the list of directions itself. It is real labor for me, but I have progressed in part because this exercise is not timed and I sit there and close my eyes and imagine I am looking across a map of the United States – looking toward Canada or the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic or Pacific – and getting my answer that way. It surprises me when I am wrong (this is not infrequent).
I seem to do a little better in the tests involving hearing than in those that are solely dependent on vision. Maybe that’s because I am in a profession than involves listening to people, day in and day out. But I wonder whether my scoring in the purely visual tests might be adversely affected by my eyesight. I know that the pitch here is that you see not only with your eyes, but with your brain. The eye itself is only a kind of gate that lets the images and information in and the brain processes it. Sometimes fast enough to give you a pretty complete picture.
I am sold on that idea and I do think that my processor speed has speeded up a little as a result of my training. But I do wonder how good my gate (eyes) itself is. Might I be affected by cataracts and not as able to see and take in a whole screen worth of images as another person might be?
I am going to stay with the Right Turn program, even though it frustrates me. I can believe that because I am not naturally strong in this area, I have failed to work that part of my brain as hard as I otherwise might have and so what was weak never got stronger. I don’t feel myself getting any better at this, but maybe that is okay, too. Maybe you just have to hand with it a while and then you’ll have a breakthrough. It will just come to you.
I still wonder if I am really training enough to expect to see real progress and expansion of my mental capabilities. I am not satisfied that the company has given me a candid answer about how much time is necessary in order to see maximum improvement. They say that they recommend three sessions per week, at 30 minutes each.
I can’t believe that an hour and a half a week is going to give you anywhere near maximum improvement. I compare this to physical training. I’ve been convinced lately that it is easy to overtrain and that too much running or too much weightlifting can be counter productive, but to really get stronger I don’t think half an hour, every other day, will do the trick.
I play guitar, too. To make real progress there seems like it takes an hour a day.

But I do feel like my playing has improved since I started the brain training thing. My finger placements are more precise and more effortless and I seem to have a longer hand stamina. That is encouraging.

I do wonder whether these exercises that teach attention and concentration ever improve anyone’s eyesight.
Stay tuned.