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.

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.

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.