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.