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.

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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.

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.

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.