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.

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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.

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?