Learned #32: Train in Vain

In which we attempt to train our brains.

Most mornings my brain operates through a thick fog of lack-of-sleep, disorganized thoughts about the day, and vague concerns about everything from the coming collapse of all matter (a mere 20 billion years from now) to where I put my keys. (They're on the dresser. They're always on the dresser. You'd think I'd remember that by now.)

It wasn't always like this though. Call it youth or the restorative power of the hair of the dog, but I used to be able to get up and navigate through the morning without anywhere near this level of fogged distraction. Maybe it was that I had an established routine that I have since let lapse.

I did the same thing every morning. Without fail. I'd get up. Do some stretches, do some writing, and then do some brain training. By the time I'd made it through all of that, I was awake and functioning (relatively) well. As I struggle with re-creating an effective routine that is rigid enough to get me up, but flexible enough to deal with other people (read: kid), I've come back around on the idea of brain training. Maybe it's time to get back into the mental gym.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Brain Training

  • What We're Reading: Thinking, Fast and Slow

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Apps!

Let's get to it.

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

What We're Learning:

Brain Training

My routine consisted of playing with two different pieces of software: Brain Age on the Nintendo DS and Lumosity at Lumosity.com. Both trainers used puzzles and games as quick tests to limber up and activate your brain.


Brain Age features a variety of puzzles, including stroop testsmathematical questions, and Sudoku puzzles, all designed to help keep certain parts of the brain active.

Lumosity, while looking and feeling very different from Brain Age, has a very similar description:

Lumosity is an online program consisting of games claiming to improve memoryattentionflexibility, speed of processing, and problem solving.

The idea behind both these systems was that you needed to exercise your brain the same way you need to exercise your body, especially to prevent age-related decline. Both trainers would administer a base-line test and then give you exercises deemed suitable to exercising your brain functions.

Screencap from Lumosity.com

What brain functions?

Generally - those related to memory, cognition, and problem solving. In other words, thinking quickly through activities based around everyday activities - in one puzzle I remember from Lumosity, the screen would show a forrest scene and birds would randomly chirp.

Once you heard the chirp, you had to click on the revealed bird as quickly as possible. The better you got, the smaller the window to click the bird got. This puzzle tested and strengthened your pattern recognition skills by asking you to spot the difference between the default and changed screens, which is a cognitive function.

My favorite game from Brain Age, on the other hand, was one called Triangle Math, which would give you a small math problem featuring two functions, like 3 + 4 - 2. Again, cognitive function and problem solving.

But, do they work?

Short answer: yes, but not like they claim.

Both sets of software (and many others) have been tested over and over without easily replicable results. In fact, Lumosity was sued (and lost) over their claims that continued use of their software could prevent memory loss and age-related mental degradation. Part of the problem is that “cognitive function” is just too big a category; more studies need to be done that target specific functions within that category.

Several studies show that while the apps do not do any harm, they may not really do much to prevent actual disease or age-related cognitive decline. But that’s not to say that they do not do any good at all. The same studies show that the apps do help, in the same way that playing sudoku and doing crossword puzzles help - they keep your brain active and working and, guess what, that helps keep you from getting staid and calcified.

Relatedly, one recent study shows some evidence that while using the apps may actually help, it might be due to a placebo effect. In other words, the apps do help your memory and basic cognitive functions if you believe they do. But, again, so does the doing the crossword.

And, in fact, some studies suggest that being out with friends, getting enough sleep, and eating right have better long term effects than using an app on your brain’s function.

All of which boils down to: these apps are not miracle cures and they will not do anything to prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia. But, if you find the games and activities fun and engaging, they will help your brain in the same way social interaction, linguistic and logic puzzles, board and card games, and healthy habits like exercise, regular sleep, and good diet do.

So, now what?

For what it’s worth, I’m no longer using either piece of software, but not because of anything against them. I no longer have a DS and during a paring-back phase, I decided I had grown too bored with Lumosity to continue paying the $5 a month fee. By the time both apps were available for my first iPhone, I had moved on.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get back into “brain training” as a genre, but that’s because I’ve found other tools built around memory function to learn other skills that I find more useful than mere play. That said, never say never. I enjoyed my time in the brain training and I like the kind of games that the apps use, so who knows?


What We’re Reading:

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

This book has been on my “Popular, Buzzy Science Book I’ll Get Around to One Day” list pretty much since it was published.

From the Amazon page:

In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions.

That sounds pretty intriguing. Anything that can help us understand our own motivations and impulses has to be a good thing. Right?


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Down the Rabbit Hole:


While I'm not doing any specific "brain training" at the moment, I do currently use several tools that work, in one way or another, to exercise the mind. Here's a quick list of my dailies:

750 Words - Based around "morning pages," this site is a simple, blank screen where you write. About anything. In as much time as you need. Until you get to 750 words or more. There are badges and a timeline and some great export tools. This is a fantastic way to wake up. It also helps “train” your brain through touch-typing, which assists in memory function and pattern application.

BunPro.jp - Comprised of the Japanese word "Bunpo" and the English word "Pro," the site uses spaced repetition - a memory function - to help you learn all aspects of Japanese grammar. Although relatively new, it has proven its use and worth to me over and over. If you're interested in learning Japanese, I can't recommend this enough.

WaniKani - Like BunPro, I've recommended this before and still do. Looking at it from a brain training point of view, the site helps wake you up and get you focused by (again) using spaced repetition to build your kanji recognition and reading skills. Given that kanji are descended from pictographs, this helps not only your memory but your pattern recognition skills.

Code Academy - I'm not actually using this one right at the moment, but I've completed several courses through it and recommend it highly as both coding and memory training. Coding is, at its core, problem-solving, often using logic and math. Just by attempting some of the basic problems, you are training those same brain skills.

That's it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.