How to Train the Aging Brain – and the Younger Brain, too

Posted January 4, 2010 by alfera
Categories: Articles, Thoughts

A really relevant article recently came out in the New York Times on the topic of training the aging brain. The author opens the article by mentioning a few signs of an aging brain:

  • Remembering the big picture but not the details
  • Forgetting a recent statement or task as soon as another statement or task takes over
  • Losing focus, daydreaming

Well, the thing that worries me is that these are qualities I already notice cropping up in my own daily life, and I can tell you that I am not alone among my twentysomething peers, even the smart ones who, like I, excelled academically in college. I suspect that this has something to do with the fact that we are the generation brought up with Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and Google — that is, the generation where details are readily searchable and information is fed to us in small, bite-sized chunks that do not require more than a few seconds of attention to soak in. When the majority of what you do requires less than a few seconds of attention, your brain has less of a chance to develop the skill of sustained, deep attention. And if a quick Google search can illuminate a particular detail, then my mind has less of a reason — and need — to focus on the details, and that part of my memory misses out on its chance to develop.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not some doomsday prophet running around trying to warn people that Twitter and Wikipedia are the harbingers of the end of human intelligence. These tools are all marvelous advancements in human technology, I use them every day, and I am grateful for them. But like all big human advancements, we must learn to adapt to them and live with them in a way that is healthy and beneficial to us.

What struck me most about this article, though, is that there is no mention of brain training games. Instead the article points to things that we more or less already know keep the brain in shape (or at the very least keep the brain engaged and interested): reading, learning, challenging long-held beliefs and assumptions. While I don’t want to read too much into the author’s absence of mentioning the cognitive health industry, the question nevertheless remains: am I better off spending 15 minutes a day playing Lumosity or reading a book full of new ideas on something that interests me?


Old Conductors: Evidence for Neuroplasticity

Posted January 4, 2010 by alfera
Categories: Thoughts

It turns out that I have very specific and personal reasons for my belief in the idea of neuroplasticity. I am a musician, and have played piano for most of my life, as well as various instruments in orchestras and bands. During my life I have been fortunate enough to work with some really amazing musicians, including some teachers and conductors who, at an age where most Americans have long since retired and stopped accomplishing much of anything, are still in peak form, and are traveling, teaching, and taking on new challenges.

And that is quite common in the world of Classical music. Many great conductors — both of today and in the past 100 years — maintained active musical lives well into their 80s and 90s. And these guys were not hobbling up to the podium with a walker, either. They are energetic, creative, sharp as a tack, full of energy, and, in most cases, they look about ten or twenty years younger than they actually are.

What interests me is why these men (and yes, they do tend in general to be men) in particular seem so mentally fit compared to comparable individuals who pursued other fields. One could argue, perhaps, that something completely unrelated to music kept these conductors in top shape. Perhaps it was something genetic. Or perhaps they are all simply highly motivated individuals who ate right and exercised throughout their lives, and these health habits caused them to maintain their mental acuity.

But I strongly suspect that the unifying factor here is, indeed, the music that they make. As a professional musician, I can tell you that my job is a constant workout for my brain. My job as a musical director requires me to learn new pieces of music (a task which invokes analytical, auditory, and motor skills), to be a leader for singers and instrumentalists (a task which keeps my teaching and leadership skills sharp), and to give live performances regularly (a task which challenges me to perform under pressure). In short, making music professionally is an activity that involves so many parts of the brain, and surely the longevity with which these conductors were blessed is due in large part to that fact.

So how does all of this relate to brain games? I think it’s pretty clear. If music can keep these conductors sharp well into their old age, it’s not unreasonable to think that a carefully crafted diet of brain games can keep anyone’s brain equally sharp. Cognitive health is completely analogous to physical well-being: you have to exercise to stay in shape. It’s that simple. The question that interests me most here, of course, is whether these brain games actually can do anything for an average Joe like me, rather than just make me really good at solving a bunch of arithmetic problems really fast.

What is TheBrainTrain?

Posted January 4, 2010 by alfera
Categories: Introduction

I started TheBrainTrain with the goal of getting a handle on the fast-growing number of games, programs, and books that claim to help keep the brain in optimal shape. These products are variously referred to as brain games, cognitive training, brain training, and brain workouts, and the scientific concept on which they are based is neuroplasticity – the idea that, by using the brain in the right ways, the number of neurons in the brain can be increased, and the network among neurons can be made more robust.

Brain training is a rapidly growing industry, and it’s easy to understand why. The appeal of the basic product is very high. If it is true that brain games are a way to keep increase alertness and awareness, sharpen critical thinking skills, and even elevate one’s mood, then brain games are a way to have fun and improve the quality of your life at the same time. If you don’t believe the statistics, check out Google Trends for the terms brain games and brain training to see how interest in these fields is growing. (If you have never used Google Trends, check it out; it is a really cool way of mapping interest in a topic. The graphs show the number of searches performed for a particular word over time. Therefore, a rising line corresponds, in general, to a rising public interest.)

Why did I decide to write this blog?

Because cognitive health is a topic that interests me, I like playing brain games, and these guys suggest that blogging about something you’re interested in can be fun. Really, that’s it.

Let me be clear right from the start: I am in no way an expert in the field of neuroscience, psychology, or any field directly related to brain games. I’m just a 22-year-old college graduate with a bit of time on my hands, and I’m interested in keeping my mind sharp, in seeing which products (if any) work, and in sharing what I learn along the way. I hope you find this blog fun and useful!