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?