Training The Brain

Generally, on at least 20 days in each month, I set a bit of time aside to do the online ‘free’ tests available on the Lumosity website. Most often, this is with my morning coffee when i get up. if not, at some time later in the day when there’s a logical time to pause for breath. Many years ago, the fad was sudoku puzzles and off and on over the years I’ve got in to the crossword habit.

Does all this activity make me more intelligent? Do the memory exercises boost my memory, the task swapping exercises boost my ability to focus? Or, should it just all be treated as a bit of fun? If I’m having fun and it ‘gets me up and going’ in the mornings, does it really matter?

To my mind there are two specific reasons why it should matter to us what these online programmes are actually achieving;

a) They make some pretty big and grandiose boasts (claiming to back them with genuine hard scientific research data) about the benefits,
b) Some varieties of these programmes are being marketed more aggressively towards schools and parents as ways to boost the ‘brain power’ of children – by implication boosting their academic abilities. These are tempting claims, sometimes tied in some way to the ideas of growth mindset propounded by Carol Dweck of Stanford University.

There’s potentially a great deal of money at stake here (not from me, I’m only using the free version!) so it’s inevitable that any new research or authoritative statements in this area are going to have an impact and be hotly contested. So, it was with all these factors in mind that i read the following article published recently in ‘The Atlantic’. It sets out details of a recent review of all the scientific papers identified to date on the subject. The overall conclusions suggest the complexity of measurement in this area and highlight that the companies marketing the programmes have, at least, been guilty of some exaggeration of the direct benefits.

The Atlantic – The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

If I believe that by doing such exercises regularly, day after day, my brain will work better, faster, with more creativity, dexterity and deliver me superior results AND as a result of that belief, I get those benefits, then can it be said that the programme itself did or didn’t have the positive effect? If i got the positive effect i wanted, does it matter how it was achieved? Has similar research looked at the issues of weight training or other physical fitness based techniques? If I do bodyweight exercise three times a week, and as a result find that I can carry heavy loads easier and for longer day to day, do i need scientific evidence to conclusively and quantifiably link the two things? Surely, it’s enough that there is no evidence of adverse impact from the bodyweight exercising? In other words, it’s not harming me, I have benefit that may directly or indirectly flow from the exercising – then surely I will consider it’s in my best interest to carry on exercising.

As for me, as long as I feel that these exercises are a fun accompaniment to my early morning coffee I will continue to do them. I am certain as I can be that they’re doing me no harm. If I feel that afterwards, I start my day with a bit of extra mental ‘zip’, energy and feeling like the engine’s properly cranked up, then I’ll not worry too much whether that was the games or the coffee that did it for me.

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