Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hard is good…especially for brains

Here’s an interesting tip from Lumosity – brains like to be challenged. 

Huh?  I often think that my brain just wants to take it easy, take slow, and relaxxxx.  But maybe that’s just my laziness talking. Actually, after reading Dr. Eagleman’s book, Incognito, I have no idea which part of the brain I’m listening to any time…if that even makes sense.

One thing that Pam Zhang of the Lumosity blog asserts is that “Effective cognitive exercises must be both adaptive and novel in order to provide the brain with the challenges it needs.”

Does that mean that my standard Sudoku and crossword puzzles aren’t helping? Well, according to Ms. Zhang, they could be helping a lot more.

The analogy that seems to apply here is how we build muscles.  It’s hard to build muscles without a lot of straining, wheezing and hard work. Said differently, if all you do is walk around a bit, you don’t get a chiseled look and the ability to run a triathlon. So it is with brains, you don't get something for nothing - you got to make 'em wheez and struggle and work to build something. (Actually this whole idea of being able to build new brain cells is somewhat of a new idea. I suggest reading The Secret Life of the Middle-Aged Brain, by Barbara Strauch which does a great job of myth-debunking.)

Pam’s recent blog posting also says that you need to focus on brain exercises that are both adaptable and novel.

My sense of their use of the word “adaptable” is something more akin to “suitable”, as in something that’s just touch enough to make you work without getting hugely frustrated and quitting.  Early in my occupational therapy my therapist gave me a “find the words” assignment that I spent 4-5 hours on.  It was just way beyond my abilities at the time and I found the whole thing really discouraging.  The idea of a brain exercise seemingly within my grasp is something I’m much more interested in.

I get novelty, too.  The muscle analogy actually holds up pretty good here too.  We’ve learned that if we do the same exercises all the time, there’s just diminishing returns on a workout.  Your muscles know what to expect and are prepared for it, which is why P90X® in vogue right now. If my memory of “Mike and Mike in the Morning” commercials are accurate, they claim that one of the secrets is that it changes the workout every so often - they call it “muscle confusion” - so that your muscles don’t know what’s coming next.  I can imagine the same thing happening with my brain. (Actually my brain rarely knows what’s coming next.)

In fact, I find myself doing the same Lumosity exercises over and over again…even when I throw myself into a course (right now I’m on an well-needed “Attention” boost).

So I believe Ms. Zhang when she says that “The right kind of cognitive training introduces novel tasks that force the brain to process information in new ways”. So today I did my regular “Attention” boost and then tried “Rotation Matrix”.  I was lousy, which means, I guess, that if I stick with it for a while, I’ll build brain cells faster.

As I think about it, the really hard and un-fun part – the surgeries – are over. Now it’s time to embrace the fun hard parts.

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