Wednesday, September 04, 2013

If I only had a brain

Like anyone who reaches a certain age, I worry a bit about being physically enfeebled. So I do a (however half-assed) strength-cardio workout two to three times a week. I try to take a decent sized (two+ miles) walk everyday. When I remember that it’s a good idea, as I walk through the Boston Common, I do a bit of curb walking so that I can improve my balance. When I shop at Whole Food, I carry my groceries back without benefit of cart. And I mostly eat healthy stuff.

Nope. I don’t want to be a frail little old lady slipping on life’s banana peel and breaking my hips.

Not if I can help it.

In truth, however, I’d rather lose my body than my mind.

So I go to the library every couple of weeks – a mild walk while lugging a bag of books – to check out six books. Which I read. I do Sudoku in pencil (unless it’s the easy-peasy ones) and crossword puzzles in ink (whatever the level). I play Taipei and FreeCell (both a physical – mouse clicking! – and mental exercise) on my computer.

Mens sana in corpore saneno, as we used to say in Latin II.

But if I had to pick one, I’d come down on the side of brain vs. brawn. With some wiggle room: if I had ALS, I don’t think I’d be all that thrilled that my mind was still intact. On the other hand, if I had Alzheimer’s, would it really matter if my body still worked perfectly?

Anyway, I’m not taking any chances, so I’ll continue to flex the pecs of my brain. Unfortunately, I have read that the types of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic (which surely Sudoku counts as) that I so enjoy will, in fact, matter not in terms of staving off senility.

No, you’re supposed to do the sorts of mental gymnastics that companies like Lumosity offer.

Now, Lumosity does not focus specifically on the geezer demographic.

In fact, the folks that people their ads are bright young things.

Still, they do offer brain workouts for all ages:

At Lumos Labs, we believe in improving brains—and lives. That's why we created a simple online tool to allow anyone to achieve their brain's full potential. Drawing on the latest neuroscience breakthroughs, Lumosity's brain training program is shown to work. No matter what your age or background, you can feel smarter, sharper, and brighter.

When I looked at the bios of the team, it struck me that few of them needed much of an assist in order to feel smarter, sharper, and brighter: Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Stanford, Berkley… PhD this. Summa cum that.

Anyway, while I’d seen the Luminosity ads on TV, I hadn’t paid too much attention to them, mostly because when TV’s on, I have my nose planted in my Sudoku book, pencil flying.

But I was aware of them, and found a recent Economist article on them to be of interest. Which is more than I can say for their exercises, most of which sound kind of boring – the brain workout equivalent of the treadmill.

There are around 40 exercises available, including “speed match”, in which players click if an image matches a previous one; “memory matrix”, which requires remembering which squares on a matrix were shaded; and “raindrops”, which involves solving arithmetic problems before the raindrops containing them hit the ground. The puzzles are varied, according to how well users perform, to ensure they are given a suitably challenging brain-training session each day. (Source: The Economist)

Sure, the arithmetic raindrops sounds kind of sudokish.

But, what, no word games? (I have to ask the big questions: why is it that the sorts of things I excel at are, when it comes to cognitive improvement, so useless?)

Anyway, Lumosity doesn’t sound any more entertaining than Taipei and FreeCell, which I get to play for free, as opposed to forking over $14.95 per month. Of course, I’d rather subscribe to Lumosity than sign up with their competitor, NeuroSky:

…which makes “brainwave sensors”—including some shaped like cats’ ears that will apparently wiggle if you are enjoying yourself and droop if you are relaxed.

Cats’ ears or not, whether I subscribe or not is little or no matter to Lumosity, which is going gangbusters.

The popularity of Lumosity since its launch in 2007 has been, well, mind-blowing. Its smartphone app has been the top education app in the iTunes store at some point in 38 countries. On August 1st it launched an iPad version, which it expects to boost its existing 45m registered users in 180-plus countries.

All part of the emerging “digital brain health” market, which is expected to grow to $6.2B by 2020, thanks to us:

Ageing baby-boomers desperate to postpone their dotage are expected to be especially keen buyers.

Some evidence suggests that brain-ercise works in certain situations, but skeptics remain:

“It is tempting to think of the brain as a muscle, that as it gets stronger at one thing it is also stronger at everything, but it isn’t,” says Stephen Kosslyn, until recently director of Stanford’s Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences. “The shocking truth is that the opportunities to generalise are very limited. If you practise some cognitive task you are basically practising that thing. If something else is very similar in its underlying structure there may be some transferability, but rarely 100%.”

Hmmmm. Does this suggest that all my skill at Sudoku only translates into being good a Sudoku?

Meanwhile, the article ends with an exceedingly gratuitous swipe at my TV-watching side-entertainment of choice:

…as long as Lumosity can manage to be more engaging than Sudoku, its future could be bright.

More engaging than Sudoku? The writer has clearly never done a puzzle from one of the Extra Hard or Highly Challenging collections/

What’s so engaging are “remembering which squares on a matrix were shaded”?

If I want to that, I can just take out a deck of Bicycle playing cards and lay them out face down and play a game of Concentration.

Doesn’t anything count any more if it’s not digital?

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