Games to train the Boomer brain

Globe and Mail Update

Now that they're turning 60, the earliest of the Baby Boomers are being told their brains no longer operate the way they used to, and they're getting worried.

Or not. It's hard to tell.

But if they're not, there's no shortage of marketers who would like to assure them that it's an unavoidable part of life … and they just happen to have the software to fix it.

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"Brain training" has become the neologism used to describe a series of computer-based mental gymnastics its makers claim will inhibit brain rot, and can cover everything from memory lapses, loss of cognitive functions after a stroke or even holding off Alzheimer's disease.

The jury's still out on the validity of such claims, although everyone agrees that if you don't exercise your brain, you're circling the drain. But at least it's fun to play games, and these exercises are certainly not harmful.

Becoming mentally fit involves a series of what we once called games, puzzles, brain-teasers and time-wasters, and are now supposed to regard as essential survival tools. Two prominent examples of turning fun into therapy have been produced by Japanese game-maker Nintendo, called Brain Age 2 for its Nintendo DS platform, and Lumosity, a Web-based application program from Lumos Labs, a cognitive neuroscience company based in San Francisco. Both claim splendid intellectual pedigrees: Nintendo developed its Brain Age games from a wildly popular book called Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain, by a Japanese neuroscientist called Kawashima Ryuta; Lumosity was created by Stanford neuroscience graduate, a game designer and a former president of a private equity investment fund, with eight neuroscientists or bioengineers on its advisory board.

Brain Age 2, like the original, features Kawashima's face, which appears as a Max-Headroom type of floating head proffering encouragement, advice and instructions for each game. Kawashima's premise is that the brain stops developing at the age of 20, after which it begins its unstoppable slide to senility, an alarming thing to consider for people 21 and older. It features games involving simple math operations, a musical test involving a virtual piano, a word-scramble game, a Tetris-style game and Sudoku puzzles. Flex your neurons daily with these, and Nintendo promises results.

Like golf, the low scores indicate a younger "brain age." Players can get younger, so to speak, as they continue playing.

The original Brain Age was released in 2005, and was such a success Nintendo went back to the drawing board for the sequel, just released ($19.95 Cdn.). The games involve a stylus to write on the Nintendo DS touch screen, or speech -there's a microphone that understands the answers (beware: bellowing "Rock! Paper! Scissors!" can prove awkward on public transit).

The point of these exercises is to show how quickly the player completed a round, as measured by concepts such as "walking speed," "Bicycle," "Train" and "Jet."

The matter of speed in answering questions is troublesome. Years of watching game shows on TV suggest that the person with the fastest answer is the smartest (Jeopardy) and anyone who delays must be either stupid or an indecisive twit who deserves to be humiliated ("Is that your final answer?" "Deal or no deal?"). Few game makers, on TV and elsewhere, create games based on nuanced answers and complex reasoning; they're much harder to program.

Players store their record in the game's database for 365 days, after which they are kicked off the game, presumably launched back into the world with all neurons firing.

Lumosity, launched in late July, is a subscription-based system that one wag called "a mental health club." A series of Flash-based exercises, it more resembles some of the stuff sold as recreation, not as therapy. At least the games are original, a refreshing change from all those exercises you've seen before (Nintendo's Brain Age 2 includes several exercises you can play elsewhere, including Rock, Paper, Scissors and Sudoku).

A subscription costs $9.95 (U.S.) a month or $6.60 per month on a one-year advance purchase membership plan.

A National Institute of Health study, the game says, found that cognitive training can counteract seven to 14 years of age-related cognitive degeneration, a figure modest enough to suggest a reachable goal. Players can follow a program Lumosity has laid out or they can play on their own. Lumosity keeps track of players' progress, and presents them with detailed statistical reports.

Exercisers start on Basic Training, which is 30 sessions designed to "train and sharpen your cognitive abilities: memory, attention, processing speed and cognitive control." Sessions involve 10 games such as Spatial Speed Match (report which shape is exactly like the one before it); Raindrops (addition and subtraction problems within falling raindrops), and Monster Garden (a simpler variation of the Windows game Minesweeper).

Some of these look childish, but are deceptive. The effect is that players start off thinking this is all child's play, but never do as well as they thought they would, and are shamed into trying them again and again. Good psychology there.

Lumosity is not just a website with games - it clocks, graphs and bar-charts players' progress. It also expresses disappointment in poor results: "You need to play more games," it warns gently if the computer deems the score isn't good enough.

The games are also peppered with advice, encouragement and factoids, such as the syntactically sinful "Glia, a type of brain cell, are actually about 10 times more numerous than neurons." The purposes of individual games are explained before playing; one game, for instance, "is designed to train and improve your cognitive control and reaction time. This task focuses on suppressing your automatic response to stimuli."

This can be bewildering unless the player masters some of the jargon of neuroscience first. The results of one game played were reported thus: "Reaction time: 1957 milliseconds; Hesitation time: 196 milliseconds; total correct: 23; Accuracy: 100 per cent; Inhibition error: 0 per cent; Total score: 850 points."

Such a batch of information can be digested only with cognitive training in the cognitive sciences first.

The great temptation of course is to play these games at work, justifying them as self-improvement programs. But it doesn't take much brain training to figure out how enthusiastic a boss can be about playing games when you're supposed to be productive, and surely that's one test of how some people will judge whether these are games or work.

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