Archive for the ‘Brain Exercises’ Category

MindSparke v3.1

Monday, January 7th, 2013

The Brain Fitness Pro upgrade to version 3.1 adds some exciting new features:

Facebook integration: Connect your training account to your Facebook account through the Account panel and you can login with Facebook and share your training progress and blog posts with your Facebook friends.

Focus Helper: In the training panel you’ll see the “Focus Helper” audio player.  Listen to this background audio while training and it will help you focus.

If you have questions or comments on the upgrade, please let us know.

Martin Walker
CEO, Founder

Brain Training for Chemobrain

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

A new study gives hope to those suffering from cognitive impairment after chemotherapy (so-called “chemobrain”). The research paper presented in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, found that brain training for breast cancer patients lead to better memory and improved cognition as well as a reduced tendency to anxiety and depression.

Cognitive problems after chemotherapy affect as many as three-quarters of breast cancer patients and the impact can last up to 10 years. The study gives the first glimpse of hope for addressing this problem. “It is exciting that the computerized brain training program improved both memory and information processing speed,” said Diane Von Ah, PhD, RN, lead researcher and assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Nursing.

After two months of brain training the participants displayed marked improvements in memory, processing speed, depression, and fatigue; benefits that held two months later, at which point anxiety symptoms also showed improvement.

 

Piano Tuners And The Plastic Brain

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Tuning a piano by ear requires a great deal of skill. Piano tuners need to remember and compare complex sound patterns which vary across the piano keyboard. This led researchers from UCL and Newcastle University to target the brains of piano tuners for a study investigating changes in brain structure associated with brain use. (We’ve written before about a similar study on the brain structure of London cabbies.)

The study found that the piano tuners’ brains showed marked differences in white and gray matter in the hippocampus when compared to non-piano tuners. What’s more, the degree of difference corresponded to how long the tuners had been at their profession.

“Perhaps surprisingly, the changes related to tuning experience that we found were not in the auditory part of the brain. In fact, they actually occurred in the hippocampus, a part of the brain traditionally associated with memory and navigation,” says Dr Sukhbinder Kumar from Newcastle University, joint first author.

Study lead Dr Tim Griffiths (Newcastle University,) added: “There has been little work on the role of the hippocampus in auditory analysis. Our study is consistent with a form of navigation in pitch space as opposed to the more accepted role in spatial navigation.”

Why Stress Affects Working Memory

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Where's The Cheese? Stress Disrupts Working Memory

Prior studies have shown that stress reduces working memory capacity, and now a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) sheds light on the neural processes behind this phenomenon. By observing individual neural activity while rats followed a maze, the team discovered how stress affected the firing of neurons and reduced the rats ability to focus and remember their way through the maze. The researchers discovered that stress doesn’t inhibit neural activity but instead changes it, making it less effective at staying on task.

The brain uses working memory (a function of the prefontal cortex) to hold pertinent information in the foreground, swapping vital data in and out of longer term storage as needed.

“You don’t need that part of the brain to hear or talk, to keep long-term memories, or to remember what you did as a child or what you read in the newspaper three days ago,” said Dr. Craig Berridge, UW–Madison psychology professor. But it’s essential for focusing attention and modulating emotions.

“People without a prefrontal cortex are very distractible,” Berridge said. “They’re very impulsive. They can be very argumentative.”

Using a novel statistical modeling method the researchers showed that rat prefrontal neurons fired and re-fired regularly to keep important information fresh.

“Even though these neurons communicate on a scale of every thousandth of a second, they know what they did one second to one-and-a-half seconds ago,” Devilbiss said. “But if the neuron doesn’t stimulate itself again within a little more than a second, it’s lost that information.”

When the researchers added a blast of white noise a rat’s ability to complete the maze dropped from 90% to 65%. Neural monitoring shows that the stressed rats couldn’t retain information about how to get to the next chocolate chip reward, reacting to distractions such as noises and smells around them instead.

“The literature tells us that stress plays a role in more than half of all workplace accidents, and a lot of people have to work under what we would consider a great deal of stress,” Devilbiss said.

“Air traffic controllers need to concentrate and focus with a lot riding on their actions. People in the military have to carry out these thought processes in conditions that would be very distracting, and now we know that this distraction is happening at the level of individual cells in the brain.”

“Based on drug studies, it had been believed stress simply suppressed prefrontal cortex activity,” Berridge said. “These studies demonstrate that rather than suppressing activity, stress modifies the nature of that activity. Treatments that keep neurons on their self-stimulating task while shutting out distractions may help protect working memory.”

Post-Operative Brain Training Helps Restore Cognitive Function

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012
Brain training helps to significantly reduce attention and memory problems after coronary bypass surgery.  This is the conclusion of a study by Dr. Louis Bherer, PhD from the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM). Dr. Bherer is also Canadian Research Chair at the Aging and the Prevention of Cognitive Decline.

“It is clear that seniors’ brains have a certain degree of plasticity,” Dr. Louis Bherer noted, “[the research] suggests that patients should receive cognitive training in addition to the usual medical follow-up.” Prior to surgery, the researchers tested the participants’ overall cognitive function including memory, processing speed, and attention. The tests were repeated 3 to 7 days post-surgery and again one month later. Those who received attention and memory training showed greater and more rapid cognitive recovery than those who received no training.

Week 5, trying DoubleTrouble

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

As my son has ADHD, we are following the Brain Fitness Pro Jr recommendation to move up to two training sessions per day starting this week (Week 5). My son is 9, but decided to give Double Trouble a try anyway (the Help file suggests that it is recommended for children ages 10 and up).

His first session of Double Trouble went well and he immediately grasped the concept and moved from 2 items up to six in relatively short order. I think the novelty of the new game was a good motivator for him. So for his first session each day this week, he continued with Double Trouble. His scores were:

4.38

4.88

5.13

5.88

4.88

He found Double Trouble very challenging, so for his second session each day he chose Straightahead (except for Day 1 of Week 5, where he tried Switchback, but found it very confusing to mix that with Double Trouble). His Straightahead scores were:

6.25

6.75

6.63

7.25 (new high score)

His Straightahead scores have improved steadily; his average scores have been:

Week 1 5.73

Week 3 6.68

Week 5 6.72

So at this point, I do have some questions:

1) Is mixing two different games in one day a good idea, or should he should he do the same game twice each day? What about changing games from day to day, or week to week? I’m trying to let my son drive the process, but at the same time, would like to advise him as to how to make the best use of his time and effort.

2) Have the effects of the Junior games been studied, and have the use of Straightahead, Switchback, and Double Trouble been shown to have the same effects on working memory as duel N-back training?

3) At times my son appears focussed on the game, but still has trouble progressing (for example, today he started Double Trouble with 6 items, but quickly went down to 4 items). Is there some strategy or technique I can suggest to him to help him focus his attention? Now that the novelty of the games has worn off, I fear that he is just glazing over at times.

 

Brain Fitness Pro Jr, weeks 3 and 4

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

After completing one week of Straightahead, and one week of Switchback, my sons scores for weeks 3 and 4 were as follows:

Week 3, Switchback: 4.63, 5.75, 4.5, 5.75, 6.00

Week 4, Straightahead: 5.88, 7.13, 7.13, 6.75, 6.5

I’m not sure how to interpret the results. Given that my son scored 6.5 on his third day of Straightahead, I was hoping for more consistent improvement after four weeks. His usual mid-week spike is encouraging though. His Switchback scores for his second week were marginally better than during his first week. I haven’t noticed any improvements in his ability to focus during written tasks, or math work, or even during his Brain Fitness Pro Jr sessions.

He definitely finds the exercises very hard, and is sometimes reluctant to move up a level when given the choice. I always encourage him to move up, and he’s been pleased when he’s succeeded at the higher levels, but typically moves down again within the same session. As he moved up to 7 and then 8 objects in Straightahead, I suggested strategies to use, such as grouping the numbers into 3-digit and 4-digit numbers. This seems to work for him when he says them aloud, although he’s not always quick enough to say them before the program’s auditory prompts start. Sometimes I also see him tracking the positions of the objects with his cursor as he listens to the auditory prompts, and I think that might be a useful strategy for him as well.

We’re now ready to begin phase 2, which will entail two Brain Fitness Pro sessions per day for the next four weeks. My son is still doing the sessions willingly, but I can tell he is growing frustrated by his slow progress. Hopefully he will start to see some consistent improvement, which would be encouraging for him.

In Defense of Chunking

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

There has been a good deal of discussion on the brain training blog about the use of strategies to improve training performance.  One such strategy is called “chunking”– replacing a sequence of letters, numbers or grid positions with something representative.  So the letter sequence P, K, G we could remember as the word “package”.  Generally we advise against the use of complex strategies since it reduces the need for the brain to stretch and remember more items.  But at the same time we realize that most people will resort to such strategies from time to time.

Today I read a piece in the Atlantic that proposes the idea that learning to become better “chunkers” could be a valuable brain training activity. The article discusses some of the ideas in a new book by Daniel Bor (“The Ravenous Brain”).  Here is what Bor has to say about chunking:

Although [chunking] can vastly increase the practical limits of working memory, it is not merely a faithful servant of working memory — instead it is the secret master of this online store, and the main purpose of consciousness.

[...]

There are three straightforward sides to the chunking process — the search for chunks, the noticing and memorizing of those chunks, and the use of the chunks we’ve already built up. The main purpose of consciousness is to search for and discover these structured chunks of information within working memory, so that they can then be used efficiently and automatically, with minimal further input from consciousness.

Perhaps what most distinguishes us humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ravenous desire to find structure in the information we pick up in the world. We cannot help actively searching for patterns — any hook in the data that will aid our performance and understanding. We constantly look for regularities in every facet of our lives, and there are few limits to what we can learn and improve on as we make these discoveries. We also develop strategies to further help us — strategies that themselves are forms of patterns that assist us in spotting other patterns…

These insights help explain both the value of chunking and the advantages of being better chunkers, as well as the value of focus and working memory!

I would still not recommend chunking as a habitual strategy when training with MindSparke.  Although neither would I say that would should avoid it altogether.  It will happen naturally. The great thing about Stage 4 of the training is that it exercises and strengthens our ability to store, pattern and recall pieces of information that we would not normally need to “chunk” in our daily lives (colors and shapes, for instance).  This is fantastic training for the brain.

Day 3 & 4

Sunday, September 2nd, 2012

Day 3

Stage two score of 5.7 getting the hang of things.

 

Day 4

Was advanced to stage three.  Score 2.5. A significant increase in difficulty.  May have to lower the training speed to fast or normal.  Has anyone played around with speed and seen performance increases or decreases?

Session 14 5.85

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Last session I dropped a bit to 6.3, and I dropped my performance a lot this time around. I felt tired, and most notably I was in a loud Starbucks. I had a lot of distractions this time. The Starbucks thing mixed with reving my brain up trying to focus caused all this weird thought activity. Pretty bad idea to be out here trying to perform well. Despite all of this this was the first session where I have sustained a level 8 run for awhile, before going back down to 7, 6, then the frustrating 5 for awhile. After this session I still have a lingering feeling of mental exhaustion which is the opposite of how I normally feel after training. I also had a spicy chicken sandwich and a dollar large Dr. Pepper 10 min prior, so that probably was huge too. Oops

 

Only thought I have after this one is that training in a public space might help in a much different way, and perhaps in a more applicable way like focusing amidst anxiety in an interview, or something.

John.