Keeping brain-fit on dialysis using iPhone brain games

I have posted a little about keeping your body fit on the BigD before, but nothing about exercising our most important organ, the brain.  I have just read a life-changing book: The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge.  I very much enjoy reading about the brain, how it works, what affects its performance, what motivates us, how and why we choose.

But this book took me to a new level.  Doidge explains through real-world examples and studies, how our brains are continuously changing, no matter what our age.  It begins by showing how people who have lost parts of their brain through stroke or trauma can with training, have other parts of their brain take over the lost roles.

He also shows that our brain, like the rest of our body, is dominated by the Use it or Lose it rule.  We all know this from experience: if you stop speaking or writing another language, or playing an instrument, pretty soon you can’t remember words or notes and you have to do a little relearning.  This is because the unused neuron processing power has been reassigned to somewhere else.  Even for parts or your body, like if you cover an eye, or bind a limb for a period, the neurons associated with controlling those parts stop getting stimulated, and are fairly quickly recruited or absorbed by other, busier parts of the brain.

Happily, the reverse also applies: when you practice the language or the music, or remove the cover or binding, the brain fairly quickly reassigns the neurons back to that function.  Doidge talks a lot about techniques some very smart people have developed to preserve the brain’s flexibility and extend mental life spans.  Mostly this is done through exercise – brain exercise.

I know my brain has slowed down a little since I started the BigD.  Some of this I put down to the physical difficulties that come with chronic kidney failure, some to getting a little older.  But how much had I slowed down, and could some of these exercises speed me up again?

I decided to give it a try.  There are several brain exercise products available that have been proven to increase IQ, fill in gaps in performance and generally rejuvenate brains.  Doidge devotes a chapter to Michael Merzenich’s Posit Science ® Brain Fitness Program (Google it for a local agent, or Amazon).  It focuses on sounds, words, language and memory.  It is pricey, but, hey, we’re talking about improving your brain!  Using it for about an hour 3 times a week for 3 months has been shown to amongst other things, improve memory by an equivalent of 10 years!

I was about to buy it when I discovered Lumosity, a brain games developer that has a range of brain training courses that are also available on the iPhone.  It’s not Posit Science, but it’s a good starting point.  The courses bundle several games of different types into groups that you work through each day.  Games work on brain areas like speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving.

I have been playing these games now for about two weeks, and while it is fun, it has also made me realise how much slower I had become.  At the moment, if my brain was my body, I would be one of those slightly tubby guys with man-boobs.  After each game it tells you where you are amongst all other players: my speed brain percentile began at 60% and the latest is 68%.  I’m not telling you how I compared for arithmetic.  The good news is that just like getting your body fit, brain improvement is relatively quick and noticeable.

Lumosity is a cheaper too.  There is a 5-session free trial, then it costs between US$6.70 and $15 per month.  You can use it with your PC or Mac, but I like the iPhone access: I can exercise on the train, waiting for meetings or the doctor, wherever.

One other thing that becomes clear quickly when you start regularly exercising your brain: brain function is dramatically affected by how you feel: if you slept badly or you feel a little down or grumpy, your scores suffer.  If you have had a good sleep and feel that all’s right with the world, you can ace the games.  Sometimes.

Once I have exercised enough to get rid of my mental man-boobs, I will put my name into the user group so I can have a friendly competition with other users.  Maybe you’d like to join me?

(I haven’t forgotten Posit Science.  I will save that for when I graduate from Lumosity!)

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