Do you love doing crossword puzzles or playing sudoku because you think it keeps your mind sharp? Well, think again. “Most of those things don’t have a measurable impact — if it makes people happy to play them that’s good, but it doesn’t make them smarter,” says Steven Aldrich, president and CEO of Posit Science, a developer of brain-fitness software.
Studies show that the brains of heavy users of crossword puzzles decline at the same rate as light users of crossword puzzles. “Crossword puzzles are doing very similar things again and again — you are recalling things you already know,” says Aldrich. “It’s not a guard against healthy aging.” Neither are computer games like Bejeweled or Nintendo’s Brain Age, or even reading a book, he says. “The brain stays healthy by doing new and novel things, constantly pushed harder and harder.”
Aldrich should know. While there are many companies in the burgeoning brain-fitness industry, Posit Science is one of the few with clinical research behind its products. Founded in 2003 by Jeffrey Zimman and Michael Merzenich, a neuroscience professor at the University of California, San Francisco, the venture capital–funded private company has, together with grants from the National Institutes of Health, invested at least $50 million in their software products, tested by tens of thousands of people and helped by a scientific advisory board of more than 40 scientists. Now, more than 100,000 people use their products, including health and car insurance companies.
Posit Science, whose tagline reads “Think faster, focus better, remember more,” is aimed at the baby boomer market — people aged 50 to 65 — which, in the United States, totals some 80 million people. They offer three brain-game programs: InSight, a program to improve visual processing and memory; DriveSharp, a product designed to improve driving safety by speeding up visual processing; and the Brain Fitness Program, exercises for auditory processing and memory.
These programs, can be practiced like a regular body workout, for 20 minutes a day, three times a week for 10 weeks, in order to see results. The games seem simple — accessible for any computer novice — with basic designs, and both vocal and written instructions. For example in “Jewel Diver” in the Insight program, a number of increasing jewels are shown to you and then hidden inside fish floating in the water. You must keep track of which fish are hiding the jewels and then identify them. This measures “divided attention” — and in real life, the program explains, it might help you monitor four or five children at a time. Another game, “Bird Safari,” flashes a bird in the center of the screen and then asks you to identify it from another group of birds flashed in a circle around the periphery, measuring visual precision as well as memory. All the games give you an initial baseline assessment and a goal. The programs also give you a program grid monitoring your total hours and progress.
If It’s Not Broken …
But before investigating how brain improvement works, maybe the first question should be why we need to improve our minds. Is this another American quest to defy time, to be the best at something that might be left well-enough alone to nature? Why on earth do we need to send our brains to the gym?
“The brain is an organ that thrives on challenge,” says Aldrich. When we are younger, we go to school, learn new subjects, play new sports, develop new talents like music and dance. “But as we transition to adulthood,” he says, “for better or for worse, we start using that information we’ve accumulated over time, and we are not learning new things.”
From your late 20s to your late 50s, you lose half your ability in every cognitive function except vocabulary, unless you do something about it. After age 50, you start to see a 10% decline. With life expectancies rising and people retiring earlier than they did 20 years ago, people want to enjoy their golden years. Baby boomers — overachievers in everything — were the first generation to get college degrees, and now they want to keep vibrant as they age, Aldrich explains. “Just like we now know that we should constantly be exercising our bodies, we should also be challenging our brains,” he says, using the industry’s habit of comparing brain fitness to physical fitness. “We need brain fitness to keep the quality of life we expect, because we don’t challenge the brain enough in our daily lives.”
Most people don’t notice their brain problems at first because they usually use context to fill in what they missed, drawing on life experience to “fill in the blanks,” Posit Science experts say. But as we age, these “blanks” get too big to fill in — and you might be left with a blank look when trying to remember someone’s name, the title of a song or an event that was once on the tip of your tongue.
Posit Science games harness the brain’s inherent plasticity — its ongoing remodeling throughout life — and direct it in ways that enhance overall performance. Effective brain games, Aldrich says, focus on speed, accuracy and recording. That’s because after age 30, memory, thinking and focus tend to slow down.
- Speed: Our brains slow down, but the speed of information coming in from the senses — sights and sounds happening in our lives — does not. Over time, the brain begins to miss details, making it more difficult to react to and remember what we see and hear. So the brain needs to be pushed to a point where it’s working hard. “You can miss the beginning or end of a word, and that can be debilitating,” says Aldrich. “And as we age, our vision processes at a slower rate.”
- Accuracy: The brain’s neural pathways often get fuzzier, or even distorted, as we age — memories can become less clear and more difficult to process in higher cognitive functions. It doesn’t matter how fast your brain is processing if you can’t recognize what you see and hear, like the difference between the sounds bo and go, or how you recognize that that shape on the corner is a child, not a fire hydrant.
- Recording: With each passing decade, our brains produce fewer neuromodulators — brain chemicals that determine what information is important to record and process. This deficit hinders the brain’s ability to record new information — its ability to learn and remember. Memory games improve the brain’s function.