Dr. Ryuta Kawashima has been interested in the human brain ever since he was in the eighth grade. Curious about the role of human beings in the world and how the trajectory of our species would pan out in the future, he dreamed of downloading his own brain into a computer to witness the last days of humanity. Born in Japan on May 23, 1959, the young scientist in the making had no idea of the impact his own work would eventually have on neuroscience and technology.
Over the years, Kawashima studied at Tohoku University School of Medicine, the third oldest Imperial University of Japan, and the Graduate School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. He also spent some time in Sweden as a guest researcher at the famed Karolinska Institutet, where he had a wonderful time and accumulated “many unforgettable moments.” He proudly states that during his time there he “not only learned everything related to human brain-imaging research but also philosophy to live by as a scientist.”
When Kawashima finally returned to Tohoku University, he was armed with practical information and a burning passion for research. In due time, he became a tenured resident professor and currently enjoys his post as director of the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer at the university.
One of his areas of expertise is mapping regions of the brain tied to emotion, language, memory, and cognition in particular. His team of young scientists, consisting of some 40 well-trained individuals, spends its time researching ways to stimulate the prefrontal cortex and working memory. According to The Independent, Kawashima uses the findings to help people, young and old, “expand the cortex.” “Of course, people’s learning faculties are very high in childhood. However, we learned from our experiences that they still exist, to some extent, even at the last moment of life,” he reveals to Brain World.
Kawashima is also a celebrity of sorts. As the host of a popular brain-training series, he blends learning and entertaining into one seamless activity — video gaming. But here’s the real kicker, according to Wired: “The smiling face you see in your ‘Brain Age’ games has turned down his share of royalties from the game, which amounts to about $11 million,” strictly on principle. While most of us would gladly accept the money without a second thought, Kawashima believes that one should only get paid that much if he or she has worked for it. The rules of Kawashima’s employer, Tohoku University, state that Kawashima is entitled to half the royalties generated by the game’s sales — currently in the neighborhood of $22 million — but Kawashima says he’s happy with just his yearly salary of about $100,000.
He elaborates on why he didn’t take the offer. “Two reasons: Firstly, it was too huge for my pocket. If I received 1,500 Euros, I would have probably taken it as pocket money and kept it a secret from my wife. Secondly, I made games as one of my research activities at the university. Therefore, I simply thought the royalty should belong to my university.” In a world where many people are overly concerned with greed, money, and personal well-being, it’s good to know that Kawashima is honorably putting research and the advancement of helpful technology at the forefront of his mind.
His entry into the gaming world was rather uneventful. In 2001, he published a study that suggested that the prefrontal cortex was not stimulated well enough during video gaming. “I thought we should propose games that can stimulate the prefrontal cortex [PFC] while playing. To do that, we applied our human brain-imaging techniques to make sure those games could stimulate the PFC,” he says. Although initially it didn’t create any significant impact, it did lead to him publishing “Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain,” which actually became rather successful and sold more than 2.5 million copies.
It was followed by a game for Nintendo DS, “Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day.” “After our successful publication of brain-training books in Japan, a few companies, including Nintendo, contacted us. We accepted their offers to create brain-training games as an industry-academia collaboration,” shares Kawashima. “We are interested in how entertainment affects our cognitive functions but not in creating video games.” Sequels were made available thereafter.
While there are a number of emerging companies focused on brain training via video games, Kawashima feels that “researching the beneficial effect of playing games and/or doing brain-training programs [BTPs] is not sufficient enough.” He tells Brain World that “In the, shall I say, near future, when the relationship between one’s lifestyle, status of cognitive, physical, and social functions, one’s genetic factors, and beneficial effect of games and/or BTPs become scientifically clear, those games and/or BTPs will become important partners of our daily life.”
Since the successful release of “Brain Age,” Kawashima helped develop two other games for Nintendo. Each one borrowed puzzles from the previously released version and combined them with new ones. The royalties were used to build two laboratories. “I put 95 percent of my effort in basic research activities, and the remaining 5 percent is for the business side,” he states. “Our center has its own research facilities, such as MRI, MEG, NIRs, EEG, etc., and our research targets are not only for individual brain function but also for smart aging of individuals and society at large.”
Since 2006, an English version of “Train Your Brain” was released, followed by “Train Your Brain More,” published in 2007, along with several other games for Mac, PC, and Xbox 360. He also developed “Brain Age: Concentration Training” for Nintendo, the latest installment in the “Brain Age” saga. But one of the most interesting things about Kawashima is his constant and admirable prioritization of research above all else. He seems to be truly concerned with advancing the science of brain-training technologies, and no amount of money in the world can deter him from his goal.
It’s very difficult to imagine passing on as much money as was offered to Ryuta Kawashima simply for the sake of advancing and expanding the reserves of scientific research that can one day benefit society. It was a selfless act by — first and foremost — a humanist instead of a scientist. It is Kawashima’s desire to understand how the mind works that drives him. Financial rewards are just an afterthought.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Brain World Magazine.
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