In December, a couple of weeks before a long solo drive from the Bay Area to San Diego, I drove straight into a pole at my then apartment parking lot. Sober (of course) and relatively undistracted (take my word for it). Apart from the minor annoyance of having to get the car fixed, that was also a minor experience of “I can’t live like this any more” (love those!). So, I started playing brain training games on lumosity.com, the website I’ve heard about on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. Incidentally, I signed a lease for an apartment in San Francisco about a week after driving into the pole, but that topic deserves its own development, so back to Lumosity.
The way it works, each day, you are assigned 5 games dedicated to developing brain function. There are 5 areas of focus: problem solving, memory, flexibility, speed, and attention. There isn’t necessarily a one-to-one correspondence between daily games and functions, but rather you are assigned games according to your training preferences and history. You don’t have to train every day; they recommend 3-5 times a week. You can play more games than assigned on a particular day, and you can play them multiple times. The level of difficulty increases over time as you make progress.
My baseline left a refreshing amount of room for improvement. I hit >85th percentile for my age group in problem solving games, thanks mainly to the ability to do basic arithmetics quickly. In other areas, I scored between 10th and 40th percentile. When you start training, you are offered a test of cognition; also games, but different from the games you play for development.
Over the months, I definitely got better at playing the games. Some days are better than others, but in the past few weeks, I’ve consistently stayed above the 97th percentile (for the age group) in attention and flexibility, hovered close to the 95th in speed and memory, and above the 90th in problem solving. Yes, problem solving improved the least.
I do feel that my short-term attention and memory have improved. Having said that, 10 weeks into the training I took the cognition test again. Regrettably, there is no obvious data on the cognition score distribution, but I am guessing, the improvement from 110 to 111 was not meaningful in any way. I also kind of hope that’s not IQ, but not much I can do about that one way or the other. I hypothesized there was no improvement, because I lack the area of the brain that would assess, given a picture of a triangle and a square side by side, the truthfulness of a statement like “the square is not to the right of the triangle”. I felt pleased about having introduced noise to their data. The bottom line is, the jury is out, if the training works; any improvements can be due to Spring, clouds lifting, or imaginary. As a side note, the shortage of accessible data is annoying; very limited even on my own training. There is one hypotheses I wish I could test; something like daily scores for a few months would suffice, and they are not available unless I bother to store them myself, which I don’t.
Still, playing games is entertaining and seems to wake me up for the day. I’ve also made useful observations about my own modus operandi.
I get flustered into nearly total dysfunction when I make mistakes. I’m coping with that, now that it’s recognized; still, my best bet in speed or attention games is 100% accuracy.
The arithmetic problem solving shoots through the roof during tango-high-induced sleep deprivation, noticeable impairment in normal functioning notwithstanding.
The game I play the most, to the point of obsession, is the game where I need to quickly come up with words of different lengths starting with a given combination of letters. I like words; they calm me down; reminds me of playing that word making game with my Mom on train trips, or in boring classes; or playing bananagrams with Les; books have words in them, and books are nice.
The game I resent the most is the one where I feed people in a fast food restaurant, and I need to remember people’s names and what they ordered. That’s not particularly difficult, mind you, just I’d rather not use french fries, hamburgers, and milkshakes for memory development. There are two other feeding games. One, a speed game where I need to get a penguin through a rotating maze to a fish before the other penguin gets there. Another, an attention game, where I feed food pellets to a bunch of identical-looking fish swimming in a pond full of leaves and things. I wonder if the food pellets are made of penguins. Not a huge fan.
And now, about the games I love. One is Pinball Recall – strangely because of Pinball, 1973 – no relation. Another favorite is the game where I need to pack a camera into suitcases, so it doesn’t get smashed. I get through 20-25 of them in a minute (that’s a speed game), and the suitcases come in all sorts of shapes and have all sorts of items in them: apples, toothbrushes, fake mustaches, clothes, chess sets, penguins… And then there is a game where I get to guide little choo choo trains in the stations of matching colors. Cameras! Little suitcases for fun travel! Choo choo trains!