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Billion Dollar Brain

Published: 02/12/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » Dec 2014 / Jan 2015 » LifeStyle » Home » Features »

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Trekking with a load of carry-on luggage from the check-in desk to Gate 99 might give your muscles a great workout, but for high-achievers on the go it’s equally important to keep your gray matter active too.

According to Professor Samuel Norman, one of the scientific community’s leading cognitive dignitaries, “it is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of their brains’ capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent ... interesting things begin to happen.” It’s a widely shared belief. 

Except not everything is as it seems - for these are the words of an actor: Professor Norman is in fact Morgan Freeman, lending his wise-old-sage voice of authority to what’s in fact a pseudo-scientific myth (the part about the 10 percent) in the movie Lucy, the latest blockbuster from French producer, writer and director Luc Besson. 

Without giving away the plot line, the movie’s premise that our brains only operate at a fraction of their potential entices us to envisage what we could be capable of, if only we could activate the dormant part of our noodles.

Lucy is the cinematic culmination of the current zeitgeist surrounding brain boosting and the notion that there’s a way to unlock formidable hidden powers in our heads. And if the success of the brain game industry is anything to go by, it seems that this is the format – brain games – that’s captured the public’s imagination as the prevailing method for addressing a host of cerebral objectives: speed of thought processing, logic improvement, reasoning, focus, visual coordination – and here’s the one we probably value the most: memory.

The link between sharpening your mind and playing games is long-embedded in both the physiological and psychological development of mankind. You could even argue that brain games have their origins in earlier incarnations of strategy pastimes such as chess (which originated in India at around 650 AD) and even further back with the Chinese game of Wei-qi (2000 BC), the forerunner of the popular Japanese game of Go. 

Old Dog, New Tricks

But just how amazing is your brain – and can you really “train” it? We all know that in childhood, the human brain is receptive to learning and absorbing information. This is in part due to what neuro-scientists call “plasticity,” the ability of the brain to be malleable and to adapt to new challenges by learning from experiences.

But what about the fully formed adult brain? The good news is that as you age, the brain’s plasticity depends more on environment and experience rather than on the DNA you were born with. In other words, learning new things when you’re an adult is important for keeping your brain in peak condition. As the old adage goes, “use it or lose it.”

How much could your brain actually learn? Consider this example: In the UK, London’s taxi drivers have to do what’s called “The Knowledge” before they qualify for the coveted “Green Badge” - the license of the capital’s cabbies. They have to memorize 25,000 London streets, 350 routes, plus around 20,000 landmarks, including hotels, restaurants, courtrooms, post offices and various public buildings in London. It’s a process that takes between two and four years of intensive learning. But even that’s not the most interesting bit. 

A study at University College London by Professor Eleanor Maguire and Dr Katherine Woollett used MRI scans on 79 trainee taxi drivers. They found that what happens structurally to the brain throughout this process of training for “The Knowledge” is an enlargement of the posterior hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that squirrels use to remember where they buried food several months ago. 

For humans, squirreling away that amount of data has obvious business potential, and if your brain can structurally mutate in response to environmental and habitual stimuli – as is the case with taxi drivers – then it seems plausible that the claims of the brain game makers have some foundation.

Just as ancient games such as chess and Go have been used to enhance strategic thought, the use of computer technology to boost the brain’s tactical abilities is worthy of note. And in fact the genesis of the brain game industry in a form that we might recognize today (combining computing technology with the quest to boost our strategic thinking processes) could be said to stem from the convergence in the 1950s of efforts in the military and scientific communities.

In 1955, at the height of the Cold War, the United States military developed the first ever computer-powered tactical “game” entitled Hutspiel, which enabled NATO to evaluate a variety of nuclear conflict scenarios. It was the first known war-games simulator, computing real-world situations involving the deployment of resources, manpower, weaponry, materiel – and how these elements would interplay in various time-frames. 

Hutspiel was symbiotic with one of the prime ambitions of the scientific and nascent computing sectors in the mid-1950s: the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), a term coined by cognitive scientist and Stanford professor John McCarthy. AI was, and continues to be, “the science and engineering of making intelligent machines.” Having made machines more intelligent, it’s now payback time as we use computer technology to enhance mankind’s intelligence and abilities in the areas of reasoning, learning, statistical computation, planning, perception and memory.

For today’s busy business travelers, one of the factors that makes the brain game proposition so appealing, addictive and engaging, is the nomadic nature of the technology platforms. Many of the games are deliberately designed to be accessed via portable digital devices such as smartphones and tablets, convenient for en route business travelers where there isn’t always access to the Internet.

Brain Game Players 

Type “brain games” into any search engine and chances are “Luminosity” will feature prominently in the results. Luminosity, created by Lumos Labs, has a following of over 1.6 million on Google+ and over 2.1 million likes on Facebook, indicative of the game’s widespread allure. And to get a sense of scale and the extent of traction Luminosity has, App Annie, the independent mobile app analytics specialists, calculates that Luminosity has over 60 million users globally.

Luminosity offers a highly personalized regime of brain training games to suit the specific areas that you wish to improve. Upon sign-up, you select the areas of memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem solving that you want to sharpen up. But Lumus Labs isn’t the only honcho in town. 

For a holistic approach, check out BrainBaseline, which offers a series of assessments that can be linked to other biometric data, such as physical activity and sleep, all on the iPad platform. With its user-friendly dashboard you can compare your brain’s performance metrics against others of your gender, age, education level, income range and ethnicity in areas of attention, executive function, memory and speed of processing.

Posit Science’s brainHQ is another notable player. In its marketing pitch it states that “BrainHQ is a brain training system built and tested by an international team of more than 100 top neuroscientists and other brain experts. The exercises aren’t only scientifically designed – more than 70 published papers (and counting) show real benefits from using them. No other program has this level of proof.”

Cogmed, part of Pearson, is no shrinking violet either when it comes to declaring its position in the industry: “Cogmed is the leader in evidence-based training solutions for improved cognitive performance.” And goes on to state that “the evidence-based cognitive training field is based on the principles of neuroplasticity.”

Akili Interactive Labs in partnership with Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Shire Pharmaceuticals and the National Institute of Mental Health boldly states on its website that they’re “building clinically-validated cognitive therapeutics, assessments, and diagnostics that look and feel like high-quality video games.”

Feeling befuddled as to which brain game provider to choose? You’re not alone in your thinking. There are startling similarities between what each of the providers offers; most of them offer personalized training regimes, most offer dashboards to help keep track of your progress. Money-wise, most offer monthly, yearly and life-long contracts. For the confused consumer, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate between what exactly these companies are offering.

Mind Your Business

For high-achievers with busy schedules who seek brain games that are a bit more pertinent to the skills they use in business, it’s worth doing the homework to find just the right one that will develop those key areas of brain-power.

For example, Elevate (by Elevate, Inc.) is an app-based game that has a strong focus on writing, listening, reading and speaking – germane if you work in corporate communications.

If you work in the visually creative industries or the arts, a game such as Fit Brains: Visual Trainer from Rosetta Stone Canada Inc., might help sharpen your powers of observation.

If it’s your people skills that need sharpening, brainHQ by Posit Science has a brain training program just for you. It claims to enhance your social skills by teaching you to remember what people say, understand their body language, and discern their tone of voice.

But before you run off to sign up to one of the many brain game providers, it’s worth considering the full spectrum of scientific opinion – and how, as a frequent traveler, your brain is best served by participating in these games. 

On Oct. 22, 2014, the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development issued a joint statement entitled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community,” supported by almost 70 eminent signatories from the scientific, academic and medical sectors. 

The statement points out that “playing commercially available computer games will produce changes in those neural systems that support acquisition of the new skill” but cautions that “it is not appropriate to conclude that training-induced changes go significantly beyond the learned skills.” In other words, playing brain games improves your ability – at playing brain games. But the statement notes that the evidence of brain games enabling you to transfer the new skills to real world application is yet to be proven.

What these scientists do emphasize is that “time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults.”

And that’s really the crux of the brain game phenomenon. Bottom line is that the scientific community acknowledges some positive indications from the games but is divided on whether improvements in game-playing skills translate into quantifiable benefits when these skills are applied in real world scenarios. Nobody’s denying that they’re fun and engaging.

Where there is consensus, however, is that being physically active, socially engaged, and willing to learn new things – especially as we age – is a more balanced and scientifically proven prescription for boosting brain health.

To redress the balance, next time you’re waiting at the gate for your flight to be called and are busy tapping away at brain games on your smartphone, don’t forget to occasionally put down your device and interact with some real human beings. 

That too is good for your brain.  

By Paul Sillers

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