Published on: February 7, 2013
by Connie Cone Sexton for Arizona Republic:
More people are pursuing mental fitness, but experts differ on the best approach.
A cluster of small circles filled the screen as Susan Lane worked on achieving the next level of a computer game aimed at improving her memory. The goal: Find matching colored circles. Lane moved the cursor to one oval and clicked. It instantly turned blue. She paused, tapping her fingers on the mouse for a few seconds. She clicked another oval. It was blue. The two ovals disappeared. Success. Lane smiled, pleased with her progress.
For the past six months or so, the 59-year-old Scottsdale woman has been coming to the Speech and Cognition Center, 4545 E. Shea Blvd., in northeast Phoenix.
The center is run by Phyllis Benson, and clients such as Lane come to her for a program called “Excel Brain Gym,” in hopes of challenging their minds, keeping cognitively fit and improving their memory, perception, deduction and logic.
“My brain had been little foggy,” Lane said. The clothing designer said she was diagnosed late in life with type 1 diabetes and felt the disease was interfering with her thinking.
“I wanted my brain to be sharper,” she said. Since she has been using Benson’s program, Lane feels like she’s achieving her goal. “I’m not as tongue-tied.”
Americans’ desire to stay mentally fit is a growing trend, said Dr. Suraj Muley, a program director at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
But scientists differ on the best approach.
Online programs like Lumosity, which has millions of members worldwide, allow customers to engage in brain tests for speed and accuracy on memory, attention and problem-solving games, seeing how they stack up against others their age.
Brain fitness comes with a cost, though.
Benson initially meets with clients who pay a $79 activation fee, and she designs a program tailored to their needs. After that, participants pay $89 a month for eight visits (usually two 50-minute sessions a week).
Lumosity.com has a free trial, and then it’s $14.95 a month for month-by-month service.
Muley believes brain games can help improve brain functioning. “In some ways, it’s like a fitness center for the brain,” he said.
For good brain health, it’s important to have “good hardware and good software,” Muley explained. “The hardware part is your brain structure itself. How good are the cells in the brain, how good are the blood vessels in the brain? You can accomplish that with a good diet and exercise.
“Once you have good hardware, the software part can be influenced partially by programs like Lumosity, but it cannot delete diseases,” he added.
Brain games can’t prevent dementia, but if the disease is mild, they can help compensate.
Muley said people who have Alzheimer’s and have a high IQ are initially able to compensate for memory difficulties, but, eventually, “they go down much … faster than people with below-average intelligence.”
Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas-Dallas, said too many people get caught up in doing brain games and don’t really help improve their mental functioning.
She said people can become too obsessed with such programs and feel it is a chore, not an enjoyable task.
Chapman wants people to slow down and give their brain a chance to work. She bristles at the desire to multitask and how people are praised for attempting to pile on their projects.
“We wear it (multitasking) as (a) badge of achievement, but studies are clear that it breaks down cognitive functioning,” she said. “Our memory is worse and we often have more stress disorders.”
In a new book, “Make Your Brain Smarter,” Chapman warns that “multitasking is toxic to your brain and your health.” She tells the story of a single 45-year-old communications executive who met with Chapman because he wanted an assessment of his cognitive abilities. The man was “always on,” never losing touch with his BlackBerry, checking e-mails during breakfast meetings, texting during lunch meetings and rarely delegating tasks to others. “He overuses his brain,” Chapman writes.
In trying to multitask, the brain’s frontal lobe quickly switches back and forth between chores. This high-performance demand slows your efficiency, according to Chapman.
Slowing down to focus on one task at a time is difficult for some people, she said. “People think that if they’re doing all these things and working hard, their brain will get better.”
Try new things
Chapman wants people to instead challenge their brain’s creative and analytical ability. In other words, don’t get in a rut. For example:
Think about the e-mails you send. Do they always have the same kind of message? Can you come up with a more creative way to explain a project, get an answer to a question?
Think of the holiday cards you send each year. Did each card have the same message to everyone? Or was it just a rote response?
How about family gatherings? Stretch family members to discuss new topics, meet in new locations, discuss fascinating people they’ve met.
Basically, try something different to get your brain to work.
“Our brain hates rote, and with it, our brain goes backward,” Chapman said.
She knows that many people worry about fading memory. “But having a perfect memory is not what being smart is,” she said. “Our brain remembers more than we give it credit for. You remember what you forget. But you’re not thinking about the 2,000 things you did remember.”
Focusing on trying to remember something like telephone numbers is “lower-level detail. It robs you of higher-level thinking,” she said. And for Chapman, computer brain games fall into their category.
“We have this false notion that if it’s on our computer, it’s got to be good. But learning from a computer and doing low-level things is not going to make you smarter,” Chapman said.
If you like puzzles and want to get better at doing them, that’s fine, she said. “What matters more to me is higher-order thinking: judgment, reasoning, thinking organically. That’s what I want people to get better at.”
Einstein had a terrible memory, Chapman noted. “It’s not how many facts you know but how well you can analyze information.”
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