You’d better relax and set aside some time for yourself, because this post is going to be rather long. And it will also be something different from what you’d expect from me. One could argue that this will be a tutorial for rewiring your brain, while others may think that this will be just a review for a product I like. No one would be right, of course. It will be something in between.
Without further ado, ladies and gents, let’s talk about how to keep your brain in good shape.
Your Brain Is Your Main World Interface
Some of you may remember the series of posts in which I made a comparison between a human being and a computer, and I’m talking specifically about how to keep the best version of yourself. For the sake of the game, let’s pretend again you’re like a computer. In this case, your brain will be your main world interface. (It’s not the CPU, as some of you may think. The CPU is just processing information, and that is only one cognitive function among many others the brain has, like attention, flexibility and so on).
So, everything you feel, think, imagine and create, everything would go through this interface. If this interface will be broken, your sensations, thoughts and memories would be severely affected. If this interface will become faster, wider and slimmer, your sensations will be more vivid, your thoughts will be more complex and your memories will be accessible much easier.
Now, let’s take this a little further. Let’s pretend you’re much more than a computer. You’re an airport. Thousands of planes are going in and out to this airport. Some of the planes are carrying sensations, some of them are carrying information and some of them are carrying thoughts or memories. Some of the planes you send out are carrying words or gestures, and they land on other airports.
In this case, your brain is your main control tower. It dispatches sensations, thoughts and memories and creates complicated storage structures and algorithms. It keeps all the traffic going on in good conditions. And it does that by constantly monitoring the incoming flow of planes, the available departure lanes, the weather, the remote airports availability, the flight schedule and maybe a thousand of other parameters.
Imagine what happens if this control tower fails at some point. Plane crashes. Colliding sensations. Erratic words going out to other airports. Missing pieces of information from other airports, because their planes will never land. Total damage. And you don’t need a severe failure to observe a significant decrease in brain performance. It suffices to have just a lazy control tower operator and you’ll start noticing delayed responses, crowded landing lanes, rushing takes-off and so on. I’m sure you’ve been there: saying what you didn’t want to say, remembering stuff when you don’t need it anymore or experiencing sudden talking blocks.
Hopefully, you have a better idea now about how important your brain is for your overall functionality as a human being. And still, this metaphor is just a feeble image of what your brain does. It also monitors your energy levels sending stimuli of hunger (that would be the equivalent of re-fueling the planes), it does long-term planning (equivalent of upgrading the equipments and planes) or makes estimations (learning by example, for instance, after a plane collision).
OK, I get the feeling that you know why you need to keep your brain in good shape. Let’s start talking about the how.
How To Train Your Brain
First of all, let me tell you that I was in search for something similar to Lumosity for a long time. When Lucaino Passuelo posted a tweet about how cool Lumosity is, I clicked to see what it’s all about. (It’s not the first time when Luciano, who blogs brilliantly at litemind.com, is pushing my limits. Last time he did it, I ended up on the first page of Delicious, Digg and a few other social media outlets, after I wrote my first huge list post: 100 Ways To Live A Better Life).
After a few clicks (or touches, since I was more attracted by the iPhone version) I confess I was totally sold out. Lumosity is a collection of scientifically designed “brain games”, which are challenging various areas of your cognitive process: from flexibility to attention, and from speed to memory. The best way to explain Lumosity is “fitness for your brain”. If you exercise regularly you already know all the benefits: your body tends to be slimmer, you walk steadier, you’re more aware, your muscles are always ready to act, you detox faster and so on. Well, those are the exact benefits you should expect from a brain exercising routine too. You’ll think faster, you’ll increase your attention and memory, you’ll be more flexible, reacting better to environmental changes, and so on.
These brain games I’m going to talk about are hosted at Lumosity.com but there is also an iPhone version. I personally prefer the iPhone version and I think that being a digital nomad plays a huge role in this decision. Games are also structured as courses, or series of various games mixed together in sessions. The iPhone version features such a course with 35 sessions. One neat thing about the iPhone version is that you can set up alerts and you’ll be notified at the time of the next session. Total time spent on such a session is between 4 and 7 minutes. Of course, you can play the games individually and I do this all the time. But I would recommend doing the session first, it seems there is a certain progression which will tune in your brain faster if you that.
Another cool thing about Lumosity is that you can evaluate your progress, by using a proprietary metric, the so called BPI, or Brain Power Index. Citing from Lumosity website, “Brain Performance Index (BPI) is a measure of your performance in a given cognitive function. You can use BPI to track your performance, and compare your ability in one cognitive area to another. An increase in BPI indicates improvement. An increase of more than 200 points represents a substantial improvement of about 1 standard deviation.”
If you wonder how this BPI is calculated (I know I did), there’s an answer for that too: “The BPI scales are based on an analysis and ranking of over 13,000,000 real game results. We used these game results to create a distribution of scores for each activity so we know how an individual score stacks up to all others. We then evaluate your game scores and use a proprietary algorithm to derive your BPI. Each time you play, we update your BPI to accurately reflect your current brain performance.”
But that’s not all. You can track your BPI in various cognitive functions (by playing the associated games) over time with some nice looking graphs.
Now, let’s talk about the most important games in the pack (I won’t spoil the surprise for you by talking about ALL the games).
Just like physical exercise, brain training must be performed in a balanced way. Excelling only at one cognitive function of your brain wouldn’t give you any big advantage. Yes, you may have a fantastic memory, but if you lack attention or flexibility, it wouldn’t make you perform better overall. So, if at the gym you’re doing intervals, weight lifting and running, in a brain training workout you’ll do memory, attention, speed and flexibility.
Train Brain for Attention: Lost In Migration
Apparently, this was the most difficult game for me. You have to spot the center bird in a group, without getting distracted by the other birds. Once you saw its direction, do a swipe confirming it (left, right, up or down). If you got it right, you get points (and a bonus if you do it really fast). If you got it wrong, your iPhone will vibrate and you won’t get points. Each session lasts about 45 seconds. The goal is to keep your attention steady, without being distracted.
The game features several backgrounds (balloons, desert, city) and I suspect there’s a different difficulty level in each of them. It can get really frustrated in the beginning, if you’re getting 2-3 vibrates in a row, but it surely becomes better as you practice. I still find it very difficult to pass over a certain physical limit: there are a few milliseconds between the visual identification and the finger gesture. This gap is very hard to minimize. In other words, the brain-finger muscle cooperation must be enhanced too.
Train Brain for Memory: Memory Matrix
By far, my favorite game. You get a matrix of cells (growing from 3×3 up to 8×8), in which you are presented with a random model of colored cells. The model stays around a second, then it disappears. Your job is to re-create the model by touching the corresponding cells. If you got it right, the matrix advances to the next level and you get points. If it doesn’t, you get a nasty iPhone vibration and have to start over from the previous level (for instance, if you screw it at the 7 cells level, you gotta start again by doing the 6 cells level).
There are 15 turns, starting from 3 cells models, which means the maximum you can go is up to 17 cells models. In my experience, around 9-12 cells there’s a threshold. If you get over these levels, you’ll find it surprisingly easier to solve a matrix with 14 or 15 cells. This game was the first one in which I got a BPI higher than 500 (a part from the Chalkboard Challenge where I got the maximum after the first game, but more on that in a minute).
Train Brain for Speed: Circles
I picked up Circles for this short presentation, but there are a few other variations of this in the package, feel free to get the app and look it up for yourself. In this game, you’re presented with a circle in a certain shape, you have to memorize it and then the first one disappear and another one comes to the screen. Your job is to see if the previous circle matches the current one, by pressing the corresponding buttons. If you got it right, you get points, if not, yes, you’re right, the iPhone will vibrate and you won’t get points.
I find this type of game very challenging, because it forces you to stay alert AND keep your short term memory in good shape. Also, you gotta have a pretty good reaction speed.
Train Brain for Flexibility: Color Match
That was a real challenge for me and I’ll explain you why a little later. It’s a nice little game in which you get a two areas zone: in the upper area you get a word designating a color: red, blue, yellow or black, and in the lower area you get another word designating a color, which, attention, must MATCH the upper word color. So, if the upper word is “red” the lower word must by in a red color, regardless of its meaning, which could be “yellow”. That’s tricky.
I’m not an English native speaker, so I had a little overhead in this game because I had to perform 2 more translations: one for the upper color and one for the lower color. In the beginning I was a catastrophe at this game. But after a few days I got better. Which means nothing, but nothing, but nothing that these games are really working. 🙂
Train Brain for Problem Solving: Chalkboard Challenge
Now, last but not least, the game in which I surprisingly got the highest possible score from the first time. In this one, you get a two area zone, only this time on an horizontal split. The left and right areas are holding numbers, or various operations with numbers and you gotta pick the highest result. For instance, if on the right area you got number 9, and in the left area you got (6 + 3) * 2, the right area is the correct one: 18 > 9. The operations can get really complex.
At some point, the areas are starting to shake, making the identification of symbols pretty difficult (not to mention the actual computations). As I told you, I got the highest score at this from the first time, meaning 1700. I had a few blunders along the line but overall I am at the same level – 1698 – 1700 – during the last month. It took me a while to understand why I got the highest score so fast but I think I finally got it: as on online entrepreneur[ I exercised this estimation function on a daily basis. Especially in the online business, where everything is so volatile, making accurate estimations is a key process. So I was already there, so to speak.
My Brain Training Personal Experience
Now, I have more than one month since I practice this. And I must say that it was quite an interesting experience. First of all, I took all the 35 sessions from the iPhone introductory course. I didn’t take them one per day, as they recommend, but rather 2-3 in a row. Meanwhile, I did a lot of other exercises separately and closely watched my BPI. I was able to go from 1100 BPI to 1500 BPI in around 30 days. According to Lumosity terms, I had at least 2 standard deviations (one increase in 200 BPI being considered 1 standard deviation).
I am a true believer in neuro-plasticity, which is the ability of brain to re-organize itself, or even to re-create new cells as they are required. Not long ago, the large majority of brain scientists believed that we are basically limited by birth conditions to the number of neurons we have, hence our brain performance was something “frozen” or at least highly predictable and limited. I don’t believe this. I think we can reshape our brain the same way we are “sculpting” our bodies at the gym.
During the first part of my 30 days experience with Lumosity I experienced some mild headaches. I couldn’t even describe them as headaches, but more like an inside pressure or some increased awareness of some of my brain areas. Something very close to the sore body you get after a good workout.
I also felt more alert and ready to start or to finish things. It wasn’t about motivation per se, but more about my presence in the moment.
I also had more intense hunger feelings and I clearly felt the need to eat differently. I know there is a link between proteins and our nervous system, but I don’t know exactly what it is. I can only tell you that I felt the need to eat more proteins as usual (beans, for instance).
I continued to drink around 3-4 liters of green tea per day (I gave up coffee a year ago) and I also observed some subtle correspondence between the level of liquids and my overall state. Clearly better when I stick to my regular tea routine.
Some Visible Improvements
In the last 30 days I was invited to 3 public events where I talked about entrepreneurship and lifestyle design. I never was afraid to talk in public, but these last 3 times I felt really great. In two cases I didn’t had any written presentation and I spoke freely to an audience of about 30-50 persons. I surprised myself being coherent and catching the flow even without a pre-established structure or plan. At one event I was on the board of advisers, in front of a 120 persons audience for 9 hours straight and I never had any drifting away moment. I consider this to be a direct consequence of exercising my brain.
In the last 30 days I also launched the website of my New Zealand company along with my first public product. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my first app in the App Store was a little cute memory game. The game was developed in about 10 days and it features both iPhone and Android versions.
Another area in which I clearly saw a visible improvement was my learning ability. I was able to finally freeze my long time postponed company products roadmap for the next 9 months, including some old, dusted projects, and to bring to alpha version a few new apps. Being busy, so to speak. What’s interesting is that I noticed an increased ability to juggle with different programming environments and languages, switching easily from Objective C (yes, I finally become a friend of Xcode) and Lua (using a somehow exotic SDK for cross-platform game development).
But the most visible improvement was in awareness.
In less than a week since I started this brain exercising routine, I observed an increased capacity to focus and to remain focused for larger chunks of time. I don’t think many of the so-called social media enthusiasts will like what I’m going to say now, but this 30 days trial made me reconsider my social media approach. I’ve been extremely quiet on Twitter and only at the minimal level in Facebook. I do think social media is making us prone to attention disorder and it highly affects our ability to stay focused. Toldya you ain’t gonna like this. 🙂
Another visible improvement was on the analytical side, especially on the relationships side. We all have our own idiosyncrasies and we tend to react the same way to the same social stimuli. Some persons are making us angry and other are making us happy. We’re reacting to them on autopilot. I noticed that I have an increased attention to my reaction to relationships, giving them much more attention and weight that I did previously. For instance, I avoided a few fights just by being able to see more clearly what the point of the discussion was, and I also was able to start a few fresh contacts with persons I wasn’t usually very attracted to (there were business contacts, mainly).
Tips For A Better Brain Fitness
Now, if you’re going to start your own brain exercising routine (which I believe you’ll do, judging from the fact that you’ve been curious enough to get to this point of the article 😉 ), here are a few tips and tricks from my personal experience.
– don’t do attention games after 20:00 in the evening (or with less than 2 hours before going to sleep). It will create an unneeded state of awareness. I couldn’t sleep for hours until i realized that I just challenged my brain attention function and it will stay alert for the next few hours.
– do some brain games before meetings: memory games when you’re doing some public speaking, especially if you’re talking freely, without a written presentation. Do some flexibility games before a negotiation, it will make easier for you to see the opportunities in the discussion. If you’re planning something, do some problem solving exercises and strengthen your forecasting abilities.
– to improve your memory matrix results: try to create stories associated to the the images. I saw that if I give names to some of the shapes, I can solve the matrix faster.
– in attention games is more important to give accurate results than to be faster. The goal is to train your ability to stick with the correct situation than to do it faster. You can become faster in speed games. 😉
– don’t let a gap bigger than 100 BPI between your various cognitive areas, otherwise it will be pretty difficult to advance. Even if you score the highest score on Estimations, for instance, it will be pretty difficult to increase your overall BPI.
The Brain Training Price
Initially, this last paragraph was meant to give you a short overview of the prices for this product. But as the article unfold, I realized that there is really a price you pay if you DON’T enhance your brain. Of course, Lumosity isn’t the only method to train your brain, it’s not the greatest miracle in human evolution, nor even the best thing since the sliced bread (I think the Internet could easily win this one). But it’s a solid service and it does a very interesting thing from a business perspective: it finds a good opportunity and exploits it. The price is affordable, the service is solid, the results are unquestionable (again, at least for me) so it does what every business should do: sell something valuable at an affordable price.
Now, let’s talk about the real prices. The iPhone app is free, and so are the first 20 training sessions. After that, you subscribe using InApp Purchase (meaning you’re buying a subscription from within the iPhone, using the credit card you use for buying stuff on iTunes and App Store). The most affordable yearly plan is 7.99 USD. Please keep in mind that you can play the games for as long as you want without paying, the subscription will only give access to your BPI and tracking statistics. Also, on the iPhone some of the games are sold separately for prices from 0.99 and 1.99. The individual apps offers statistics only for the BPI associated with the game (i.e. only memory BPI if you’re buying the Memory Matrix game).
On the website, the monthly subscription costs 14.99 USD, but there are a few yearly packages which can drop this as low as 4.99 USD for a two years subscription. Keep in mind that when you sign up to Lumosity.com you can use all the features in the website for a limited time. There’s no associated fee for creating an account. You pay this subscription only if you want to access your BPI all the time, access personalized courses and see how you compare with other Lumosity users. Speaking of which, there is also a “friend this user” option, so you can get in touch really easily with other guys. If you want to befriend me on Lumosity, my nickname there is edragonu. As for paying the subscription, just keep an eye on your mailbox, because I saw that Lumosity is pushing some special offers and discounts pretty every now and then, so you can get even better than 4.99 USD/month.
So, go ahead: sign up at Lumosity.com (even if you plan to use only the iPhone version, you gotta have an account at Lumosity, your BPI score and evolution are stored remotely on the server).
Start playing, befriend me and let me know how you feel about that.
Happy brain fitness 🙂
Running For My Life - from zero to ultramarathoner
The spooky thing about depression is that it sneaks in. There aren’t really trumpets and loud voices announcing: “Hail, hail, this is depression entering the room, all rise!” Nope. It’s slow, silent, creepy. It doesn’t even look like depression. It starts with small isolation thoughts like: “Maybe I shouldn’t get out today, I just don’t feel like going out”. And then it does the same next day. And then the day after that and so on. And then it starts to whisper louder and louder in your ears: “Why would you go outside, you loser? Didn’t have enough yet? Want more people to make fun of how much of a big, fat loser you are?”
And then you start to breath in guilt and shame, instead of air. Every breathe you take is putting more dark thoughts into your body.
Until you get stuck. You can’t move anymore. At all.
If you want to know how I got out of this space, eventually, check out my latest book on Amazon and Kindle.