Imagine sitting at a stop sign and a vehicle turning too widely scrapes its rear corner against yours. As you begin to realize what just happened, you look in your rear view mirror to see the same car smash headlong into the front driver side of the car behind you. The offender flees the scene almost hitting a line of cars all now swerving out of his reckless way; and he is off in the distance out of sight all in an instant. Are you ok? Is the lady in her van behind you ok? You call 911 and have to describe the white dodge caravan with license plate... the license plate which was barely visible and for only a second or so. It was flipped, because you saw it in your mirror and you weren't "paying attention" to that seemingly inconsequential detail. Would you remember it? I wouldn't have, prior to February. But I just did. I would like to think my focus, cognition and memory were generally above average through most of my life. However, since February, I've expanded into some new and interesting areas which, from time to time, showcase themselves in real world execution like the example above.
Brain training has become a bit more in vogue with programs like Lumosity, and a little farther back with Brain Age on the Nintendo DS. There are apps. There are huge bodies of research on how to expand the mind and keep the brain young by exploring and pursuing new mental challenges: new languages, sudoku, crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, art, music, math, history, speaking, writing, reading - you name it. And I've already written a little about how much improvement I've seen in intensity of focus over long periods of time by getting one's fitness and nutrition dialed in. Every day there is a growing body of evidence mounting to show how you can stop, prevent or reverse central nervous system disorders with really simple regular exercise and dietarily controlling inflammation. Think how much more can you optimize a healthy CNS by practicing some of the same AND directly training the brain.
So, I decided I'd share, more specifically, a few of these "brain hacks" insomuch as I have personally experienced them in a Get Smarter series.
Part 1: Active Memory
Active memory is applicable to a lot of different cognitive tasks; and arguably it is the best measure of intellect. Frankly, there is no totally agreed upon metric of intelligence. There are different IQ tests with different emphases and different scaling. I like Piagetian and non-piagetian ideas of cognitive development. Thus the debate over if an adult can improve IQ substantially or if it's even a valid talking point or how speed of processing plays into all this I'm leaving for another time. Provisionally, I think it's safe to say that active memory (aka - primary or short-term memory) is an important indicator nonetheless. And improvement is possible for those who believe it is possible. So we'll consider this in part 1.
Over a year ago I became aware of a program which measures and builds active memory. It is available as an app, called Dual N-Back. At each level it visually lights up a square and via audio says a letter in randomized sequences wherein the sound and the picture are not synched AND follow disconnected sequences. So, simultaneously you must remember an unconnected sound and an unconnected visual cue. Over each level you have to remember these two streams of disconnected information over longer and longer sequences, learning to hold onto the information as long as you need it and throwing away the old sequence when it is no longer applicable. My description is actually much less complicated and confusing than the actual game. The game is difficult, frustrating, maddening, but ultimately works.
Your brain fights the game, wanting to do something else. Only the dedicated will reap the benefits. Various Internet experts have worked on a protocol of 21 days in a row of dedicated 20-40 minute daily Dual N-Back training. Instead, starting in February I tried a few months of two or three days a week at 2-12 minutes.
As I played the game I noticed that "how" you think changes. I began learning different ways and skills to encode information. The brain's neuroplastic resistance is interpreted as boredom, frustration or anger. I found that, at first try, even simultaneously remembering three letters and three unconnected visual cues which keep changing and recognizing them fluidly and accurately seemed impossible. I could not understand how I would "get it". But through force of will, my mind changed. And eventually 4-back became effortless.
Then 5-back became natural. And so on, up to 10. If you haven't experienced the game, it will be extraordinarily difficult for you to understand just how hard it is, or just how rewarding progress in it feels. So I encourage the reader to download the app or one of the related ones and at least give it a couple tries.
The most profound effect I found was an increase in my ability to juggle lots of incoming information and interpret the honesty or dishonesty, logical or illogical in people's words, body language and intonation and delivery synthesized at the same time. That is, you will find you just think more clearly, much less influenced by distracting emotion. Other not-immediately recognized benefits were, like during the hit and run, the ability to imprint important information while experiencing something stressful.
I've included this graph of my performance, and more or less what you can expect with even limited bouts of training it. I'm currently taking a year off of this program to see if after 12 months I retain program specific performance. The down ticks in the graph are days when I opened the program but was interrupted before playing more than a couple minutes.
If you're wanting to increase your ability to remember people's names or something similar, what you're looking for is long term memory enhancements, only the beginnings of which (via improved focus) will you get from Dual N-Back. For that and more, stay tuned for part 2 and on.