With all the focus these days on “brain training” games, I got to thinking about a valuable lesson I had on training the brain when my infant son was about 18 months old.
Educational toys that “enhanced brain development” in young children were gaining in popularity. One of these toys was a box with a lid containing differently shaped holes and matching coloured blocks, which the child was required to fit into the holes.. Being a creative mom, and rather short of ready cash for these expensive games, I made my own version out of a coffee can with a plastic lid. I triumphantly placed the tin in front of him, and the shaped blocks beside the tin. With baited breath, I waited to see whether he could put those blocks through the correct shaped hole. My son looked at the tin, looked at the blocks, and then he gave me a long silent look. With no further ado, he peeled the lid off the can, put the blocks inside, and replaced the lid. Then, he gave me another long silent look. That was the end of me thinking I was going to find ways to train his brain.
As more research into neuroscience becomes public, anxiety concerning our cognitive abilities, including memory, is on the rise. Brain fitness has become the latest option to turn to, and it’s a growing industry. An article in The Vancouver Sun recently, discussed this new fitness field with the CEO whose company is one of the frontrunners in developing this industry. Alvaro Fernandez suggests that in the future “people will enlist the help of brain-fitness trainers to sharpen their minds, and athletes will be able use tablets and smartphones to check whether they have suffered a concussion.”
It seems brain training is becoming mainstream, and not just for seniors. Younger people, recovering from brain traumas or other illnesses, say that they find these games helpful. However, this interest in how to improve our brain functions does not stop at the use of games. People who used to drink interminable cups of coffee for late night studying, are now increasingly using “smartdrugs” – or “nootropics” – to become smarter and to improve memories in a wide variety of settings.
While I can understand the worry about loss of cognitive abilities at any age, I wonder: memory did people used to learn and remember things before all these aids?…
To gain more insight into this, I skipped a couple of generations and asked my son’s grandma – my mother – about her thoughts on memory. My mother was a theatre actress for several decades, often performing in repertory theatres around England. Every two weeks a new play would be rehearsed while another play was being performed. How did she keep all those lines straight in her head? She gave me three answers. “The first and most important thing,” she said, “was that we worked as a team. We cared about one another. We helped one another remember. This was not a competition. We lived as a community.”
The second thing she said was that she loved the audience. She cared deeply that they enjoyed the play, and she worked hard to make sure she delivered her lines well for them. “We all did,” she added.
Lastly, she said, “Your career depended on knowing your part. You just couldn’t fail. It wasn’t an option, whether performing in a movie or theatre. There were no games or tricks to remembering. No drugs or therapies. You worked hard at remembering your lines.” Now, as active as ever, with a memory as sharp as Queen Elizabeth’s, she continues as a very engaged member of the community here in BC.
I asked my mother whether she ever prayed about remembering her lines. “Oh no. I never prayed to remember my lines, but every day I remembered that caring for and really loving each other is a Christian act, and I have strived to live that way every day of my life,” she replied. Another thing that I know she does to this day is to forgive people and negative events in her life, including herself. She has mastered this to a fine art. She feels that forgiveness is a vital part of human existence, and that in the forgiving and forgetting of an incident you make room for the richest of memories.
The studies regarding the brain training games appear contradictory, with little in the way of peer review. Clearly, more research is needed. An interesting article in the Guardian newspaper this year looks at several studies, including this one:
“A 2010 study by the neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen, which tracked 11,000 adults over a six-week computer-based training regime designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention, reported benefits in executing the tasks themselves but little general advantage in other areas…. Owen concluded that regular players of brain games got better at the games themselves through familiarity rather than showing any marked improvement in fluid intelligence (the ability to solve novel problems and adapt to new situations as opposed to accumulating knowledge).”
So what do the studies say regarding the elements my mom identified as crucial to her ability to remain mentally alert – hard work, staying engaged, being part of a community, forgiveness and loving others? One interesting study on the importance of forgiveness from the University of Wisconsin showed that internalizing, or holding onto hurt and resentment can lead to a myriad of mental and physical problems. Numerous studies consistently cite clear benefits to the elderly, such as staying mentally engaged and being part of a community.
Instead of worrying about mental deficiencies – at any age – and thus becoming wired into expensive computer games or drugs, the timeless adage of the wise – corny as it may sound – may be the best counsel of all: work hard, forgive and love your neighbours.
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun on August 26 2013. You can view it HERE