3 Jan 2015

Neuroplasticity - Can We Upgrade Our Brains?

My husband came back from a work trip recently, excited about a documentary he'd watched on the airplane.* It's an Australian production called Redesign My Brain, and if you can find all three episodes, it is well worth a watch. The host of the show offers himself up as a human guinea pig - over the course of three months, he spends 1 hour per day doing exercises (everything from memory drills to juggling) to see if he can change the way his brain functions. The exercises are designed by neuroscientists and other experts, who also conduct a number of in-depth physiological tests (such as functional MRIs) to measure his brain activity before and after the training. And the results are amazing. With a relatively modest investment of time - about as much as an adult is supposed to spend physically exercising each day - the host manages to dramatically increase his focus, memory, creativity, and mind-body connection.

The series is absolutely riveting, and I spent most of it thinking how badly I wanted to try this myself. My grandfather died of Alzheimer's a few years ago, after all, and in the last ten years I've often felt that I'm not as quick or as focused as I was when I was a kid. My knowledge has increased, but I suspect my intelligence has actually declined. I know my attention span has (I'm looking at you, social media!).

So I did some digging, and managed to track down an online brain training system that, near as I can tell, mimics the one modelled in the show.** A year's subscription is only $8 per month, and in the spirit of scientific enquiry (and jump starting my own brain) I'm thinking very seriously of making this my New Year's Resolution. If I do, I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

What about you? Have you noticed a change in your focus and thinking as you've aged? Have you ever tried a brain training system? If so, how did it work for you?

* Yes, he's the kind of guy that watches the documentaries. Me, I go for movies. And also novels. I think it's because I spend so much time reading nonfiction for book research that I want my entertainment to be free of learning.

** BTW, producers of Redesign My Brain, this is info you really should have included in the show itself - or at the very least, on your website.


Paula said...

What an interesting idea!
The closest I've come to a plan to re-train my brain was after I had a sudden loss of hearing and balance. Some of my balance problems got better with practise doing repetitive physical motions such as walking, knitting and paddling in a kayak. Even though I don't have balance signals coming clearly from my ears, my brain is better than it used to be at knowing where my hands and feet are.

L. E. Carmichael said...

That's a great example of brain training, Paula! One of the things they talk about in the series is how learning physical skills can actually upgrade your brain - the host learns how to juggle!

It's a little skewed, that's for sure. said...

After reading Norman Doidge's The Brain that Changes Itself, I embarked on my own experiment to see if I could spot my brain changing. To do so, I started doing sudoku. I'd never done sudoku before this so it was an easy and available brain exercise in a novel field.

It was fascinating. Over time, I went from struggling my way through the easy puzzles to mastery of those, then moving to middle level puzzles. Most interestingly, I experienced several AHA! moments - breakthroughs when I suddenly had a new insight into how to solve the puzzle using a new, theretofore unimagined technique. According to Doidge, these AHA! moments come about as a result of building new neuronal connections. When you reach a critical density of new connections, your brain really does become more capable in that area...

I kept up with my sudoku practice and eventually got to the point where I could do the evil ones....most of the time.

In general, I found this experience to be a very good illustration of exactly how the brain changes as the result of concerted effort and repetition > creating new pathways in the brain and literally upping one's brain power in that area.