Strength Train Your Brain
Weeks 2 and 3
I'm improving my score, mostly because I've come up with a few tricks. In the game Familiar Faces -- where customers pop up at a food shack, and players earn points by remembering their names and what they ordered -- I look for distinguishing features. Linda's haircut resembles an L, for instance. In Word Bubbles, where several letters appear on-screen and the object is to come up with as many words starting with those letters as possible, I develop a system: Instead of typing words at random, I follow up each entry with any variation I can think of: care, cares, caring, careful. Pretty clever, eh? My points rack up like crazy.
Brain training can help you perform at your best in real life by strengthening certain neural systems, advocates say. "The brain has an incredible capacity to adapt," notes Sheida Rabipour, a graduate student studying neuroscience at McGill University in Canada and the lead author of a recent review on the topic. "The more you train to improve a skill, the stronger the networks underlying that skill become."
In other words, practice makes perfect -- or in my case, practice makes habit. After forcing myself to pay attention almost every day to the customers in Familiar Faces, my mind automatically shifts to "play" mode when I meet people at a real-world cocktail party. I study their faces, really listen to their names, and search for associations. And what do you know -- it works!
But not everyone is a fan of brain training. The biggest criticism: Just because a person gets smarter at playing games, it doesn't mean she gets smarter in general. Sadly, it seems I will not suddenly develop the capacity to solve the national debt crisis or perform other acts of brilliance. The skills needed for that use an entirely different set of brain circuits. "Brain training doesn't work," says Adrian Owen, PhD, a professor at the University of Western Ontario. "There is no evidence that brain training makes you any smarter. Even if you get better at the games, research suggests that this skill will not transfer to anything else."
Still, some scientists believe they are on the verge of creating brain workouts that can channel everyone's inner Einstein. A game that requires you to pay strict attention and that strengthens your working memory -- the short-term memory required to retain information long enough to solve problems -- can help make you adept at deciphering new dilemmas, Jaeggi explains. In other words, you really will become smarter.
As I play a brainteaser called Raindrops, in which math problems appear in drips of water and I have to solve them at warp speed before they fall to the ground, I swear I do feel more intelligent. And while I know that being good at a computer game doesn't automatically translate into real-world ability, I figure it has to be better than not playing at all.
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