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Brain Game

Boy, do I feel dumb.

I've just spent the last two minutes trying to remember where this little bird last popped up amidst the foliage on my computer screen while also trying to remember what letter appeared on the screen before the bird disappeared. It's a ridiculous thing to be doing, right? But you know what? It's really, really hard -- and I'm on the easiest level.

I'm giving the online brain game site Lumosity a trial run. One of the leaders in the new field of software-based games designed to boost your memory and cognitive skills, Lumosity offers an array of games aimed at working your mind's varying skills; according to the site, you can achieve a total brain workout in just 10 minutes. You can play around for free for 7 days. After that, a monthly membership costs $9.95, a full year is $79.95. The site tracks your progress over time, and the games adjust to your skill level as you go.

The games -- which include "Monster Garden" to improve memory, "Word Bubbles" to help you process information faster, and "Lost in Migration" to teach you to stay focused, in addition to "Birdwatch" for boosting your ability to pay attention, and others -- are fun and kind of addictive. But they're also humbling. I always have regarded myself as a pretty smart cookie. After a few minutes of bumbling the birdwatch, though, I'm not so sure.

On the other hand, after a Lumosity session the other day, I suddenly was able to remember a word that had eluded me for several days. Coincidence? Or was my brain maybe working just that much better?

The science behind systems like Lumosity isn't all that solid, at least not yet. (Watch The Post's Health section for a special "Aging Well" issue next month with more on that very topic.) Lumosity's Web site features a section devoted to research supporting the notion that these games can sharpen the cerebellum; the "white paper" posted there describes a study on a very small sample of people. Its results, though positive, aren't all that compelling, and the paper's not published in a peer-reviewed journal, the gold standard for scientific research.

Neuroscientist (and founding director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory) James McGaugh of the University of California, Irvine, told me in an e-mail that "There is evidence for the general principle 'use it or lose it.' This is as true for the brain as it is for our muscles. But little is known about what is best to use. In any case, physical and mental exercise appear to slow cognitive decline (as with muscle loss)." But, he adds, "I don't think there is much evidence that memory capability is boosted specifically by game-playing."

That's okay. Lumosity's got to be better for my brain than, say, checking my e-mail every five minutes, which is how I usually spend my spare computer time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some birdwatching to do.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  July 11, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Psychology  
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I find as I get older it's harder to memorize things like we had to do in school. I make lists, keep a desk calendar updated, pencil in appointments as soon as I make them so I won't forget. I'm also trying to learn piano and find it hard to memorize even a simple song; still struggling with chord inversions. Occasionally enjoy crossword puzzles but haven't tackled sudoku or whatever that numbers thing is.

I don't think it's all with being old. Could be lots and lots of interference, sensory overload, too much 'jumping through hoops' just to get through the day. Don't feel bad, Jennifer, we're all going through it.

Posted by: Boomer Babe | July 11, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I got my Ph.D. with Jim McGaugh. You made an excellent choice talking with him about this stuff. Older people are always asking what they can do to keep their brains "young".

Posted by: Ryan | July 17, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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