Circuit Training [Preview]

Computer games for mental workouts

"Your brain is in its 60s," Ryuta Kawashima announced. The disembodied head of the neuroscientist from Tohoku University in Japan wagged on the Nintendo screen and admonished: "If your brain is older than you, you should take note!"

Miffed, this 34-year-old biophysics Ph.D. candidate decided to do something about it. I would train my brain daily.

With many studies emphasizing the benefits of mental exercise for cognitive health, I knew I was not alone in my quest for a sharper mind. A 2002 federally funded study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for one, found that regular practice improved reasoning and memory in older adults. And, given the number of electronic puzzles and games arriving regularly on the market, companies are more than willing to help. To date, Nintendo has sold more than five million copies of brain games in Japan alone.

But what are they like to use? To find out, I decided to try out three new releases--all of which tout themselves as having been designed with the aid of scientists: Nintendo's Brain Age, Learning Enhancement Corporation's BrainWare Safari, and CyberLearning Technology's SmartBrainGames.

Let the Games Begin
Nintendo, king of thumb-reflex games such as Mario Bros., has long targeted teenagers who have the speed of a mongoose. But in April 2006, Nintendo unveiled Brain Age, a nifty game for adults that more reasonably requires only that we scribble with a plastic stylus. Brain Age ($19.99; Nintendo DS controller, $129.99) is the American cousin of Brain Training, which rocketed to popularity in Japan in 2005.

Brain Training was the brainchild of Kawashima, professor of neuroscience at Tohoku. His concept: your brain has an age of its own, independent of your body. If you do not use it, it gets old; if you do, it gets younger. The object of the game is to get your own brain age as low as possible. The ultimate goal is a brain age of 20. (Presumably people did not like being told they had the mind of a 13-year-old.) The controller calculates your score on various games and places you on a curve Kawashima obtained from testing real people ages 20 to 70.

The controller folds out to resemble the dashboard of a small spaceship. To play Brain Age, however, you turn it sideways so it resembles a book. The touch-sensitive screen recognizes nearly illegible handwriting. As you write, speakers produce a pleasing raspy sound, as of a quill pen on parchment.

When FedEx delivered my advance copy, I eagerly jammed in the cartridge. Kawashima's visage appeared on the left screen, guiding me through a preliminary brain checkup: a Stroop test. I was presented with the words black, blue, red and yellow in those colors--except that black was sometimes red and yellow was blue. (When you try to combine a routine, automated task, such as recognizing a color, with one that demands conscious attention, such as being able to name the word as red even if the type is black, the result is interference, or the Stroop effect. The phenomenon was first observed in the 1930s by John Ridley Stroop.) As instructed, I spoke the words aloud, careful not to let the colors distract me. The controller interpreted my voice.

After I got the irritating news that my brain was at an age when many people are contemplating retirement, I progressed to daily training: quick arithmetic, reading aloud from classic books (Kawashima trusts you to be honest about when you turn the page), picking numbers out of a cloud of twirling, sliding decoys.

After what I thought was an awesome performance, Kawashima declared that my brain age was 51. "This is a wake-up call! I fear your brain is asking you for help!" Furious, I raced through the math exercises, glared at the lists of words for memorization, and counted numbers until my frontal lobes began to radiate heat through my forehead. "Hmm," Kawashima mused. "Your brain seems to be a little tired, doesn't it?"

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