The New Rage for Brain Training

by F.

I imagine the current spate of “brain training” books and tools and websites can largely be explained by demographics: the Baby Boomers are getting old, are looking at life expectancies of around 90 years, and are scared to death they’ll lose their cognitive functioning:

At least a dozen companies are promoting software, Web sites and gizmos that promise a daily dose of mental stimulation. The products are the vanguard of what scientists expect will be a flood of tools for a ready market: baby boomers who are anxious to stave off Alzheimer’s disease and related ills.

The thinking — and advertising — behind most of the products is simple: If 30 minutes on the treadmill each day is good for your body, 30 minutes (or so) of playing computer games and similar activities must be good for your noodle.

It’s also funny that, just about the time the Baby Boomers retire, we see a bunch of books and papers showing that, you know, aging does not necessarily mean decline. Hmmm…coincidence? Here’s a piece by an older writer from the WSJ:

An emerging body of research shows that a surprising array of mental functions hold up well into old age, while others actually get better. Vocabulary improves, as do other verbal abilities such as facility with synonyms and antonyms. Older brains are packed with more so-called expert knowledge — information relevant to your occupation or hobby. (Older bridge enthusiasts have at their mental beck-and-call many more bids and responses.) They also store more “cognitive templates,” or mental outlines of generic problems and solutions that can be tapped when confronting new problems.

Anyway, I’ve looked at some of these products, including the Nintendo DS Brain Age game, and my reaction typically is, both “This is so fun!” as well as “This is so simple—can it work?” If that’s all it takes to stay mentally sharp, well, we’ve got nothing to worry about.

But I also wondered whether there might not be a better, cheaper, more efficient way to stay mentally fit—like going back to the source. I mean, this Brain Age thing looks like old wine in new bottles to me. What else is out there?

Homeschoolers seem to love these Singapore Math books, and if you look at them, they look pretty much like…like…like the Nintendo DS Brain Age game! I think I’ll just get me some of these kindergarten books. After all, there seems to be pretty good evidence that they work.

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This reminds me of that scene in Big where Tom Hanks is at a party (after becoming a child who looks like an adult) and astounds the adults by recounting simple facts he’s learned in school, and which they, of course, can’t remember.