April 22, 2010
USA Today
Edward C. Baig

ou may not think twice about working out at the gym. But far fewer folks consider exercising their brains on a regular basis.

I’ve been trying out “brain fitness” software and Web-based offerings that aim to bolster cognitive skills through games and mental exercises: The CogniFit Personal Coach promises to “slow down cognitive decline.” The Lumosity site from Lumos Labs says its brain games “improve memory and attention.” And Posit Science claims its InSight software is “clinically proven to help you think faster, focus better and notice more.”

Big caveat: It is difficult for this reviewer to measure such assertions, especially since I’ve been using the programs for days rather than the prescribed weeks and months, and haven’t been schooled in the science. I can say that they’re fun and a challenge, which is important, because I suspect keeping a user engaged is half the battle. The companies all claim their programs are backed by sound science.

Still, there’s controversy. A BBC-paid study published this week in Nature suggests that computer brain games don’t necessarily enhance mental skills. Posit Science CEO Steven Aldrich countered in his blog: “We know firsthand that building cognitive training that actually works requires the application of some very complicated science principles, years of research, and rigorous testing to get it right. … The BBC brain training may not work, but we know that Posit Science brain training does, and we have the studies to prove it.”

None of the programs is cheap. InSight costs $395 for one user, $495 for two. CogniFit charges $19.95 a month, $99.95 for six months or $179.95 for a year. Lumosity costs $14.95 a month, $80 a year or $299.95 lifetime. Most of the stuff I tried is aimed at aging Baby Boomers. A closer look:

CogniFit Personal Coach. CogniFit starts out by asking about the life activities that most concern you, from having trouble remembering names of people or objects to having difficulty performing two tasks at the same time.

You’re put through a series of exercises to rank your cognitive abilities. In one test, objects are presented one by one, some appearing as pictures on the screen, others as a spoken word (represented on the screen by a picture of headphones). As new objects appear, you have to tell the program whether what you’re seeing now you saw before as a picture, heard before as a spoken word, or are now seeing/hearing for the first time.

In another exercise, the name of a color appears in the center of the screen. You’re asked to press the space bar when the name of the color and the color of the letters are the same, that is the word “blue” is written in blue letters. If not, you do nothing until the next example appears. Later, you have to repeat the drill while at the same time tracking the movement of a ball on-screen.

After a number of tests, CogniFit evaluates where you are — it said I wouldn’t have trouble remembering numbers, names or faces but might struggle with eye-hand coordination. (I’m blaming my mouse.) Once baselines are established, an exercise program is put in place, and your progress is graphed over time. The company says you’ll see positive results by devoting just 20 minutes to the program three times a week.

Posit Science InSight. Posit Science’s program is supposed to increase reaction time while driving, but the program itself wasn’t responsive at times, and its graphics are crude.

Once you get past that, the exercises are kind of fun. In the early going, InSight suggested I spend 40 minutes divided equally on two programs, one a visual memory game called Master Gardener and the other, called US 66 Road Tour. The latter is meant to improve your useful field of view so you can apply the brakes in time should, say, a child dash out in the middle of the road while you’re driving. The challenge is to match cars that appear on the screen against a vehicle you saw on a previous screen. Next, you must do the exercise while at the same time identifying where in the periphery a roadside sign appears. Eventually, cars and road signs appear on the screen for just a blink, making the exercise increasingly difficult. As you get better at them, the exercises are meant to push you harder.

Lumosity. Lumosity suggested a brain fitness program for me consisting of 40 sessions of five games each. My favorite among the initial batch was Word Bubbles. Playing against the clock, the goal is to come up with as many words as possible that begin with a designated three-letter prefix. In another game, called Raindrop, the object is to solve arithmetic problems that show up inside a droplet of water before it splashes onto the ground. Over time, the droplets come at you more quickly, and the math problems become harder.

Lumosity comes up with a composite brain performance index, or BPI, meant to assess your progress in attention, memory, speed, flexibility and problem solving. You can compare your BPI with other users who are within five years of your age.

I can’t say I’m any smarter or sharper after my brain fitness regimen. Fun though it is, it’s all a bit exhausting. I think I’m ready to do sit-ups.