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Brain workout

Forget forgetting

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Eagle Eye is not as well known or as addictive as Angry Birds where players launch birds at pigs to destroy them. Its quails and herons are also no match for the cute, seething creatures. But 20 million people around the world are playing the game to help them up their visual intelligence.

Eagle Eye is one of the 35-plus 'brain games' offered by Lumosity, an online training programme that enhances core cognitive abilities such as memory, attention and intelligence by stimulating certain areas of the brain.

Crossword puzzles and Sudoku have become passê as netizens are increasingly logging on to Lumosity and various other online mental gyms - Fit Brains, Cognifit and Brainbuilders to name a few - to keep those synapses firing. Pearson, a multi-national talent assessment agency, which launched a computer-based intervention for improving working memory, Cogmed, in India in January, has already received 50 'orders'. Developed by Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, Cogmed consists of 25 exercises that have to be done over five weeks and costs Rs 15, 500. Lumosity, which was developed in collaboration with neuroscientists and psychologists from top institutes including Stanford and Berkeley, has drawn users from over 180 countries, including India, since its launch in 2007.

The craze for memory training is not confined to the web world or gaming. In India, a growing number of people are also attending workshops conducted by brain training experts. NL Shraman, who calls himself the 'Memory Guru of India' and claims people will "forget forgetting" with the gyan he imparts, is among the popular trainers. "People from all walks of life attend the workshops and more than 53, 904 people have read the free lessons posted online, " says Priti Shraman, who co-ordinates the workshops.

NOT CHILD'S PLAY


One would think that brain training is only taken up by school students and youth preparing for competitive exams, who having tried everything from badam-doodh to memory-enhancing pills now seek new 'mugging' recipes. Instead, nearly half of those taking up 'mental workouts' are adults. At least 200 grown-ups turn up for the week-long workshops conducted across India by Jayasimha, a 'memory champion' who holds eight Guinness World Records. Some brain 'trainees' are forgetful 50-somethings or seniors suffering from disorders like dementia, but a majority are there simply because they acknowledge the power of a sharp brain. Three-quarters of Lumosity's users are under the age of 40, says Erica Perg, spokesperson for online training tool.

"Adults want to remember people and manage without phonebooks and shopping lists, " says Jayasimha, who runs a training institute, Jayasimha Mind Dynamics, in Hyderabad.

Another group of trainees wants to scale the corporate ladder faster. "Improvement in memory really helps IT professionals who have to keep learning new software and BPO employees who have to key in data while attending calls, " says Pranjal Barma from Cogmed.

RR Murali, who runs a jewellery shop near Vellore, attended Jayasimha's workshop last year to be more efficient in his trade. "Women often look at many gold sets, ask the prices and then select one piece. By the time they decide, one tends to forget what one had quoted for each set. There is no choice but to do the entire calculation again, " says the 40-year-old, adding that he can recall figures effortlessly now.

Jayasimha counts several film actors, Akshay Kumar's son Aarav and Andhra Pradesh's former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu among his clients. "Mr Naidu wanted to recall names of the countless people he encounters daily, " says the trainer. A retired army squadron leader, Jayasimha had developed an interest in memory after seeing a show by 'memory magician' Hari Narayan during an official trip to Russia in 1987. He took training under Narayan and went on to set the Guinness records for remembering 200 random objects and also recollecting 20 names and dates of birth in two minutes. During workshops, he also teaches the art of erasing bad memories so participants can keep their minds free of emotional baggage.

THE SCIENCE AND SECRETS


New-age memory experts teach various unique techniques, not just age-old methods like mnemonics, to help people become masters of their mind. Jayasimha, for instance, has developed a three-dimensional memory system to memorise unconnected words. For example, if one has to remember 'hydrogen' and 'helium', Jayasimha asks one to think of a residential building. "Hydrogen sounds like high dragon. Picture your mother is in apartment one, sitting on a 'high dragon' and your father is in the next flat, lying sick in bed and you want to 'heal him' or helium. Caputure this image in your mind, " he says.

The expert believes in visualisation and creating stories with family members as we tend to remember events with an emotional element better. "We don't remember what shirt we wore last week, but we know exactly what we wore on our first anniversary, " he says. Memory guru Shraman has his own set of techniques such as 'pseudonumerology' and 'pegs'.

The online games don't dole out formulas, they make the brain sweat to keep it in shape. In Eagle Eye, a black bird is sighted at different spots on the computer screen and a number simultaneously flashes in the middle for what seems like a millisecond. The player has to recall the bird's location and the number. The exercise keeps getting tougher, gradually enhancing the amount of information users can take in with a single glance.

Lumosity, Cogmed and several other interventions are based on the emerging science of neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's lifelong ability to restructure itself and reshape neural connections. Researchers have discovered that one can make the brain do so by challenging it - the hippocampus is targeted to improve memory. For instance, when scientists viewed the brains of people who regularly play the violin under functional MRI scans, they appear to have developed a larger area of their brain devoted to mapping their fingers.

Proponents of brain training claim that though the human brain starts slowing down as early as age 25, one can keep it running at peak performance and even augment its functioning at any age with the right drill. For 15 dollars a month, Lumosity offers users a mix of exercises based on the user's goals - one can choose from 'multi-tasking' to 'remembering the location of objects' from a list of priorities. The exercises become increasingly difficult to push the brain to work faster.

GAMES: DISTRACTION OR BRAIN DEVELOPER?


Get caught playing 'Halo' or 'Call of duty' at work and chances are the boss would reprimand you for "wasting" time. But can games, usually considered a distraction and addiction, help a user become a smarter and more productive employee?

Considering the field of 'mental health games' is still nascent, its efficacy is yet to be established by large-scale research. But a few recent studies have shown these 'workouts' do help. Researchers at the University of Michigan saw improvements in the participants' memory and problem-solving ability in as little as four hours of playing a brain game. A pilot study at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people who trained for a half hour a day over 30 days had a self-esteem boost that the control group did not.

Ramesh Sreenivasan (name changed), who has completed just nine of Cogmed's 25 exercises, can feel the change already. "When I gave a presentation at a board meeting in Mumbai on March 31, I barely had to look at the laptop. I could rattle off production figures of seven units, " says the 35-year-old who is the director (finance) of a Kerala-based firm.

When the writer signed up for Lumosity's training, she was told her brain's performance would improve by 85 per cent in the next three months. She is waiting to see if that happens.

INSTANT RECALL


Memory trainers teach a simple 3-step formula to help one remember people after a brief introduction

1


IMPRESSION

Brush aside all thoughts and concentrate on the person you meet. Ask for his/her name and clarify if you didn't hear it properly. Then scan the person and notice his or her physical
characteristics

2


REPETITION

Keep repeating the name casually in the conversation to engrave it in your memory

3


ASSOCIATION

While the person walks away, link the name with a famous person or an image

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