Thursday, April 20, 2006

How Old Is Your Brain?

by Edward Hugh

Really this is a very good question, and one on which more than one of the important future economic unknowns of the ageing society hinges. Is 'proportional lifecycle rescaling' a realistic hypothesis, or do our bodies in fact increasingly outlive our active brains? Well today we have news of a ludic test to examine just how fast we are, each and every one of us, cognitively ageing: a game called Brain Age, brought to us by Nintendo, just to help us exercise our minds a little (assuming, of course, that we were otherwise having difficulty in so doing):

Brain Age for the Nintendo DS is one of those titles that's not a game, but doesn't fall easily into other categories either. Based on the research of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, it seeks to help you boost your brain power by putting you through a few simple exercises every day using reading, memory, and mathematical problems. It's an old idea, using a few minutes a day to keep the brain sharp, but you'd be surprised how good warming your brain up in the morning feels.

The wired review puts it like this:

Kawashima has a lot of tricks up his sleeve to keep you playing. Sometimes, as you turn the game on, you'll be asked to draw something (a koala bear, a fire engine) from memory. Your drawings will be saved, and if other people use the same DS cartridge, you might suffer the embarrassment of having your drawings compared to theirs.

And of course, as you continue to do the daily exercises, you'll find more and more brain-training programs. One minigame challenges you to read a literary passage out loud as fast as you can. In another, you're given a list of words and told to memorize as many as possible in two minutes, then write them down. You can play the games as much as you want during any given day, but only your first attempt each day at getting a higher "brain age" will be recorded.

As Victoria Shannon writing in the IHT wryly comments:

As the world's baby boomers advance into trifocal age, two of the most unsettling unknowns they face are whether their savings will last through retirement and whether their brains will last through their lives.

The software industry, unable to do much about the former, is turning its attention to the latter: helping to keep our brains sharp - or at least helping us think that it can - as we age.

In an age when so much attention seems to be lavished on our corporal aesthetic, it is interesting to see someone at last begining to focus on our cerebral one. I remember seeing the young Spanish bullfighter Jesulin de Ubrique respond to a TV interview question about whether he took as much trouble with what his mind looked like as he did with what his body did, with the answer 'you know, noone has ever asked me that before'(naturally he then didn't have much more to add). Maybe the days when this kind of response is possible are fast running out, and maybe slowly but steadily we are starting to see the arrival of that new range of consumer products which everyone has been forecasting will serve to characterise the arrival of what most Europeans (much to my bemusement) still tend to call 'the third age'.

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