The Real Big Brain Academy

Screen shot of one of the dual n-back tests

For as long as people have been around, they’ve been trying to find the Fountain of Youth. From the days of Ponce de Leon to today modern plastic surgeons and health gurus, people will try just about anything and go just about anywhere to stop Father Time from putting us in time-out. But even though people have wanted a great body and smooth skin for ages, the goal of a younger mind is a relatively new addition to the equation.

Now, from Sudoku books to Nintendo Wii’s Big Brain Academy, people will do just about anything to avoid becoming a crackpot lunatic during their waning years. And for as many options as there are nowadays, there’s virtually no evidence that any of them will help keep you any sharper than a butter knife.

That is, except one.

A few years ago, John Jonides of the University of Michigan showed that practicing a test called the dual n-back challenge could boost working memory – that part of the brain that keeps recently received information ready and available for quick use. Gains in working memory quickly translate to better performance on IQ tests and other problem solving riddles.

Now, Jonides has gone further to prove that you don’t need the dual tast; a single n-back challenge is sufficient to keep your brain on the top of it’s game.

Here’s how it works.

During the game, visual or auditory cues are given one at a time. It could be the placement of a square on a tic-tac-toe grid, or a letter of the alphabet spoken out loud, or different images presented on the screen. The stream of stimuli just keep coming one right after the other. Your job is to remember whether or not that same cue was given to you before. For a 2-back challenge, you must remember if you saw the same thing two images ago. For a 3-back, you have to remember three times ago. And so on and so forth.

It’s a lot more challenging than it sounds because you can’t just remember one image and wait to see if it matches a few times later. You have to remember each of the pictures, and indicate every time any of them reappears at the proper interval.

Dual n-back tests are even more difficult. For every image displayed, there is a simultaneous auditory cue, and you must try to keep track of both.

To give it a shot and to see exactly what I’m talking about, try this free version.

Frustrating, no? Don’t worry. You only need to practice for 15-20 minutes per day to reap the benefits. In fact, Jonides has shown that just a couple of weeks of daily practice for the prescribed amount will enhance your working memory for up to three months.

So what are you waiting for?


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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