In Search of Bionicity, Part One

6 Jul

June has come and gone, and I haven’t posted a single entry.  But do not despair, gentle reader.  I’ve been sticking to my “Forward From Fifty” plan of doing something new each month.  I was just so busy that I just didn’t get a chance to write about it.

I spent the month of June becoming bionic.  In a manner of speaking.

 I was eleven years old when the The Six Million Dollar Man debuted on television, and the bionic Steve Austin, was the first TV character I truly idolized (okay, I did have a serious crush on Mighty Mouse when I was four, but he was a cartoon so that doesn’t count).

I loved everything about Six-Million-Dollar Steve Austin: his slightly weathered, cowboy-esque visage; the tragic alone-ness that was thrust upon him by virtue of being the first bionic man; the way in which he revealed all emotion – anger, sadness, frustration, intense passion – through a slight squint of his right eye.

I loved his slow-mo bionic running, accompanied by a sound best described as like a large sheet of metal being shaken, and the amazing way his bionic eye could zoom in on distant, nefarious activity.

In Steve Austin’s case, becoming bionic resulted from a tragic aeronautical accident, one that should have killed him, but, miraculously, did not.  His irretrievably damaged body parts – both legs, one arm and his eye – were replaced by computerized, superhuman body parts.

In my case, thankfully, there has been no tragic accident and nothing has been replaced by a computer.  But living for fifty years has been its own kind of super-slow-mo crash-and-burn disaster. I am far from “barely alive,” as the disembodied narrator describes Austin in the show’s opening sequence, but abilities that I once took for granted have withered from lack of use, and body parts have – there’s no pretty way to say this – softened and sagged.  In short, I’ve become one of those women of a certain age who can never find her car keys, who replaces most specific nouns with the terms “whatshername,” “thingummy,” and “whosimajig,” and whose firm abdominal muscles seem to have been replaced by a small, cuddly puppy.

So in June, I decided to do something about it.  Actually two things: I decided to improve my brain and my body.

Cue the disembodied narrator: “We can rebuild her.  We can make her better than she was before.”

Part One: This is Your Brain.  And This is Your Brain on Lumosity

In April, the New York Times published a Sunday magazine section devoted to the human mind. One of the articles in the magazine that week was entitled, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?”  According to the article’s author, there is some evidence to suggest that certain types of challenging memory exercises can improve your working memory – the memory you use when someone tells you a telephone number and you have to remember it until you’ve dialed the number. Working memory is connected to what is called “fluid intelligence,” which is the part of intelligence that has always been thought to be fixed and unchangeable.

I was intrigued and captivated by the article.  Could I do something that would not only slow the inexorable brain rot I’d been experiencing but maybe even make me smarter?  I was game. Ready to be a guinea pig in my own one-person experiment.

The primary task that has been associated with improved fluid intelligence is something called a dual n-back game.  In an n-back task or game, you are asked to remember something n iterations back from what you are looking at.  For example, if you are given a series of numbers and need to remember not the number that you are looking at but the number that came before it, that would be 1-back.  If you have to remember the number two before what you’re looking at, that would be 2-back. A dual n-back game has you remembering two different things n iterations back, such as the location of a block on a grid and whether the word on the screen rhymes with the word n iterations back.

Somewhere in the article, the author mentioned an online “brain training” program called Lumosity.  Lumosity does have a few variations of n-back games, but they have many other games as well, organized into groups designed to improve different mental abilities, which they identify as memory, speed, problem solving, flexibility, and attention.  I decided to check the program out, and, on June 1, I joined.

And fell madly, passionately in love.

The first game I was assigned in my own, personal training program was called “Raindrops.”  Designed to work problem-solving skills, it required me to solve a steady stream of math equations inside falling raindrops.  As I solved the equations, the raindrops evaporated.  Unsolved raindrops fell into a “lake” at the bottom of the screen, and when the lake’s level got high enough, the game would be over.  The equations were simple to start – addition and subtraction of single digit numbers – and the raindrops fell slowly, but as the game progressed, the equations became more complex and varied, and the raindrops fell more quickly, overlapping each other on the screen.

Heart pounding, fingers flying over the numeric keypad, I raced to add, divide, subtract, add, multiply, add, subtract…When the game ended, I was out of breath and flushed.  In a good way.  Not like I’d been racing to catch the last off-peak train at Grand Central and cursing my pathetic aerobic capacity.  More like I’d been engaged in a really intense flirtation.  With math equations.

The intensity of the experience, and the fact that it involved math, made me feel like I was back in high school – seventeen, pimply and hormonal.  But, again, in a good way.

High school was the last time I was called upon to regularly do math in my head.  Over the years, my opportunities to quickly and mentally calculate anything have fallen away.  These days, I don’t even balance my checkbook; Quicken does it for me.

I’m not sure that there is any practical use for being able to add numbers quickly – the Lumosity folks say it’s helpful for calculating tips, but you don’t need to do 35 calculations in a minute to be able to figure out a tip.  No matter.  It was fun.  And, like walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator, it might even be good for me.  I like the challenge and I like the virtuous feeling I have afterwards.

That first day, I played two other games.  One, called Memory Matrix, asks you to remember the location of a series of blocks on a grid.  The number of squares in the grid, and the number of blocks you have to remember, increases each time you successfully remember all the blocks.  The second game, called Eagle Eye, challenges your peripheral vision and attention.  A number flashes in the center of a landscape photograph while a bird appears somewhere else on the screen.  Both disappear, and you have to click on the location of the bird, then identify the number.  As you are able to successfully identify the bird’s location and the number, the visual field expands.

The next day, I was assigned three different games to play. After a week or so, my daily training was increased to four games, and then, a week later, to five, where it remains.  I discovered early on that I could play more games than my daily training required, and could even replay games, so most days, I play 3 or 4 games in addition to my assigned ones.  I’ve begun including an n-back game each day.

I have no idea if my month of Lumosity has done anything for my brain.  I can say that I’ve gotten markedly better at all of the games I’ve played, and my percentile rankings compared to other “players” my age have also steadily improved (they were all abysmally, embarrassingly, low when I began).  Whether any of this has led or will lead to improvements in my intelligence and mental abilities, the jury is still most definitely out.  I’m not any more skilled at remembering where I’ve left my keys; every day, I purposefully walk into some room or other and realize that I have no idea why I’m there.  I can’t remember the story lines of movies I saw a year ago or books I read last winter.  But when Maria and James and Elizabeth appear at my lunch counter in the game of “Familiar Faces,” I remember all of them, and I usually get their lunch orders right.

Coming soon…

Part Two: “We’re Going to Ride Out of Here Together.”

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