Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Brain Improvement Program Gets Amnesia

The brain improvement game I've been testing has suddenly lost its memory! This is like finding out your personal trainer eats Twinkies for breakfast. All records of my daily efforts are gone. The "Body and Brain Connection" Kinect game has amnesia.

Here's what happened: Every day for three weeks I've been using "Body and Brain Connection" game on Kinect and writing about it in this blog. The other day, I signed in to the brain-age game and it welcomed me as a "new player". New player? Hey, I've been using this thing daily for 3 weeks! I signed out, restarted and signed in again. Same thing.

My brain went into troubleshooting mode. There had been an overnight power outage in our neighborhood, though the X-Box and Kinect machines were switched off and connected to power surge protectors. And no other Kinect games were suffering from amnesia. Oddly, when I entered the stats area of the brain-age game it had no record of my prior efforts, but the game did retain records for two visitors who played the game briefly weeks ago. No joy. No justice.

Further checking found the X-Box's date had reset to 2005, probably a result of the power outage. I set it right. Since the brain-age game maintains a calendar of player's use and periodic test scores, I can see how having the date rollback might mix it up. Yet it did retain results for the two other players, but not me. (Maybe I cursed the dancing lightbulb guy on the loading screen once too often and this is his revenge.)

So, it's back to neuron one for this old brain. As a new player, the game made me take a baseline test. I scored 45. Better than my first baseline score of 57. I guess that's my consolation prize.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Week 2 Shrinks My Brain Age to 43

My brain age test after two weeks of daily brain games using Kinects is 43 -- down from 54 last week and 57 when I began using the "Brain and Body Connection" game.

Will this astounding improvement go to my head? I think not, for these three reasons:

1. When I did my first two runs through the brain age assessment test, I had zero experience with the game/exercises used for the test. I felt my performance was pretty bad. In fact, I commented on this in last week's article. Well, I stand corrected. I thought the game did not use the same games in the test as it does in daily training, but it does. It was just a matter of time before I had played enough brain games to start seeing the repetition. (There are 20 different brain games in the program, each with 3 levels of difficulty in each.)

This week, each of the three challenges in the brain age assessment were ones I'd played in daily training, so naturally I did better. No surprise, then, that my score improved.

2. No sooner than I dropped 11 unsightly years from my brain age, than I began my daily 20-30 minutes of training and the game served up a new game -- shape matching -- that left me completely stumped. I mean stumped to the point that I just stared at the screen with a look of total stupefaction unable to figure out what I'm supposed to do. Which bring me to the third reason that doing well in this game will never go to my head.

3. "Brain and Body Connection" takes pictures of you when you don't know it, then uses those pictures in the infographics it displays to show your progress. (Remember, Kinect games are based on a camera technology that is always watching you, so it can easily save snapshots at any moment. And it does.) It would be nice to get a little warning. But, no. This game has a knack for catching me at the worst angles in the worst light at the worst moments. There's one picture of me where I look like I'm emerging from a dark alley intent on breaking the legs of the dancing lightbulb character in the game. But that picture is downright flattering compared to the picture of me with a look of stupefaction as I try to understand the shape matching game.

It's funny about the pictures, because Kinect allows you to setup avatars and the "Brain and Body Connection" game uses your avatar within the various games and exercises. So why doesn't it use your avatar on the infographics instead of these awful and unexpected snapshots? If this game goes to version 2, I'd strongly suggest they drop the snapshots in favor of the avatar, or add a lot more control for the user over the images.

Anyway, one day after I achieved brain stupefaction, I played the matching shape brain game again. This time I read the directions twice and watch the tutorial until I had an "aha" moment. Once I knew how to operate the interface, I scored a "B" on my first attempt.

This illustrates the problem with the "brain age" calculation that is the heart of this game. Your numbers for any given test are likely to be skewed by what you don't understand about the game or Kinect, and not necessary on your wits or reflexes. If you could stick with the game for a month or spend more than the 20-30 minutes per day I'm doing, then maybe the brain age results would level out. But my own astounding improvement in brain age is really just me catching on to the game rather than proof that little effort could yield big results.

I do feel a bit sharper in some things, and I like the mix of mental and physical activity that comes with Kinect-based games like "Brain and Body Connection". But the same day I racked up an 11-year improvement in my brain age I also wandered all over the house looking for my car keys. Just like old times for this brain.


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Results for Week 1 of Brain Game Use

Week One is done and, according to "Brain and Body Connection", my brain age is three years younger! A week ago, I was 57. Today, it's 54. I feel like I'm in one of those cheesy testimonial ads: "I lost 3 years in 1 week!"

[Quick summary if you just joined us. I'm reporting my weekly progress with a Kinect's game that aims to help you improve your "brain age" through a series of game-like mental challenges.]

I did stick with using the program daily for about 20-30 minutes per day. And on those days the various mental challenge games had me feeling plenty stupid. In particular, the pizza catching game which challenges both memory and dexterity was humbling.

When I took the brain age test after one week, I found I was still flubbing up how to do the test. (Imagine you've never heard of multiple choice before. That's how I felt.) Yet I managed to come out of it with a brain age rating of 54.

Am I actually smarter after just one week? That's hard to believe, no matter what the game says. The one part of my brain that is still strong is the skeptical side. So I'll continue to work at the game, but to look for proof of improvement in real life and not just according to the game's feedback.

When the program tests you, the test activities are not the same games as the game/exercises you play through the week. And I am a person who really needs a dry run at something to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. But the brain age test doesn't give you that opportunity. It just throws you in the deep end. So I really was surprised to see an improved score.

There is good variety in the regular games, and each game has multiple levels of difficulty. The games fall into the categories of math, logic, reflexes and memory. You can play free-form and just choose some games, but mainly I've been sticking with the recommended exercises that the game presents each day. Supposedly, the program is built on the expertise of Ryuta Kawashima, MD, an "expert on the science of brain imaging." So I'm sticking mainly to the games/exercises the doc prescribes for now.

There's an animated version of the doctor in the game, and he offers verbal feedback. However, it's not very useful. For instance, after I had a pathetic score at the pizza catching/memory game, the doc advised me: "focus on working harder". Well, duh. But, hey, I quickly learned to ignore the doctor's advice -- just like real life!

So, here's a taste of what week-one games were like:
* Each exercise/game is timed and you get a score for your efforts at the end. I haven't had this many "F"s since, well, ever. Even when you perform accurately, the program may penalize you if you aren't quick about it. A game that starts out "easy" can get challenging real quick.
* Playing the games involves taking physical actions in front of the Kinects camera. These aren't difficult, but it does make you aware of the lag time between thinking of an answer and acting on it. You also learn to keep your reflexes in check as that can lead to wrong answers.
* The pizza catching/memory game that made me feel like an idiot early in the week is now one I'm really good at. So while I'm not convinced I've really rolled back the clock on my brain a whole three years in one week, I do feel ready to work at the end of a frozen pizza assembly line. I've got skills!

Check back next week and we'll see what new challenges the program can throw my way.