A recent article in the New York Times by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, “Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone is Wrong,” argues that memory difficulties are quite common and do not indicate the onset of dementia or that age alone causes memory loss. Instead, he suggests that memory struggles common to aging adults are primarily a result of generalized cognitive slowing, the tendency to process information more slowly as we age. But what if you do not need to become slower and more forgetful as you age and were able to use technology and brain training techniques to build and maintain your brain? Maybe we should all be looking to Tom Brady to learn about the technology he has been using to maintain and improve his working memory and processing speed skills. But can we use technology directly to train our brains to think faster and help our bodies move more quickly?
Let's use the example of one of the best football players of all time, Tom Brady. For those who do not follow football, Tom Brady was the quarterback of the six-time Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots and, as of this posting, was about to sign a $30,000,000-per-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady was still playing effectively last season at age 42, while most players retire by their early 30’s. Much of his success is attributed to his healthy habits, focus on flexibility, and his youthful look (rumors on sports radio suggest that he dyes his hair). Sure, Brady has had a strong arm, a great coach, and, until this past season, a Hall of Fame tight end (the fans miss you, Gronk!) but perhaps the most important part of his success over the past few years has been his ability to process information quickly and move more efficiently. He can look at an opposing defense and speedily and skillfully decide what they are doing and how he can best attack it.
Brady’s decision-making relies on three major components: instant recognition of a situation, quick mental processing of what he has seen, and an efficient response. This type of quarterbacking relies on strong working-memory skills to recognize what he observed in his past experiences and film study, as well as fast cognitive processing — the opposite of what Levitin reports happens to most adults. Sure, many football fans admire Tom Brady, but what does all this have to do with memory, slow processing speed, and technology? Rumor has it that Brady is on the forefront of using video game-like technology to enhance his working memory and processing-speed skills. Beyond rumor is the research indicating that this technology, which is still in its infancy, may change the face of aging.
Many studies suggest that video games and other technologies offer promise in improving processing speed and memory skills. One reason these tools have become so popular is that they are fun, engaging, and sometimes a bit addictive. However, there have been criticisms of technologies promoted as cures for aging, memory, and cognitive decline. While hundreds of renowned researchers view brain training technologies as a useful tool for improving these skills, others see them as falling far short. The naysayers recognize that brain training may improve the specific skills being trained but find little evidence that the trained skills can be applied to other real-world settings. This is the definition of what psychologists call generalization, the ability to transfer an action learned in one setting to a different setting, so that individuals are fully able to use the skills they have learned in one environment in other settings, with other people, and with different materials. Most of the research has not built in effective generalization strategies — often as a result of research designs overly concerned with maintaining a single independent variable. When generalization strategies are included, we see many more reasons to use these brain-training techniques.
Some of the more compelling work designed to improve processing speed has been conducted by the same team that provided one part of Brady’s brain training, Posit Science. Their research suggests that older individuals doing speed of processing training were able to double the speed at which they could accurately process visual information and improve the speed of processing auditory information. In this case, the studies show some generalization, as adults reported they could follow fast-moving conversations better and demonstrated improvement in driving skills. There are also dozens of studies indicating that playing action video games can improve the speed of processing visual information and other cognitive skills.
So can brain training be a tool for maintaining or even improving our memories and counteract the process of cognitive slowing? The best data find that it can be helpful in normal adults, although not necessarily in those who have a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment. Given that we are just beginning to develop these programs and will soon be better able to target them directly to individual needs, if it’s fun and engaging, do it. Should it be the only thing you do? No. There are far more data to support regular exercise, social engagement and conversation, lifelong learning, a healthy diet and sleep, and a variety of other factors that can help us maintain as much as we can. And some of these — exercise in particular — may be more powerful than any brain training you might choose to do. But adding brain-training technologies that are engaging to you can be a good way to help maintain and improve memory and processing-speed skills. If you are intent on making brain training a tool to improve your memory and processing speed, I also encourage you to read about the science of generalization strategies that should accompany brain training.
Are you still going to slow down, become more forgetful, and show other signs of cognitive slowing as you age? Yes, if you are lucky to live long enough. But there is increasing evidence that you can do something to slow it down and maybe have some fun along the way.