Resolve to exercise your brain with Lumosity

We're on the cusp of a new year and you know what that means: New Year's Resolutions! Maybe your resolution will be to eat better or to get more exercise. A healthy body means a healthy mind, or so they say. But what about a resolution to give your brain more exercise?

That's my New Year's Resolution. It's a frightening thing when you get to be my age and you start to notice, particularly when you're around younger people, that the old synapses aren't firing quite as quickly as they used to. It isn't that I don't know the question to go along with that Jeopardy answer; it's just that I can't blurt it out as fast as the youngsters. It takes several tenths of a second longer than it did a decade or two ago.

In order to give my brain a daily workout I'm going to use Lumosity and I'm cheating a bit since I started early. I've been using the service for a few weeks now. [Disclaimer: Lumosity provided me with a complimentary six month membership so that I could test the service.]

Lumosity's claim is that it can improve your intelligence "by challenging cognitive faculties using novel and engaging exercises in which the difficulty level constantly adapts to each person's individual development." There's a whole section of the site devoted to the science behind the program.

But does it really work? Am I smarter now than I was when I began the program? Honestly, I don't know. Had I been smarter (ha!) I would've taken an IQ test or established some other benchmark before starting the program so that I could quantify any improvements to my intelligence. In any case I don't think I've used the program for long enough to be a good test (the first "Basic Training" course is 40 days long and what with missing days due to holiday madness I'm not quite half-way through it) but I'm willing to give the program the benefit of the doubt.

That said, I'm finding the service to be extremely valuable and kind of fun, so I'll definitely keep at it. The fun part is easy to explain: every day you're given a program of several puzzles or games to complete and you get a score. So there's the fun of trying to beat your high scores and the fun of accumulating points by doing well. There's that whole gamification thing that everyone is always talking about these days. Level-up your brain!

Some of the games are more "gamey" than others. One I really enjoy is Bird Hunt. When you play this one, your browser expands to fill the entire screen. Dead center is an empty square but the rest of the screen will show a wilderness scene. Suddenly a letter will flash in that empty square at the same time that a bird flashes somewhere on the screen. You have to click on where the bird was and assuming you do, you'll be asked what letter you saw. If you get that right too that letter appears in a series of Wheel of Fortune-style blanks. Then the cycle repeats. When all the letters are filled in they'll spell out the name of a type of bird. You can guess what the bird is at any time; the earlier you guess, the more birds you'll potentially identify (you have a set number of tries). It's both fun and challenging since the better you do, the farther away from the center of the screen the bird will be, so you have to kind of scan your entire screen to see and remember both bird and location.

Other games are much simpler on the surface. There's one that flashes the names of two colors side by side. The words themselves will be displayed in various colors and you have to determine if the word on the left describes the color of the ink on the right. So "Red Black" is a match but "Blue Red" isn't. You're scored on how many of these determinations you can make in a finite amount of time. The faster you go, the harder it gets!

So the games are fun, but how is Lumosity valuable to me? It causes me to take time for introspection. Let me explain that. If on a given day I do really poorly at one of the games, it often causes me to wonder why. I'll think back and realize that maybe staying up until 2 am isn't the best way to be sharp the next day. Or that it's been a few days since I took the dog for a good long romp to clear my head, or that I've been really stressed due to some project I've been avoiding. You don't need a computer program to tell you that fatigue, lethargy and stress aren't conducive to cognitive excellence, but when you have that lousy score staring in your face it causes you to stop and think about how well you've been taking care of yourself. I personally find this 'side-effect' of the brain training to make the program worth sticking with. Any intelligence increases are just gravy.

Lumosity costs $14.95/month billed monthly, $6.70/month if you pre-pay for a year and $4.99/month if you pre-pay for two years. There's a 30 day money-back guarantee on the annual plans. There's also a $299.95 Lifetime membership. Alternatively you might be interested in a family plan that starts at $24.99/month for up to 5 individuals and drops to $8.33/month if you pre-pay for two years.

The nice thing about the family plans is that it kicks-starts the social aspects of Lumosity. If you have friends using the service you can see what others have been doing and motivate each other; as with just about any self-improvement program it's always better and easier if you have friends to support you. My solution was to give my girlfriend a gift subscription to the service as a Christmas gift. Now I just have to make sure my high scores are better than hers. (Scores are actually private but knowing us we'll be bragging to each other!)

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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