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Powers of Concentration: Workouts for Your Brain

Computer programs for brain fitness can improve your memory and sharpness by stimulating the brain through problem solving and sensory processing.

When presented with my idea for exercising his brain, my dad balked. "My brain is already exercised to its capacity," he e-mailed me, "as one of a unique group of patriotic writers spending all their time and money to try to motivate their fellow citizens." But then I bought him a computer upgrade and promised to buy myself the complete works of his favorite free-market economist if he'd go along, and he agreed.

The program was easy for each of us to set up. I wore headphones and concentrated on the screen while cartoon doctors with calming voices prepared me for what was coming. Then the real work began; it was harder than I expected.

There were six exercises. One called High or Low played tones that rise or fall, and I had to describe what I heard by clicking on an "up" or "down" button. It got harder as the sounds became shorter and closer together. The Match It exercise is like the old game show Concentration, except the objective is to match sounds rather than images. During Tell Us Apart, an exercise in distinguishing similar syllables, I found it almost impossible to differentiate "shee" from "chee" and caught myself crankily blaming my hearing problems on the speaker.

Later I remembered something Henry Mahncke, a vice president at Posit Science, had told me: "As a person ages, it gets harder to process sensory input quickly. It's as if your brain is a radio that is getting rising levels of static. If you don't correct the tuning, you will understand less of what you see and hear."

So I bore down, and after a few more sessions something interesting happened. While walking home one evening, I realized I hadn't had a mid-afternoon slump. I'd stayed focused and productive the entire day. Maybe the hard work was paying off.

And my dad? At first blaming the six dogs he tends for his inability to concentrate, he wrote that the program "requires concentration that is too broken up here to provide unless the Lord provides help." And after I reported my improvement and inquired whether he, too, noticed anything, he replied, "I can speak Lithuanian now, and I'm slightly congested."

Despite the sarcasm, there was headway. At the end of each session, the computer sent our results to Posit Science for evaluation, and after our 40 sessions, my dad and I conferred with Mahncke by phone. "Tom made nice steady progress through the High or Low exercise," Mahncke said. "At the end, he was processing about 85 percent faster than he was at the beginning." He had also improved his ability to recall a story accurately and to follow a series of instructions.

Tom agreed that in fact he could feel a change. For one thing, he wasn't falling asleep as much. My mom confirmed that he had indeed gotten more energetic and talkative—although, she added, this was not necessarily a good thing. As for me, Mahncke said, my results were typical for people in their late 40s, who often find the material easier than older exercisers. (I didn't tell him about my cranky days.)

Clearly, the Brain Fitness Program had been good for my dad and for me. For one thing, we were talking more often, and he was telling me more about how he was feeling—which made me feel better.

Brad Edmondson is a vice president of, which profiles U.S. towns.

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