The Brain Age Daily Grind, Day Seven

How's the mind of our test subject shaping up after a week of brain training? He's writing this article somewhat coherently, so at least he's not regressing.

Last week, I took an exploratory look at Brain Age, the new DS-game-cum-mind-sharpener from Nintendo and Touhoku University professor Ryuuta Kawashima that purports to "activate your prefrontal cortex" with a host of quick mental exercises. The idea here is that an active brain is a quick and healthy brain, and through repetition of Brain Age's simple, varied mental minigames, you'll gain a cumulative benefit to your cognitive abilities. But have I? It's been a week now, and I've started to see a little more of what this unique game has to offer, but the results so far are difficult to interpret.

The minigames seem to get harder as you progress--some of them are downright humbling.

As I mentioned last time, you can't play Brain Age like you would a typical game, accessing all of its content simply by excelling at the games currently on offer. You do unlock more activities by playing the ones available from the outset, but you can't open up the whole game in one day just by playing nonstop and mastering each one. Instead, the game doles out new minigames on a daily basis depending on your performance, so I'm just now starting to get into some of the more complex--and definitely more insidious--exercises.

One of these feeds you a sequence of well-known idioms and challenges you to count the syllables and write down the number. Sounds easy, right? Maybe if you're reading out loud and counting syllables on your finger. But playing that one accurately in the short amount of time the game demands is a lot harder than you'd think. Then there's head count, which shows you a number of little people and then sticks them inside a house. People go in, people come out, and at the end you have to write down how many people are left. Easy enough at first, but holy smokes, does it ever get fast by the final couple of rounds--so fast that I can't realistically count how many people are whizzing in and out. In fact, I've only managed to get two right out of five so far, so you could definitely say the subsequent games that are unlocked are harder than the initial ones.

I'm still kind of hot-and-cold on the game's handwriting recognition. On the one hand, it does a pretty good job of picking up your numbers, since it never actually requires you to calibrate the system against your own handwriting. But then again, I'm still seeing some of my scores negatively impacted when I miss problems because the game thinks a 9 is a 0, or something similar. The best solution I've found so far is to just, well, write really big. It seems to always get that.

The minigames themselves don't change much from day to day, but Brain Age loves to throw a curveball at you once in a while when you're not paying attention. Often when firing up the game for the first time on a new day, it'll hit you with a quick, seemingly random question before you get into the training proper. For instance, last Wednesday it asked me what I'd had for dinner the night before. I wrote in the answer, a little puzzled, and got to playing. This morning, Kawashima comes yapping at me, "Hey! What'd you have for dinner on March 28th?" I couldn't remember for the life of me, so I wrote in "chicken." Wrong. Apparently I'd had soup.

Is my mind sharper, or am I just getting better at playing Brain Age?

And if you're playing on a cart with more than one save file, the game will periodically ask you to draw three things (koala, kangaroo, and Australia, for instance) and then compare your drawings against those of the other person(s) playing on your cart. I haven't found that these extra little challenges impact your overall ratings in any way, but they've definitely kept me on my toes a little more. Primarily, I'd guess these serve to get your mind warmed up for the core exercises.

Anyway, so how do you know if you're actually improving with continued playtime? You can watch your scores on a daily basis--mine have been steadily improving in the simple-calculation, reading, and syllable-counting games. But is Brain Age actually sharpening my mind, or am I just learning how to play these minigames more efficiently? Conversely, I haven't gotten any better at the memory and counting games--I've barely maintained the status quo, in fact--which would lend credence to the latter theory. At any rate, further investigation is required, and for that, you'll have to wait till the next installment. Stay tuned.

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