A 6-year younger brain

I’ve recently engaged in a battle with myself, namely my younger self. More namely, a 6-year younger brain.

Back in 2013 I subscribed to an online service called “Lumosity.” Lumosity presents a set of games that are tailored towards different aspects of the mind – they’re games to help keep you sharp.

I remember starting every morning with these games back then. They would zoom in on different abilities of the brain, like isolating different muscles in a workout (or so I am told). One exercise will challenge the speed of your processing, another your logical reasoning.

I was on top of my game, back in 2013. Too much on top, actually. I plateaued in my scores and blamed it on the developers, that I had reached the maximum that their games would allow. I stopped playing.

But last month, in the beginning of 2019, I started to notice I was more foggy in the head than I would like to be. I had dulled, in some aspects. I decided to do something about it and pick up Lumosity again. What was interesting about starting again, is all my old scores were still saved. Boy, was I under-performing! This added an unexpected challenger – my younger self. I was motivated to beat those 2013 scores. It proved an uphill climb though, inch-worming my way towards them in most cases. That is, besides one high score, that took place today.

I just leapfrogged a high score I achieved 6 years ago.

The game focuses on logical reasoning – essentially: “how good can your mind act like a computer?” Now I’m not saying that the last 6 years made me instantly better at this game. This morning when I played the game I was still doing worse than my 2013 high score. I was hitting ~1200 pts when the high scores were 2 instances of ~1400 pts. An interesting thing is, those 2 high scores are about 4 months apart. I think I even remember them happening. They were as much showing my ability as they were “flukes”, probably including a couple lucky choices.

I played this game this morning, frustrated that I was still behind in the scores. “You know,” I said to myself, “if I knew how to do image recognition in programming – I could create a program that would be perfect at this game.” It was testing your mind’s ability to act like a computer, after all.

I daydreamed for a moment, imagining the game playing over and over again as fast as a my program could make decisions, flooding my profile with the maximum score. I wouldn’t do that of course, that would be cheating myself, but it was a fun idea.

Then it hit me. The best way I could excel at this game was to write the code, but write it for me. I knew the rules of the game, but I hadn’t translated it into a set of repeatable rules. Let alone a set of optimized repeatable rules. Turns out my 6-year older brain did have a leg up – I’d since taken Harvard’s CS50 class, an introduction to computer science. And I’d been keeping up with it too, focusing on robotics controls. I actually knew how to write this logic.

I loaded up the game again, but this time I sat focusing on the variables of the game in front of me. A card would be presented with 6 variables, with one of those variables pertaining to a certain rule. That rule was hidden. For example, if the rule was “circle” then you needed to say “yes” to all card with a circle and “no” to all cards without one. Get 6 cards correct in a row, and you are rewards for the rule (the only way you get points) and continue to a new rule.

“How am I going to organize this information?” I asked myself. I’ve recently been on a kick of information hierarchy, applying it to my finances. Fortunately, this game was simple enough that none of the information was dependent on each other. I just needed to create an array I would stay consistent to.

Ok, now that the information could be sorted, how would I store it? This would all have to go in working memory, and I’ve only got about 8 slots for that. To remember 2 cards completely, that’s 12 slots. That probably wasn’t going to work, but I tried it anyways.

It didn’t work.

I tried to visualize an excel sheet on a blank part of the screen, assigning single letters as variables for the different attributes of the card. I quickly decided that 3 of the 6 variables would be better to store as a screenshot in my mind than actual letters. These were highly visual, being the shape on the card, the color, and what kind of fill it had (solid, gradient, or empty). Those 3 variables I could hold as a snapshot in my mind and come back to, when I needed to discern the rule. The other 3 variables, though, I needed to store as letters. That being what kind of outline the card had, what kind of background, and how many of the shape there was. Each of these variables had 3 possibilities.

So I began again. I focused on storing the 3 first variables as letters and taking mental screenshots of the visual parts. I got 3 cards deep, I got 3 rows in the mental excel sheet before I was focusing all my mental ability on memory. There wasn’t much left for processing. I was on the right track, but I needed a different approach.

I decided to abandon the mental excel sheet and rely solely on visual memory. However, there was a twist. I would say aloud the first three variables to myself in a standard set of terms (ex: dashed, angled, three) and then commit that playback to memory. Essentially, I chunked 3 pieces of information into 1 using the sense of sound. I had chunked another 3 pieces of information in 1 using the sense of sight. Now I was able to remember all the details of a 6 variable card with only two slots of my working memory. That was something I could work with.

I was now able to hold about the last 3 cards in my memory while still allowing mental energies to go to processing. For example, I still had to make decisions about the cards I was remembering in order to deduce the hidden rule.

The result? The first time of using this new tactic, I increased my score from the days ~1100-1200 past the 6-year old 1400 to achieve a score of over 1600.

So what’s the point?

The point is “take that younger Alex!”

But less spitefully and more usefully I think this highlights two critical aspects of mental performance. Two aspects you can pursue and apply in whatever way your life best sees fit.

The first is understanding the mechanics of memory. I first began to learn this with a self study I underwent back in about 2015. I understood not only how the brain takes in new pieces of information (a critical aspect as I tried to weigh the multiple variables of the game) but I know my own mind. I’ve tested it. I know what it is at its best (27 slots, and that only happened once and took everything I had) and I know what it is at its worst (1, while having a migraine). I could see that in my present form this morning I had about 8 to work with.

Knowing that, I didn’t get frustrated at myself when I couldn’t remember all the variables as numbers. It was unreasonable to think I could! I instead knew my limitations and worked creatively to overcome them.

The second critical aspect is logic, best exemplified by the skills of programming. In my limited programming experience and in talking with more experienced programmers, it seems that this skill is 80% logical reasoning, 10% experience and knowledge of libraries, and 10% knowing how to ask good questions to our ethereal overlord Google.

From taking CS50 and getting over the hurdle to actually begin practicing programming, I was better able to create and apply logical constructs. Not only that, but I was better able to store the information as well.

Today was a victory not of this game, but a tangible example for myself that these two aspects of understanding the mechanism of memory in the brain and understanding logical reasoning through computer programming do apply to each other. As a scientist, that makes me happy. As a statistician… well, I wanted to see if I could do it again.

*high score everytime montage*

I actually couldn’t beat the score again.

I was actually playing worse than I had this morning. Do I think the max high score was a fluke? No, I think it’s just about lunchtime and I haven’t eaten today. I’m probably not as agile as I was even a couple hours ago when I achieved it. I’ll see how I do tomorrow. Again, half of this battle is about knowing your own capabilities.

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