For those of you crossword puzzle junkies out there… those of you who love your daily JUMBLE in the newspaper… those who spend big bucks on computerized brain games like Luminosity… I commend your commitment to brain health, although the research is lacking that the benefits of any of those activities actually carries over into real life.
The problem with brain games is that we tend to do them with our bodies at rest, and all brain power is directed squarely at a single task. All attention is focused on the cognitive processes associated with solving a thought-based problem. Sustained attention is important for tasks like creating lists and filling out forms- and for doing crossword puzzles and reading a newspaper article. Selective attention challenges us to do those tasks under distracting conditions, and filter out other stimuli in order to complete the task. These types of attention are great for getting your taxes done, but only a small part of the cognitive demands of real life.
Most of our daily tasks require continuous, simultaneous cognitive processing of information while moving through the environment. Our brains need to engage visuospatial functions and suspend information in our working memories just to complete the most basic tasks.
Let’s say, for example, that you are making a meal following a written recipe. You look at the recipe card, and take note of three things that you need to retrieve from around the kitchen. On your way to the cabinet, you notice the dog is lying on the floor and you need to navigate around him. You place your hand on the counter as you lift your leg to step over the dog and notice the countertop is sticky. You pull back your hand from the sticky surface, turn your head to look at the sticky spot, and wipe your hand on your apron as you finish stepping over the dog and reach for the cabinet door. You are now thinking that you need to wipe up that spot with a wet paper towel, and for a moment you consider changing direction and doing that job before proceeding to the cabinet. In a split second you decide to continue with your mission to retrieve the item from the cabinet and mentally note to wipe the counter after you complete this task. You fuss at the dog as you pull open the cabinet door, still wiping your hand, and try to recall the three things you need for the recipe. This requires far more brain power than a crossword puzzle.
Dual task training is a sensory-motor approach to brain exercise. Cognitive functions that are easily completed with the body at rest can be slowed when the body is in motion. Same holds true for the body in motion being slowed by the demands of a cognitive task. This is because the brain is forced to alternate and divide attention between multiple functions, and suspend thought processes in working memory to process all the information needed to carry out the task. Here is an example:
- Walk across the room, turn around, and walk back. (motor task)
- While standing still, count backwards from 100 by 3. (cognitive task)
- Walk across the room, turn around, and walk back while counting backwards from 100 by 3. (dual task).
The dual task activity requires far more brain power than either the motor or cognitive task alone. Chances are that the dual task requirement will result in a slower walking speed and a slower counting speed. The good news is that practice can improve dual task performance, which is indicative of improved attention and cognitive processing skills. And this has far more meaningful real life application than sedentary brain games.
A few more examples of dual task training:
- Stand on one foot while singing the national anthem.
- Starting with the letter A, think of a girl’s name for every letter in the alphabet while side-stepping along the kitchen counter.
- Recall every phone number you know while alternating foot taps on a step.
- Learn dance steps.
- Ride a bike.
*Safety Warning: Combining cognitive and attention tasks can compromise balance and safety. Be sure that each task can be performed independently before combining activities, and have someone nearby for assistance if balance is a concern.