Head games: Give brains a workout to improve learning

Advocate staff photo illustration by HEATHER MCCLELLAND --  Photo illustration for brain teasers Show caption
Advocate staff photo illustration by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Photo illustration for brain teasers

Head games

It starts with a straightforward task.

Matt McGowan, 7, is asked to recite a list of American presidents during an afternoon session at Baton Rouge’s LearningRX “brain training center,” while Joey Wooldridge, 15, is told to spell each word in a six-word sentence.

Then the metronome kicks in, and both students have to complete their objectives in four-four time, the beat of most pop songs.

On top of that, Wooldridge has to spell all six words while tossing a bean bag to his teacher every other beat.

“It’s kind of easy for me,” Wooldridge says with a smile.“But it’s tricky.”

Proponents of these exercises, which aim to improve the students’ attention levels, also say they may raise participants’ IQs by 15 points.

“We’re trying to get the ground ready and prepared so they can plant the seeds — go sit in the classroom and learn,” says Amy Marcus, owner of the local LearningRX.

From elementary school students to working adults and senior citizens, many Americans are trying to improve their brains’ ability to learn. Rather than just hire tutors to excel in one subject area, they are trying to maximize their brain power through classes, like those LearningRX provides, or through daily computer and smartphone games via websites like Lumosity or Posit Science.

Using Lumosity on his iPhone has become a part of New Orleans comedian and improvisational comedy performer Chris Trew’s workday. After writing for a few minutes, he spends 20 to 30 minutes on brain stretchers like Word Bubbles, which asks him to think of as many words as possible that start with the same two or three letters, or Memory Matrix, a challenge that forces him to remember patterns that pop up across the screen of his smartphone or computer.

“What we’re doing when we’re doing the best improv comedy is pattern recognition, and I think it helps me stay super sharp while on stage,” says Trew, 32, who runs an improv theater called The New Movement. “Some of the best moments in an improv show is when you’re able to tie things together, and that’s a vital part of my improv style.”

Trew began using Lumosity three years ago to kill time waiting on planes or streetcars. Then he began to recognize its benefits. Whether scientific studies find it actually increases brain power doesn’t matter to him.

“I believe it keeps you sharp,” Trew says. “I’m pretty sure I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life, and it’s nice to be in school for 30 minutes a day just working on stuff.”

Lumosity can be used for free, but memberships cost from $69 to $167 a year, depending on the billing plan. LearningRX costs differ for each client, but the national average is about $7,000 a year, Marcus said.

Some psychologists are skeptical brain training can actually improve intelligence over the long term. One study by a Virginia State University professor found “significant development” in the cognitive skills of randomly selected students in an East Texas high school who used LearningRX. They improved in areas involving memory and word analysis.

Joey Wooldridge’s mother, Kyle Wooldridge, brought him to the Baton Rouge Learning RX after his grades dropped in eighth grade. Even with attention-aiding medication, his memory worsened. After a month in brain training, she has seen his confidence improve.

“He’s saying ‘I can go into this knowing I can do it. It’s not going to be on the medicine. It’s me,’” she says.

Each week Joey Wooldridge spends three hours at the LearningRX center on Siegen Lane and practices at home for three hours. The tasks ramp up from confidence-building exercises to more difficult, boundary-expanding tests.

“We want them to feel challenged and successful at the same time,” says Marcus, a former school teacher from Ruston who also owns a center in Monroe

The Wooldridges hope to see improved grades in Joey Wooldridge’s first semester in high school. For now they are happy with his improved confidence and attentiveness.

“I’ve been better at home,” Joey Wooldridge says. “I’m listening to what my mom says more.”