Trounced by a brain-training octogenarian

Nintendo DS

Brain training exercises have their critics - a BBC study in 2009 suggested they were no better for you than surfing the internet. But others still swear by them and Adam Shaw found himself humiliated by one elderly fan on a recent visit to Japan.

In Sendai, the largest city in the Tohoku region in Japan, there are a million people going about their daily lives. One of them, Endo Tokiko, who won't mind me revealing she is in her 80s, is almost certainly telling everyone around her how she defeated, conquered, trounced and thoroughly overwhelmed an Englishman half her age.

What's more, she will no doubt explain how she did it with ease, while the short bald Englishman from the BBC sweated with effort. More of which later.

I was in Sendai to meet Dr Ryuta Kawashima. He is a Japanese neuroscientist whose work involves mapping the regions of the brain which control emotion, language, memorisation, and cognition.

He is well known in academic circles. More unusually, he also has a fan club of millions of adults and children who know him as the animated professor figure in the Brain Game created by the computer company Nintendo.

His widespread fame started with the publication of his book - Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain. It sold more than two-and-a-half million copies, led to a series of other books and piqued the interest of Nintendo, which turned his programme into a game, which itself sold 19 million copies.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ryuta Kawashima

Based at Tohoku University's Smart Ageing Centre, he now works with groups of elderly people to see how to keep their brains active for longer.

Kawashima believes that brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to change, not only exists in young people but it can even exist in the brains of dementia sufferers. One of his concerns is that as we increasingly rely on computers, our brains get lazy. The modern world, in other words, is making our brains duller.

Although there is some scepticism among other professionals in this area, his work is not only popular, it could be helpful - not just for dementia sufferers, but for us all.

He thinks that some simple exercises, repeated often, can help reverse some of the ageing process of some brain functions. Doing simple additions and subtractions doesn't just make us better at maths, he says, it also helps us remember names, where we put our car keys and will help our brains to become generally more expert at everything we ask them to do.

Three times a week, a group of the older Sendai residents make their way to Kawashima's brain gym to give their mental facilities a tightly monitored workout. And the other day I joined them.

Wearing a brain monitor I was to go up against Kawashima's star pupil. Endo Tokiko sat next to me. She was composed, self-possessed, unruffled, unmoved and unemotional. She also stared ahead unsmiling and uncommunicative.

Kawashima then said, "You may turn over your paper and begin" - a phrase I had not heard for many years. I rushed through the first 10 questions, quietly confident that this was so much faster than I'd expected, I was going to be an easy winner.

I therefore almost missed Ms Tokiko turning her second page - I didn't want to look across at her as it would slow me down but I couldn't imagine she had finished one page already. I finished the first section and risked glancing across at my opponent who was now rushing towards the end as I had barely finished the first half.

With an almost imperceptible smile, she placed her pencil down and looked at Kawashima - no words were needed but Kawashima shouted them anyway. Tokiko had won.

I genuinely could not believe I had been so roundly trounced.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Scan showing brain activity while reading aloud.

What's more, an analysis of our brain patterns during the exercise revealed something even more shocking. While I had used all my mental guns, lighting up the brain monitor like a firework display, Tokiko's brain monitor showed she was only using a very small part of her faculties. In other words, Kawashima explained to me - not only had I been beaten badly but my opponent had done it with one arm tied behind her back. She had used only a fraction of her brain power, while I had brought everything I had to the game.

This fantastic performance, he said, was the result of 15 minutes of brain training per day. I have just had to look up the name of my opponent, but she no doubt remembers mine to this very day - and that may also be a sign of which one of us is regularly doing our little brain-training exercises.

Adam Shaw finds out how technology might change the way we live in Horizons on BBC World News. Readers in the UK cancatch up here, or if you're in another country click here. His report from Sendai will be broadcast on 23 and 24 May.

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