From the monthly archives:

July 2007

Brain Fitness Programs: My Top 3 Picks

by ToriDeaux on July 31, 2007

By now, you’ve probably heard of the various mind-games marketed as brain-building, memory-enhancing, reflex-retaining, age-defying wonders.   They’re all based on the neuroscientific discoveries that the even adult and aging brains can develop new neural pathways when challenged and exercised.

Suduko puzzles, crosswords, even jigsaw puzzles are being promoted as brain-building exercises.  Nintendo is one of the major players, with several brain game releases on their systems already huge hits in the US, and even bigger hits in Japan.  Any number of companies are climbing on the bandwagon, slapping “brain training” labels on their existing games.

But among the marketing ploys are some solid, science based programs that target very specific types of memory and cognitive skills.   I took the time to wander through some of them today, and decided to do mini reviews of 3 of them.  So here goes:

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The Brain Fitness Program from Posit Science uses six games focused on sounds to improve listening, processing and memory skills. The stress on auditory function seems well suited to the speech processing challenges many people have with age… not all of which are related to physical hearing loss.

The website is informative and convincing, the blog often updated with interesting neuroscience articles, and the demos were challenging.  I left the site with the feeling that I really needed this program; for some reason the auditory nature of the exercises really seemed key to me.

Sadly, with prices in the $400-600 range it’s too expensive for this bag-lady to spring for.  Still, I’m likely to mention it to members of my family who have difficulty with listening comprehension, though not necessarily hearing loss.  Check out  a flash videotour of the program, or test out 3 of the games to see if you click with the system.

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Lumosity I’ve already mentioned the folks at Lumosity a few times on MindTweaks,  and I admit to a bias towards them.  I just like the site, what can I say?  Still, they stack up well against the other offerings.

The major difference is that Lumosity is a subscription based program, played and hosted on their servers, rather than your PC.  This means you’ll need an internet connection in order to play, but it also means you can play from any location, and are not limited to one PC system.

The games here are more visual than the Posit Science exercises. They are more friendly and whimsical in feel, more “game” like, while Posit Science feels more clinical and research oriented, more of an “exercise” approach.  Both presentations are useful, so it’s just a matter of preference.

The Lumosity website is a friendly happy sort of place, the blog always makes me feel welcome, and.. oh yeah did I mention I was biased? Oops.  (Hey, at least I’m not an affiliate yet. That should count for something!  Ok, ok, they dont have their affiliate program up and running yet, or I would be an affiliate. You made your point.)

Price-wise, they’ve got Posit Science beat hands down. At $9.95 a month, or  $79.95 for a year, it’s more affordable, and far less intimidating to get started with.  You can get a peek at a few of the games by testing your “LumosIQ” Plus, there’s a free 2 week trial so you can check out the features.

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MindFit, by Sharper Brains, is another viable option.  The demos were challenging, but not too challenging.  (Ok, I’m lying. I’m having a bad-brain night, and the The Picasso demo threw me for a loop this go ’round!)

The *feel* of Mindfit falls somewhere between the Posit Science program, and Lumosity….  friendlier than PS, more clinical in feel than Lumosity.  The demo games are attractively designed and appealing, and seem to cover a broad range of cognitive skills.

The Mindfit program is intended to be practiced every day for 20 minutes, and it takes between 8 months to a year to complete the customized program the software creates for you.  At $139, the software is only good for one user, but they do offer a multi user discount.   You can check out their demo games here: Mindfit Demos.

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Honestly, I like what I know about all three programs.  Each has solid science behind them, each their own strengths, and each has a particular focus and appeal. Posit Science’s offering is the most expensive by far, but it’s also the most targeted of the three — and likely well worth it for people struggling with auditory comprehension and remembering verbal instructions.

I suggest you try the demos of all three, consider your budget, and go with the one which just seems more appealing to you.  Each of the programs requires a significant time investment, so it’s important that you feel comfortable with the program.

As you explore, remember that while science has shown that the adult brain can continue to change adapt and grow in response to challenges and new experiences, no studies I’m aware of have proven that any of these game systems will specifically prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s — the jury is still out on that one.

What we do know is that the brain *does* benefit from mental as well as physical exercises, and that programs like the ones above have been shown to improve cognitive function.   And no, you don’t need a dedicated program to train your mind, anymore than you need a gym membership and a personal trainer, to get into better physical shape…   But it helps!

Oh, and if you were one of the folks who signed up for the Lumosity beta program I posted on a while back? Good news. Check your Lumosity account.   The program has gone live – and beta testers are being offered a *very* significant discount.  Yay us!

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MindTweak: Use It or Lose It. Who knew that old cliche would turn out to be *so* literally true when it came to our minds?

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Free Books!! Announcing The MindTweaks Comment Contest

by ToriDeaux on July 30, 2007

My BookShelf Makeover has turned up a significant number of tomes in need of 766540_closed_books_2new homes.

Meanwhile, back on the blog, comments have tapered off.

I know, I know… it’s summer, and you all have lives, but I miss you, dangnabbit! Plus, the whole Reader Appreciation Project thing keeps spinning ’round in the back of my mind. I *am* appreciative, you know.

So I’ve been thinking…. Three Birds, One stone…

Then it hit me. No, not the stone, the solution.

We’ll have a Comment Contest!

Each week of August, I’ll wade through my thousands *cough* of comments and choose a winner. Some weeks the winner will be randomly pulled from a hat. Some weeks I may pick the most prolific, insightful, humorous commentor, or I may pick the person who started/carried on the best conversation.

“But what’s the prize,” you ask?

You didn’t really need to ask. It’s in the post title.

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Free Books!!

Yay.
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So here’s how it works:

  1. At the beginning of each contest week, I’ll list 10 books off of my shelf. And lemme tell you, I’ve got some pretty dang cool books to offer. (At least I think they’re cool!)
  2. During the week, you comment (leave a valid email address, please)
  3. At the end of the week, I’ll choose and notify the winner, at my own discretion. Unless otherwise noted, the winner will be a random commentor, though I reserve the right to name additional winners.
  4. The winner(s) get to pick one of the books.
    For Free.
    Including Domestic US postage costs.
    (International shipping is a bit pricey, but if you’re willing to cover the cost, I’ll be happy to see if we can work it out)

If the winner doesn’t want to take delivery on the book themselves (or doesn’t reply to my notification email) I’ll make sure the book gets “in the wild” to 766541_closed_books_3be found by someone else, ala BookCrossing.

At the end of each weekly contest, the remaining books will usually be placed for sale on Amazon, where you’ll have a second chance to pick up anything you really really wanted.

The contest isn’t active yet. I need to nail down the rules first and wanted to get your input first.

So what do you think? See any potential problems I’m missing? Have any suggestions? Just want me to get on with it so you can get your chance at a book?

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How To Judge An Expert: Soft or Hard-Boiled ?

by ToriDeaux on July 29, 2007

Expert opinions are traditionally priced at dime a dozen, but an internet-induced expert explosion has caused wolrd-wide rates to plummet. 697910_new_york_bagels_4Rumor has it that an entire internet expert (and not just his opinions) can now be bought for the price of a beer and a bagel.

(Personally speaking, I’d ignore an expert who drank beer with his bagels, but I am a Texas girl, and I don’t have much experience with bagels.

Texas girls do, however, receive considerable education on the topic of beer. In fact, we might be called experts on the subject, if you weren’t too particular about the meaning of the word “expert”, which brings us neatly out of this aside and back to our topic. Ahem.)

Neuroscience is booming, and the market is responding with a wealth of brain-training devices, games and methods, all endorsed by various experts.

But what makes an expert’s opinion expert? Do credentials matter, or does experience? How do you decide which expert to listen to? (After all, experts are notoriously contrary, and two rarely agree on a single opinion, especially where beer is involved. )

Scientific American Mind’s Yvonne Raley offers some good guidance in the June/July issue. Since I’m feeling a bit lazy today, I thought I’d borrow her bullet points, rather than starting from scratch.

Qualifying Hard-Core Experts _________________________

So What makes any old expert an expert worth listening to?

1. Relevant Expertise

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less.” – Nicholas Butler

Humorous on the surface, Butler’s comment is funny because it is true. An expert isn’t someone with great and broad life experience or even a lot of smarts — an expert has specific knowledge and experience in a narrow field.

No matter how smart a quantum physicist may be, he is not an expert in neuroscience. A well educated and respected theologian is not an expert in evolutionary biology. A celebrity bagel chef is not an expert in nutrition for aging elders.

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? But irrelevant appeals to authority are probably the most common misplaced claim to expert status.

2. Neutral/Impartial Approach

People (even really smart and otherwise ethical people) are not good at separating their opinions from their vested interests; we’re naturally biased creatures, and this affects our judgement. It doesn’t nullify an experts opinions, but it means they need to be looked at with more skepticism. For instance, an expert in hypnosis develops and markets their own hypnosis software system, their opinions on the effectiveness of hypnosis (and their particular methods) are no longer impartial. Investments can be financial or emotional, and again… they don’t invalidate expert opinion, but they do make them less reliable.

3. Bona Fides

A reliable expert will be officially and verifiably recognized in their field of knowledge; the claims have to stand up to a background check.

  • Experts should have a degree *in their specialty* from an accredited university. The more established and respected the school, the better, and if the university is known for a top flight program in that field, even better.
  • A qualified expert will usually have affiliations with *impartial* and recognized institutions and associations in their field – universities, research institutes, professional associations, etc…. with the emphasis on *impartial*. Many self-proclaimed experts fake or exagerate affiliations, others go so far as to start their own institutes and affiliations. The institute lends them credibility, they lend the institute credibility, and .. tada. Instant (questionable) expert.
  • Publication is another standard for assessing an expert’s credentials, but all published articles and lectures are not not created equal; peer-reviewed articles in scientific or professional journals are the most reliable indicators. The rules of quality, relevance and impartiality still apply. Having a website, blog, or even a book by a mainstream publisher and appearances increases public visibility, but doesn’t assure that the individual is knowledgable in their claimed area of expertise.

Life-Qualified “Soft” Experts
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But what about people who don’t meet those standards? Can’t they be experts in their own way? Do we have to value credentials over wisdom and life experience?

In the SciAm Mind article, Raley addresses these often sticky issues by designating experts as “hard” or “soft”.

A hard expert is someone who can clearly be evaluated by the criteria above: relevant education, respect from others in their feild, and so on.

A soft expert is someone with related knowledge or experience, but who may not be qualified to give professional advice on the subject. For instance, a minister, hospice nurse, or counselor might offer advice in a medical situation which involved moral choices or psychological stress; a decisions about a family member in a vegetative state, an unexpected pregnancy, an organ transplant, for example. The medical advice itself is outside of their qualified area of expertise, but they may still have good information they can add to the equation.

Judging a soft-expert isn’t all that different from judging a hard-expert. The same basic criteria apply, with a few changes.

1. Relevant *Experience*

With a soft expert, the relevancy of their experience is more likely to matter than their education or work-field. How similar is their experience to the situation we’re facing? Do they share our assumptions about moral, ethical, and religious views? How much similiar experience do they have, and how many others in related situations have they had contact with?

2. Open-Minded Approach

True neutrality is less likely in a soft expert, but it’s still important that they be somewhat open-minded. Is the person capable of setting aside their own often strong feelings, to support whatever conclusions you may come to? Do they have a powerful emotional investment in their own view that may override conflicting ideas or needs? Are they financially invested in the outcome of your decision? Are they part of a related political movement, more interested in converting you to their cause, than offering unbiased advice?

3. Check Their Story

Checking bona fides on a soft-expert is a bit tricky; they may quickly admit to not have any credentials or references. But if they’re published, is it by a reputable publishing house with high standards, or a a print-on-demand work, or something in between? Self-publishing no longer carries the stigma it once did, but it requires no peer review or fact checking, and there’s no well-heeled publisher to sue if the info turns out to be wrong or dangerous. The same goes of websites and blogs — are they part of a network of sites that holds its members to standards? If it’s a blog, or email list, do they allow and answer critical comments?

You can usually check on their affiliations and reputation fairly easily. Do they belong to organizations in their area of interest? Do others respect and follow their advice, on and offline?

At the least, make sure the person offering advice is who they say they are, and that they actually have the experiences they claim. Some unscrupulous people invent or borrow stories to back up their positions, gain sympathy and credibility. Imagine struggling with the decision of a family member in a persistent vegetative state mentioned earlier, turning to an online support group, being influenced by the opinions of its members, only to later discover several members had invented their experiences. Check up on stories and identities as much as possible.

The advice from a soft-expert should not outweigh the opinions of a qualified hard-expert, nor should it outweigh your own opinions, but since soft advice may *influence* your eventual decision, the source of even the most casually presented authoritative opinion needs to be assessed.

So, To Review:
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Expert opinions should be reviewed for:

  • Relevancy
  • Neutrality
  • Education/Degree
  • Relevant Associations
  • Peer-Reviewed Publications/Peer-Offered Respect

Not meeting these standards doesn’t invalidate an opinion, but it 791142_beergarden_2does make it less “expert”, and therefor worth a bit less than the aforementioned beer and bagel.

And while you may be tired of hearing about said beer and bagel, I should still be congratulated on my restraint. Afterall, I made it through the entire soft vs hard-boiled metaphor without lowering myself to the over-easy eggspert puns.

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MindTWEAK: The modern world bombards us daily with a wealth of information on countless subjects; as a result, we know less and less about more and more. Countering the information overload means consulting more experts. Learning to judge those experts, how to value or devalue their opinions, is crucial.

It’s either that… or you can start tossing coins at every opportunity, an idea which, admittedly, has its charms.
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5 More To-Do List Tips (Plus Bonus Tweakage!)

by ToriDeaux on July 27, 2007

Yesterday, I presented you with the first five tips for a more effective to-do list.

Always the over-acheiver, I’m offering up five more for your to-do list pleasure today (six, if you count the bonus, which I didn’t because it made for a cuter title).

So without further ado:

The To-Do Tweaks Collection (Part Two)
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page_next5 Tweak Six:
Your Most Important Thing

Your MIT (Most Important Thing) is the one task that is… well…. the most important. (Bet you didnt see THAT coming! Ha)

An MIT might be a time sensitive, fragile task, something which has serious consequences if it isn’t done, something which will have huge benefits if it IS done, or something that later tasks will be built on.

Some days you may not have an MIT – others, you’ll have several. But try to keep it down to 3 or fewer, so you aren’t tempted to prioritize the full list.

How to mark Most Important Things? Place them in the top few slots on your list, intial them with MIT, or mark them with a star. I’m fond of those little foil stars. Sticking those on a to-do list before I’ve even started makes me feel all accomplished first thing. (Or it would, if I did it.. which I don’t.. so never mind!)

Credit? I’ve no idea where I picked this up.

page_next5 Tweak Seven:
BrainDump!

The BrainDump is exactly what it sounds like… a big ol’ list with everything in your head dumped onto it. It’s a place for all of the could-ought-might-maybe-someday tasks and loose action items, the things you want to keep in mind, but don’t want or need to do right now. Don’t worry if the task is feasible, expensive, or even nearly impossible, this isn’t the time to judge it. Just get it out of your head and onto paper.

The BrainDump is about decluttering your mind, while preserving the sanctity of your to-do list. Every so often (once a week would be great) it needs to be processed, reviewed, sorted, and purged, with some of the items moved to your todo list, some just *done* right then, some moved onto the next BrainDump list.

Akin to the GTD tickler files and capture steps, it’s just a good idea.

Credit to Productivity501

page_next5 Tweak Eight:
Use Specific & Active Wording

Start each item with an active verb, so that it serves as a call-to-action, setting you in motion. Then describe your task items in terms of specific action, rather than short hand general notations. For example:

  • “Tend To Current Bills” instead of “Bills”
  • “Mop Kitchen Floor” instead of “Kitchen Floor”
  • “Schedule Appointment with Dr. Smith” instead of “Doctor Appt.”

Making each item specific helps to narrow your focus, and keeps the momentum from being slowed by the instant of confusion as you glance at the list and ask “which bills? which doctor?”.

The few extra keystrokes will save time and confusion ordinarily spent in mental background sorting.

Credit to Lifehacker and me : )

page_next5Tweak Nine:
Keep It Organized & Approachable

A napkin or the back of an envelope may be great for spontaneous note taking, they probably aren’t the best choice for your to-do lists. Whether in pixels or on paper, organizational lists should *look* organized. Visual organization reduces mental clutter and encourages organized thinking.

Simultaneously, whatever you use for your list needs to be approachable; it shouldn’t be so structured or fancy that it is intimidating. I have an entire collection of beautifully bound notebooks I never use, because my lists never seem “worthy” of them, and Daytimers never worked for me because the structure was intimidating and inflexible.

Index cards are my personal favorite: inexpensive, easily available, naturally structured, and infinitely flexible. (Behance’s Action Pads would be my top choice, but I can’t afford them for daily stuff.)

Credit: Me! Ok, it’s not original, but
I figured it out all on my own!

page_next5Tweak Ten:
Your Progress As Art Work

Speaking of the cool folks at Behance, they came up with the idea of using completed task lists as wall art. Surround yourself with progress, or as core77 put it, “Bask In Your Own Progress” by pinning completed to-do lists on your wall. It provides an excuse to spend time on making a list “Pretty”, and encourages the use colors and scribbles and gold stars and the like. I can imagine it set up something like this photo wall. Cool, No?

Credit: Behance

page_next5 Bonus Tweakage:
A Clean Slate

Don’t be afraid to take items back off the list. Don’t be afraid to just throw a list away. Every once in a while, your task list needs a fresh start.

I start with a new primary to-do list each day, but I often roll tasks over from the day before. Sometimes I’ll notice some items that have been on each day’s list for a week or more. If it’s not done in the next 2 days, it clearly wasn’t important enough to be on the lists. So off it goes. The next list is started totally from scratch, a clean slate.

Habits lists, Braindump lists, all of them need to be “rebooted” every so often. Glance over them briefly to see if you’ve missed anything *really* important, transfer any items you think are worth saving, then burn, shred or flush it the whole thing. Make it a scheduled ritual, or a spontaneous action saved for when you’re just fed up. Torch it! Down with The Tyranny of ToDos!

If you’re opposed to violence (sometimes I am) just think of it as setting the tasks free, giving them room to run and grow, to develop into the free-range todos that God meant them to be…

Ok, I’ve just gone silly now.

If you want to go back and read the first five, be my guest. Otherwise, start listing!

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MindTweak: The To-do list is a tool of the devil, but I have faith I can master it, and lift it to the heavens with a… oh the hell with it.  Give me the torch….
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How To Tweak Your To-Dos: 5 Tips For Better Task Lists

by ToriDeaux on July 26, 2007

In my quest for the perfect productivity system, I’ve run across a number of interesting to-do list ideas. They deserve a better fate than their current role as cyber dust-catchers on my own todo list… So now, for your tweaking pleasure, I present:

The To-Do Tweaks Collection
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Tweak One:
The Sacred To-Do List

Your primary to-do list should be held sacred; include only the most worthy of tasks.

Don’t add tasks just to fill in all the blanks on your list. Each item should specifically advance your goals, meet a need, or give you pleasure. Leave off all of those “ought to do” items that you really couldn’t care less about, and don’t impact your life significantly. You probably wont do them anyway, so why give yourself the guilt over it? And if you do tackle them simply because they are on your list, they’re taking your time and attention away from what really matters.

So hold your task list sacred; resist the urge sully it with filler and fluff.

A Hat Tip to Productivity501

Tweak Two:
The Done-Did List

Left to their own devices, to-do lists quickly become daunting never-ending demands of more-more-more. It’s enough to squash any budding sense of accomplishment you may be developing.

So take the time to note your daily successes. Before starting a new to-do list, make a list of what you’ve already accomplished. Include completed items from your previous list, any items you worked on, and anything you did that *wasn’t* on the original list. (It may not be necessary to do this on a whole separate list.. I just make marks on the previous todo list, and add anything else I took care of, and make a few notes about partial accomplishments)

Credit: My own productivity gurus.
They so rock.

Tweak Three:
Prioritize Pleasure

Each day, list a luxury task that is just for fun, things like:

  • Spend an hour playing with the dog.
  • Take a long bath with luxury bath salts.
  • Lay in the sun
  • Listen to music with full attention.
  • Write a love poem to the dustbunnies under the bed
  • Practice hoops in the nearby park
  • Stare at the stars and look for UFOs

Make it an item you wouldn’t necessarily make time for otherwise, something that increases your pleasure, advances your goals of well being, something that makes you smile. You’ll be surprised what a difference this makes in your attitude towards your to-do list, and your life.

Credit: My own productivity gurus
I told you they rock!

Tweak Four:
The Habits List

Workouts, vitamins, cleaning off the desk, meditation — They’re definitely tasks, we definitely need reminders, but they really don’t belong on the regular to-do list.

I’ve always instinctively separated them, and Mark Shead of Productivity501 explains why my instinct was a good idea. Listing habits on the primary to-do list clutters it up, de-emphasizes the most important tasks, puts a focus on daily results rather than lifestyle results (which is what habits are about) and can cause discouragement if a day is especially productive work wise, but there wasn’t time to work out.

He suggests a completely separate list, and makes a really pretty form available to his RSS subscribers. You’ll also find a wealth of habit-list tips from him here and here.

Credit goes to both my own gurus and Productivity501

Tweak Five:
The Could-Do List

Sometimes the simplest tweaks are the best. Ready for this one? It’s a simple word change in your list title:

Cross out “To-Do” and pencil in “Could-Do”. The shift in attitude from that single word opens the horizons of your day, releases the sense of pressure and obligation, and gives a feeling of freedom of choice that both relaxes and energizes. For more thoughts on this, see the article on Positive Sharing at the link below. Seriously cool stuff.

Credit to Hilda Carroll via
Alexander Kjerulf at Positive Sharing

And yes, I’ve got more tips waiting in the wings ( I’m serious about my productivity collection! ) but I didn’t want to overwhelm you ( or me) with too many at once.

So stay tuned for the rest tomorrow, plus a peek at my own new task list experiments.

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MindTweak: Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. Paul J. Meyer

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