Tell someone you've been spending your days checking out memory-enhancement products and chances are they'll say something like "That's interesting"—long pause—"What did you say you were working on?" The prospect of memory loss makes people so uncomfortable they invariably make stupid jokes about it, then chuckle as if those jokes were actually funny. "Sorry, ha ha, I'm having a senior moment." "Oops, it must be early onset Alzheimer's!"
Statistically speaking, unless you live till about 90, the chances of getting Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia is fairly low. Still, the brain gets less agile as we age, and for many people mental tasks that once seemed mindless, like remembering names and recalling words, become noticeably more difficult. Even minor memory lapses can generate big anxieties. So, the possibility that some thing—a vitamin, a supplement, a set of cognitive exercises, a biofeedback machine—will make us sharper, more focused, smarter, less forgetful, is desperately appealing.
At least it is for me as I progress farther into my 40s, misplacing my keys and swearing I've never had conversations that others claim to recall with perfect clarity. And what does the word "synecdoche" mean anyway? I used to know.
There are currently numerous products that promise stunning gains in IQ and remarkable increases in memory and the number will only increase as the population ages. But do any of them actually work? While my first inclination was to focus on over-the-counter pharmaceuticals like periwinkle extract and colloidal gold because they required no investment of time or mental effort, a quick survey of a defunct FDA Web site (resurrected on The Memory Hole) detailing the harm that had befallen people who blindly swallowed supplements assuming that because they were "natural" they were safe, as well as a recent article in the Lancet demonstrating that no supplement has yet proved to enhance memory, convinced me to stay away from things I'd have to put in my mouth.
Instead, I decided to stick with products that might "grow my brain" by laying down additional neural pathways (which typically happens when you learn something new), and those that claimed they would change my brain-wave patterns, making my brain more receptive to remembering. These included compact disc recordings of certain kinds of engineered sounds intended to unite left- and right-brain hemispheres; optical stimulation machines that shoot a Morse code of white light at the eyelids; software-based mental exercise gyms; and books outlining memory programs. I started with 10 products—chosen because I had read about them in best-selling books about memory loss or on those books' Web sites, or that I had found through internet searches—jettisoned three(two because they were far too complicated and the third because it was just too dopey), and stuck with eight, which I used over a period of two months.
One problem, though, was finding a reasonable research methodology. As a lone individual, I could not conduct random, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials. And memory, in any case, is elusive—hard to get a bead on, let alone to measure. That you remember to pick up the dry cleaning on Monday but fail to come home with a quart of milk on Tuesday says little about the condition of your memory. (The neurologist's rule of thumb: Don't worry if you misplace the car keys, worry if you don't know what the keys are for.)
Still, I needed a way, however crude, of seeing if my memory was getting sharper, so I signed up for an Internet-based memory testing site called MemCheck ($69.95 per year; $9.95 per month). Intended primarily for people with serious concerns about memory loss, such as Alzheimer's or something called Mild Cognitive Impairment, MemCheck offers subscribers two mental screening options. The first is an extensive battery of tests that examines psychomotor processing speed, executive function (defined on the site as planning, organization, and mental quickness), and short-term memory; it takes about half an hour to complete. The second, MemWatch, is an abridged version of the first. It tests short-term memory and processing speed in less than 10 minutes.
After testing myself with MemCheck and finding out that my executive functioning was excellent and my short-term memory was just OK, I took the MemWatch test, which gave me a baseline score against which I could compare my results in subsequent testings, after using the various memory-enhancing programs and products. I assumed, much like a weakling entering a gym to lift weights in order to build muscle, that if any of these products worked as advertised, I'd be adding axons and dendrites to my brain that would create neural pathways that would necessarily raise my score. And the fact is, over two months, my score did go up, a full 40 points. Whether this gain is actually meaningful in a practical sort of way is not precisely relevant. What is relevant is that in mid-September I was an 85 and by mid-November I was, consistently, a 126. Something happened.
It's possible that I simply got better at taking the test. It's also possible that I got better at taking the test because new neural pathways were laid down each time I took it. On the other hand, maybe my improvement was a direct result of the neural pathways that had been stimulated by one or more of the products I was using. Overall, I felt sharper, more articulate, less forgetful, quicker. I could go to the supermarket without a written list and bring home the 17 items I'd set out to buy (due to a new strategy I'd learned). For the first time in years I beat my husband at pingpong (quicker reflexes). I returned my library books on time (because I could actually recall when they were due). True, I forgot to feed the dog one morning, but these things happen.
Though I would like to point to a single product to account for these changes, I can't. They complemented each other. Some taught strategy, some toned reflexes, some claimed to be integrating my brain in subliminal ways. Some were a bust. Some were fun. A couple really seemed to help.
I created a rating system with four components, each of which I graded on a scale of –10 to +10: Efficacy (did the product have an effect on my MemWatch score, 0 being "not at all," 5 being "I once saw my score go up after using it" and 10 being "I saw my score go up pretty consistently"); Difficulty (how hard was the program to operate and implement, both in terms of setting it up and sticking to it, 0 being "easy" and -10 being "oy"); Irritation (how annoying was it to use, -10 being extremely and 0 being not); and Fun (was the product fun to use, 0 being "zero" and 10 being "bring it on"). I then separated the products into four categories—Aural; Books; Software; and Optical. My top pick in each category is listed first.
Rembrance CD ($19.95). Rembrance is a CD of electronic music composed by J.S. Epperson using "hemi-sync" "brain-entrainment" technology developed in the 1950s by a sound engineer named Robert Monroe. By sending sounds of one frequency to the right ear and sounds of another frequency to the left ear, a third sound is apparently made by the brain itself as integrates both left and right hemispheres, trying to make sense of the information it's receiving. The name given to this third sound is binaural beat. According to Monroe and his disciples, the binaural beat can be manipulated to induce or "entrain" the brain into a variety of different states, from deep relaxation to high alertness. This particular CD is intended to lead the brain into a more focused state, where it is most receptive to remembering. While it didn't do that for me, its pleasant monotony was effective in shutting out distractions. Its creators say that it works best when listened to through headphones. Scores: Efficacy=2; Difficulty=0; Irritation=-1; Fun=4. Overall score=+5.
Brain Enhancement CD (Transparent Corporation, $19.95). This is another method of using sound to trigger particular brainwave patterns that correspond to more focused and attentive states that are "typically exhibited by incredibly intelligent, overachieving individuals." The program uses various white and off-white noises like traffic and repetitious industrial machinery, neither of which is exactly pleasing to the ear. One time (out of many) I popped this in the CD drive of my computer before taking the MemWatch test and was surprised to see my score climb by five points. I took the test again and the increase held. Still, I moved to Vermont to get away from freeways and factories. At least Brain Enhancement emits no pollution. Efficacy=6; Difficulty=0; Irritation=-2; Fun=1. Overall score=+5
The Memory Pack by Andi Bell (Carlton Books, $29.95). Andi Bell won the 1998 World Memory Championships by memorizing, among other things, the order of an entire deck of cards in 34.03 seconds. He's got that kind of mind and so, he claims, can you—if you practice the many tricks he shares in the cheesy picture book that comes in the Memory Pack box. Also included are a bean bag imprinted with an image of a bee—he suggests you leave it in a conspicuous place if there's something in particular you need to remember and when you see the beanbag it will jog your brain and make you think of that thing—a set of cards labeled with people's faces and names to help teach name recognition; and a memory board game, the rules of which I'm still trying to learn. Bell's idiosyncratic method for remembering long sequences of numbers by assigning images to every number up to 99 (zero is a hoop; nine is a cat; and 99 is Einstein, because the element Einsteinium has the atomic number 99) and so on, all of which must be memorized, requires more work than anyone but a competitive memorizer like Bell would be willing to take on. Still, he does offer a number of practical, how-to methods for remembering shopping lists and names and appointments, and they work. Efficacy=8; Difficulty=-5; Irritation=-2; Fun=5. Overall score=+6.
The Einstein Factor by Win Wenger and Richard Poe (Audio Version, $89.95; paperback version, $15). I was suckered into buying this audio book by its claims that I'd become more focused, remember more, and raise my IQ score about 40 points—all while shuttling my daughter to and from school. While none of that happened (except the driving), I came to appreciate the authors' belief that each of us has a genius buried in our unconscious waiting to emerge through a kind of lucid dreaming (called "image streaming") as a way of recovering memories to spark creativity. (Thus the "portable memory bank" included with The Einstein Factor is nothing more than a blank notebook.) But memories, or stored remnants of the past, are not the same as memory, the physiological function that must precede it. So, while the book encouraged me to listen to the little voice within, it did nothing to boost my MemWatch score or keep me from leaving the Einstein Factor in the car when I meant to bring it into the house. Efficacy=0, Difficulty=0, Irritation=0; Fun=3. Overall score=+3.
My Brain Trainer (The site currently offers a free two-week trial membership but usually charges a nominal fee). If My Brain Trainer, which is billed as "the world's first virtual mental gymnasium" were a real gym, it would have plush towels and state-of-the art elliptical machines. Instead, it has appealing graphics and 14 challenging exercises that stretch different parts of your mind. Want to work on your psychomotor reflexes? How about improving your short-term memory or hand-eye coordination? If you're like me, you'll find yourself doing some exercises because you are good at them, and others because you think you should be better at them, just like at the real gym. I never managed to improve my psychomotor skills, but I progressed steadily on a short-term memory test that required me to remember random strings of letters until I was consistently doing much better than almost everyone else. I knew this because MBT allows each user to measure herself against herself, her age group, all users, and the top performer. It's competitive; it's addictive; and, because it trains some of the same skills as MemWatch tests, it's effective in raising MemWatch scores. Think of it as Pilates for the mind, but more fun. Efficacy=8; Annoyance=0; Difficulty=0; Fun=5. Overall score=+13
Brain Builder ($7.95 month, $49.45 year).Brain Builder started as a stand-alone piece of software, and for those who want something portable, Brain Builder 3.0 ($49.95) is still available. The online version, however, is more powerful because it has an interactive component that allows users to keep track of their progress, a built-in personal trainer, an online diary function, and a random number generator that ensures no exercise is like another. The main premise behind Brain Builder is that memory will improve as one's ability to increase one's sequential processing—remembering longer and longer lists of numbers and letters—improves. As its creators write: "Better sequential processing enables us to take in more of what there is to see and hear." Processing speed, its creators say, is also crucial to a fit working memory, so Brain Builder measures both how much you remember and how fast you can recall it. Oddly, Brain Builder's strength is also its weakness—it is relentless, a boot camp for brains, quick to flash "penalty" when you've made a mistake, and replete with anxiety-producing music meant as "encouragement" that makes you so stressed out, you don't remember why you thought this was a good idea in the first place. Efficacy=8;Difficulty=0;Irritation=-3; Fun=3. Overall score=+8
Mind Spa (A/V Stim Company, $149). Mind Spa is a little machine with big ambitions: to put its user into various brain states (meditative, creative, receptive, attentive) using a combination of flashing white lights delivered through a pair of specially designed glasses and pulsing sounds that come from headphones, both of which are attached to an easy-to-operate, cassette-sized unit. There are 12 programs (with more available on the A/V Stim Web site), each keyed to a different brainwave speed—from the quiet alphas of No. 3 to the high betas of No. 9. The idea here, as with simple aural brain entrainment, is that the sound and light will, over time, encourage new pathways in the brain. (Mind Spa's creator, psychologist Dr. Ruth Olmstead, has recently published research that seems to show that this kind of stimulation is effective in controlling ADD.) While it feels silly to sit at one's desk listening to weird throbbing sounds while wearing goofy glass light-emitting glasses, it can be surprisingly relaxing. I often fell asleep—then woke up and saw my MemWatch score inch up. One caveat: Optical stimulation machines have been known to induce seizures in people with epilepsy and those with undiagnosed seizure disorders. Efficacy= 8; Irritation=0; Difficulty=0; Fun=4. Overall score=+12
Shortly after I concluded my "experiment," I spent some time with real scientists who study the aging brain. I told them about my "work," and how my MemWatch scores kept on going up. They were skeptical. Not skeptical that I was doing better—this they attributed to the fact that my test-taking skills were improving—but skeptical that memory decline could be staved off by increasing the number of random letters one can recall, listening to hemi-syncing music, or slipping on light-emitting glasses. But one of them, a neuropsychologist who specializes in looking at why people who are mentally and physically engaged throughout their lives seem to resist dementia most successfully, was less dismissive.
"Look," he said, "We don't really know. Why not do these things—they can't hurt."