Brain training has become a major buzzword over the past couple of years. Sites such as Lumosity have marketed games and puzzles appearing on the site as ways to maintain mental acuity, boost memory, and stave off the cognitive decline of old age.
Now, a recent study has also indicated that some sectors of brain training are starting to resemble or even encroach on another well-established field: vision training, begging the question, what exactly is the difference between the two?
The answer is a little more fuzzy than you might expect. If we take a literal tack, there’s actually quite a bit of overlap. Vision training is often thought of as simply involving the mechanical health of eyes, with brain training focusing on the more abstract workings of the brain. But that’s oversimplifying the matter. The visual system is composed of far more than just the eyes; simple exercises that help train for better sight involve the brain just as much as they involve your baby blues.
But on a more practical level, there are some bigger differences between brain and vision training – though, as mentioned earlier, even those may be shrinking. We’ll take some time here to talk about what the two terms have traditionally meant and also go into a little more detail about how they’re beginning to merge.
If you’re a consistent web surfer, odds are that you’ve seen, and have maybe even tried, a little brain training. Lumosity has long been the big player in this particular game and in many ways has defined the current state of brain training.
Visit Lumosity’s site and you’ll dive right into a few brain training tests. After a few of these, you’ll be compared to other users in your age category, then given a training regiment theoretically fitted to your own brain training needs. Select attention as an attribute in need of a boost and you might wind up playing a game that has you accurately directing trains to appropriately colored stations. Say that you want quicker reflexes and you’ll be shown quick-flipping cards that you’ll have to identify and call out.
Lumosity’s format is simple, popular and, if you listen to the company, effective. Many of their games bear more than a passing resemblance to already popular mobile entertainment and users often find that combination of fun and apparent benefits – most really do get better at games with practice – to be more than enough to keep them around.
As far as whether or not Lumosity and similar companies are actually helping you, well, that’s a little tougher to say. A round-up of studies on the subject came up with a mixed bag. One 2013 Stanford paper found that chemotherapy patients self-reported some gains after playing Lumosity several weeks. However, other researchers have been optimistic. An open letter posted through Stanford’s Longevity Center and signed by nearly 70 experts decried the industry’s predatory marketing and largely minimal results.
Like brain training, most vision training regimes rely on repetition of basic drills to improve various processes. While vision trainers do focus on the eyes, aspects such as attention and quick reaction to visual stimuli are shared with brain training.
But, while brain training is generally digital, most existing vision training systems make use of physical tools. These can range dramatically. On one end, you’ll find expensive lightboards intended to improve reaction time to various flashing lights. On the other, you’ll find a rubber ball hung from the ceiling, designed to help users practice visually tracking a moving object. Or, for that matter, just a pencil, or someone’s hand.
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Aging adults can expect to see some serious changes – literally. Older eyes are vastly different from younger ones. Disorders crop up more quickly, with cataracts, macular degeneration, and glaucoma all becoming more and more likely as years pass. One of the most common losses though, is accurate contrast sensitivity.
Contrast sensitivity is the ability to distinguish between light and dark. As we often rely on these cues to determine where an object is in space (for example, the contrast between a pen and the table it rests on is part of what makes it possible for us to accurately reach out and grab the pen), this can lead to serious visual impairment if left unaddressed.
Unfortunately, addressing is easier said than done. Contrast sensitivity can be worked around by installing extra lighting or making use of colored materials to define edges, but it’s difficult to directly treat the root problem.
Until now, maybe. Research teams took cues from both brain and vision training to create digitized drills. Participants in the study would practice distinguishing contrast in striped shapes presented to them on a computer. After only five sessions, participants saw noticeable gains in their contrast sensitivity.
So is this the answer? Not necessarily. The study was small, only really testing 16 people, and is the first of its kind. However, it goes a long way toward showing the productive future of brain and vision training.