In the town of Sendai, the largest city in the Tōhoku region in Japan, there are a million people going about their daily lives. I have no idea what all but one of them is doing. One lady, called Ms Endo Tokiko, who won’t mind me revealing that she is in her 80s, is almost certainly telling everyone around her, how she defeated, conquered, trounced and thoroughly overwhelmed an English man almost 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 Sandai to meet Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. He is a Japanese neuroscientists whose work has involved mapping the regions of the brain which control emotion, language, memorisation, and cognition.
He is well known in academic circles for his research. However more unusually he is also known to millions of ordinary adults and children as the animated figure in the Nintendo DS Brain Game.
Unlike his fellow neuroscientists he has a fan club of millions. In 2003, Kawashima wrote a book called ‘Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain’. It was not only a success in Japan. It sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide. That not only lead to the publication of a whole series of other books, it also peaked the interest of the Japanese gaming company Nintendo who turned his brain training programme into a game which itself sold 19 million copies.
At Tohoku University he helped found the Smart Ageing International Research Centre and the Department of Advanced Brain Science. At the centre he is working with groups of elderly people to see how to keep their brains active for longer. As part of his experiments he runs regular mental work outs or gyms for local people who are largely in their 80s or older.
His belief is that through some fairly basic exercises, repeated often, we can enlarge the functionality of the brain and to stop and indeed reverse the ageing process of some brain functions.
Indeed one of his concerns is that as we increasingly rely on computers and because technology to process and integrate various kinds of information we humans do not have to handle so much data by our own brain. He believes therefore that the today’s technological environment might actually accelerate the decline of cognitive function. The modern world, in other words, is making our brains duller.
Kawashima believes that in exercising one function of the brain we can improve its other functions. This could be very important because it implies that if we regularly do some simple maths exercises, such as easy addition and subtraction, we may not only get better at remembering names and where we put our car keys but our brain will become generally more expert a everything we ask it to do.
Three times a week a group of the older Sendai residents make their way to Dr Kawashima’s brain gym to give their mental facilities a tightly monitored work out. This week I joined them.
Wearing a brain monitor that linked to an app on Dr. Kawashima’s smart phone, I was to go up against their star pupil. Ms Endo Tokiko sat next to me. She was composed, self-possessed, unruffled, unmoved and unemotional. She stared ahead unsmiling and uncommunicative.
I on the other hand was a little nervous but fairly confident that whilst I was no maths genius –I could do some easy additions and should be able to do them faster than an 80 year old.
Dr 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 expected to do, I was going to be an easy winner.
I 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 glanced 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 Dr Kawashima – no words were needed but Dr Kawashima shouted them anyway. Ms Tokiko had won.
I genuinely could not believe I had been so roundly trounced.
What’s more, an analysis of our brain patterns during the exercise revealed something even more shocking. Whilst I had used all my mental guns, lighting up the brain monitor like Piccadilly Circus, Tokiko’s brain monitor showed how she was only using a very small part of her faculties. In other words, Dr 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 whilst I had brought everything I had to the game.
This fantastic performance, he said was the result of 15 minutes a day brain training. The fact that I had to look up the name of my opponent whilst she no doubt remembers mine to this very day – may also be a sign of which one of us is regularly doing our little brain training exercises.