Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Izabela's second trip to the Wild West

I enjoyed my first trip into brain training, which I wrote about a few posts back. It was reasonably easy and felt like a success. My useful field of view improved quickly and I noticed a change in real life. Not surprisingly, I decided to do it again. This time it was working memory.

Now, working memory is my personal weakness. In the interest of full disclosure, I have a digits forward span of 7 and digits backwards span of 5. Visually, I can do a block span of 5 consistently, and repeat a sequence of up to 7 blocks inconsistently. I can reverse five blocks consistently, and 6 inconsistently. Not bad, somewhere in the Average range, but not great either.

In practice, this interfered a bit with my functioning. Telephone numbers had to be copied down in chunks of 4, and double-checked for errors. I could at times feel overwhelmed, for example when integrating information from multiple sources when writing complex reports. Yes, I know that this is normal, but I wanted a better function.
When report-writing, I needed more frequent breaks than optimal, and felt that my brain power got used up by about 3pm. And I developed a whole system for avoiding inattentive, 'silly' mistakes - very important to prevent in a private practice. Working at home and being interrupted by requests from Dear Daughter resulted in feeling overloaded and frequently snapping at her. Thus, I avoided working when she was not at school or asleep. As all mums do, I also snapped a lot in the morning, during the school run.
Not an uncommon set of problems, really, but worth improving on. Especially that I could do my own training AND acquire Cogmed coaching credentials all at the same time and price. Mind you, the price was 1,500 and it did hurt the wallet.

So, I did the full Cogmed training, and it was tough. 45-60 minutes of major effort for 25 days. The effort was not that surprising - after all working memory tasks are by definition effortful. So I persevered, despite serious sweat running down my brow. I wonder, however, how one keeps ADHD kids doing these tasks. Now I understand the requirement of a training aide to supervise all the kiddie sessions, and a coach to call every week with feedback and reinforcing chat. Trust me, if you do Cogmed, or if you are a training aide you really need someone to support you.

There are three versions of the program: for preschoolers, children and adults. The children and adult tasks are the same, apart from the interface - the adult interface is more boring. I chose the kiddie version and strongly recommend everybody does the same - when you are trying to remember multiple locations, it really helps if you are tracking aliens rather than gray circles. Also, exploding asteroids is fun.

One of the tasks was digits backwards. By the end of training I could reverse up to 11 digits (very occasionally, mind you). This was not auditory working memory only - by this stage I coded some of these digits visually, some auditorily and some by meaning. Nevertheless, I believe that my actual auditory working memory store did stretch, if only by a digit or so.

Unfortunately, while I managed to get a pre-test (see results above) I had not much luck getting myself re-tested. I can just say that after the training I can hold in mind the entire 8 digits of a phone number or a credit card number when copying them onto various online forms. So I remember one more digit forward than before the training. The training was in September, and if anybody wants to check this n=1 experiment for persistence of working memory effects, I'm game. We'd just have to think up some other task instead of digits backwards, as it was one of the tasks being trained.

Now, did the results generalise? I was expecting to be able to work longer without mental exhaustion, and that seemed to happen. I can now comfortably work until 5pm, and report writing became a bit easier. This is always nice, even if the effect was small. Whether this was an effect of Cogmed or placebo effect, it is hard to say. This levels of mental energy and being able to work a lot persisted till Christmas, but took a dip over the start of the year, when I got truly fed up with the heat. The mental energy has now come back. However, I am not entirely sure that the cognitive effect of Cogmed was worth the money.

What I did not expect, was that the training would stop me snapping at Dear Daughter.  After about a fortnight, I noticed that I became overloaded less and less often when she interrupted something. By the end of the training, my snapping completely disappeared - I no longer lose my temper.  This effect, I am glad to say, is continuing to this day, and has not diminished.
Surprisingly, this effect, which I was not expecting, ended up to be the most worthwhile outcome of Cogmed training. I think that ultimately, this one was worth the money I paid.


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