brainBrain Workshop - a Dual N-Back game

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Dual N-Back exercise featured in Brain Workshop was the subject of an April 2008 peer-reviewed scientific study which shows that practicing the Dual N-Back task for 20 minutes 4-5 days per week will improve your working memory (short term memory) and fluid intelligence. This Wired article has a good summary of its benefits.

If you've never tried Dual N-Back before, here's a quick tutorial to get you started.

Dual 1-Back

It's best to begin with Dual 1-Back, the simplest mode.

  1. Launch Brain Workshop.
  2. Press Space to enter the Workshop.
  3. Press M to switch to Manual mode.
  4. Press F1 to decrease the N-back level to 1.
  5. Press Space to begin a Dual 1-Back session. Each session is about 1 minute in duration.

You will see a blue square appear every 3 seconds accompanied by the sound of a letter. If you don't hear any sound, make sure your speakers are not muted.

The Dual part of the name of this game mode, Dual 1-Back, comes from the fact that you are remembering two different stimuli -- the square's position, and the letter played through the speakers. The 1-Back part indicates how many trials back you're being asked to remember to decide whether that trial's position or letter match the current position or letter.

It's easy to perform this task when focusing only on a single cue (either the square's position or the letter). The challenging part is to do both at the same time!

Dual 2-Back

Tutorial diagram

Brain Workshop starts in Dual 2-Back mode by default. Dual 2-Back is significantly more difficult than Dual 1-Back. Don't be discouraged - learning and practicing this exercise at the limit of your ability is what increases your fluid intelligence!

  1. Ensure that the game mode is Dual 2-Back. (if not, use F1 and F2 to adjust the N-Back level. Note: these keys will only function in Manual mode.)
  2. Press Space to begin a Dual 2-Back session.

This time, you will need to remember the square's position and the voiced letter from 2 trials back instead of 1 trial back.

If you find this too difficult at first, try focusing on only one of the cues (either the square's position or the letter).

Here's an example. Ignore the square's position for now and focus on the letters you hear. Suppose the first letter is "A" and the second is "B". Now it's the third trial and the letter is "A" again.

Since the current letter, A, is the same as the letter from two trials ago (i.e., the first trial), you've found a match and press the L key. Now suppose that on the next trial the letter is "B". You press L again because this word is also the same as it was two trials ago.

Here's another example.

When you get the hang of hearing a match from 2 trials back, try shifting your focus to the square's position. Then try to do both at the same time.

Since you switched to Manual mode at the beginning, Brain Workshop will not change the n-back level automatically. Press M to exit Manual mode. Now the n-back level will be adjusted for you automatically, to ensure you're always playing at the right level. Once you achieve a high enough score in Dual 2-Back, you'll be bumped up to the next level - Dual 3-Back. Challenge yourself and try to achieve the highest level possible!

What's the best way to benefit from Brain Workshop?

The original scientific study on Dual N-Back shows a linear correlation between the participants' gain in measured fluid intelligence and time spent practicing Dual N-Back. In other words, the more you practice, the more your memory and intelligence will improve.

Aim for 20 sessions per day (about 25 minutes), 4 or 5 times per week. The "Sessions Today" indicator in the top right corner of Brain Workshop represents a convenient way to keep track of your 20-session goal. In the original study, participants showed up to 40% gains in measured fluid intelligence scores after 19 days of daily practice.

Intensive training every day may not be optimal because the brain needs time to learn, adapt and reconfigure itself. A training schedule of 4-5 days per week seems to be the most efficient.

The hardest part might be maintaining your training schedule over time. Try pairing up with someone else who's interested in increasing their intelligence. Contact each other to ensure you're both maintaining your schedules.

As mentioned previously, learning and practicing the Dual N-Back task at the limit of your ability is what increases your fluid intelligence. Push your limits every day and try to reach the highest N-Back level possible. Some people can reach 6-, 7- or even 8-Back with regular practice, while the maximum level achieved by anyone (that I know of) is 11-Back!

The following health tips will help you attain optimal mental performance and overall well-being:

  1. Eat a balanced diet with plenty of nutrient-rich greens and other whole, unrefined foods.
  2. Get plenty of sleep. Sufficient high-quality sleep is essential to the learning process and will aid your body's regenerative systems, as well as improving mood and focus.
  3. Regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve blood flow to the brain and stimulate neuron growth in the hippocampus, a brain structure vital to the formation of long-term memories.
  4. Reduce stress in your life. Chronic stress causes elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol which has many negative effects.
  5. Along with Dual N-Back, engage in a variety of mentally stimulating activities.