Keeping your “Head In the Game” with Brain Training
About 30 sessions into my Dual N-Back training practice I realized an interesting personal development takeaway. Something that a cognitive psychologist would describe as domain-general; meaning that it has transfer effects that influence my life when I’m NOT playing the Dual N-Back game.
For those who haven’t played Dual N-Back…
Inevitably you will usually get a match or two (or more if you are just getting started) wrong per block and there are 20 blocks in the recommended 20-minute daily training session. Dual N-Back training is not like the rest of life where you can let your mind wander or multi-task, the game is designed specifically to take up all your attention focusing on the present. I set HighIQPro to instant feedback mode; if I select an incorrect spatial or audio N-Back match it responds with a harsh negative beep.
As I advanced into the 4-Back training level, the game required high levels of concentration; holding in mind the previous 4 audio sounds and spatial positions — 8 total items to focus upon mentally rehearsing. I became increasingly aware that self-critical or self-judgemental thoughts (even thoughts lasting less than a single second) were a serious distraction from playing the game and could make me forget the previous N-Back positions.
If you haven’t Dual N-Back trained before the way it works is that even if you get a spatial or audio N-Back match wrong, the game continues, it doesn’t reset, you still have to remember the audio and spatial position of the wrong match as it may repeat itself N positions forward in the future. Unlike a lot of other games we play, if you get it wrong, it doesn’t give you a momentary break to ‘get your head back in the game’.
There’s a natural human tendency to self-monitor (this comes from the lateral prefrontal part of our brain) and provide self-feedback on our decisions: I did a bad job in that meeting, I feel excited about this call, my hair is messy today, etc. A lot of times we begin a dialog with our self-monitoring faculty:
I shouldn’t have gotten so drunk last night… But it was my best friend’s birthday party.
If we are honest with ourselves we spend the better part of our day debating the pros and cons of our past or future decisions with our self-monitoring faculty.
When you mismatch in Dual N-Back training your self-monitoring will inevitably tell you: You made a mistake.
Dual N-Back training provides a very unique environment to train this self-monitoring capacity of our mind. What I found is that at some of the more advanced N-Back training levels, if I allowed my mind to dwell at all on the mistake I made it would screw up my concentration and I would lose track of the audio and spatial N-Back positions. This could be particularly problematic if I mismatched twice or three times in a row which happens at least once per training session to me.
The Solution: Compartmentalization of Self Monitoring, this is a technique that I learned from a gangster mediation practitioner, Tyler of Real Social Dynamics. In his long, but very educational Youtube video on mediation he explains that when you are meditating and a self-monitoring thought happens you do NOT want to…
- Start an internal dialog with that thought.
- Judge yourself for screwing up and thinking while you are supposed to be meditating (thinking about nothing) — God, I suck at meditating!
Instead: Acknowledge that’s a thought, ignore it, and continue meditating
The same can be applied to Dual N-Back training, at the advanced levels you simply don’t have a millisecond to spare on a negative thought. When you audibly hear that incorrect buzzer noise and mentally hear the corresponding self-monitoring, simply acknowledge: that’s a thought, ignore it, and continue focusing on the game. I found this was the most effective way of keeping ‘my head in the game’ despite making occasional mistakes.
Transfer effects: I’ve noticed the same happening in my non-Dual N-Back life, primarily when I’m working on my computer (blogging, working on my websites, responding to email, etc). Some critical Self Monitoring thoughts will enter my mind, instead of letting these thoughts distract me (even for two seconds), I respond immediately to them: that’s just a thought.
The thought is compartmentalized and I continue doing whatever I’m doing undistracted.
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I'm not a doctor, medical professional, or trained therapist. I'm a researcher and pragmatic biohacking practitioner…
In my early days as a biohacker, Dual N-Back training was one thing that really upgraded my powers of focus and got my emotions working FOR me (instead of me working FOR my emotions). Brain training is a whole LOT LESS sexy than Nootropics or the latest biohacking gadget BUT it really does make you a more dangerous dude (or dudette) if you can stick with it for a month or two. Use the Coach.me app and add the brain training habit to keep you consistent with your practice.