What I Learned from 100 Days of Brain Training

You don’t have to spend much time researching Biohacking before you start hearing about the myriad benefits of Dual N-Back training…

  • Sharpening the working memory, the “scratchpad” of the mind that we use to solve problems.
  • Increasing IQ.
  • Lifehacking language learning, by promoting neuroplasticity and grey matter density.
  • Improving fluid intelligence, to solve novel problems intelligently.
  • Increasing self-control.
  • Compartmentalization of emotions.
  • Higher scores on Raven’s Matrices Test.

This article is primarily concerned with the “transfer effects” or personal development benefits of Dual N-Back training; I’m of the school of philosophy that if something doesn’t ultimately lead to getting me paid or getting me laid, it’s not worth my time. I’m all about “know thyself” as long as it leads to more of this…

About Dual N-Back

The challenge issued to me by my friend Mark Ashton Smith, Ph.D., one of the top Cognitive Neuroscientists in Europe and the creator of Dual N-Back Pro, was…

20 minutes a day of brain training, 5 days a week.

When I first downloaded the Dual N-Back app I found that despite really believing in it as a Biohacking tool, I had abysmally bad consistency with my training. I was training maybe 2–3 times a week mostly in the late evenings after I had finished my work.

Honestly, I was pretty damn disappointed in my consistency and felt a bit disingenuous, since Dual N-Back training has always been one of the main Biohacking products I recommend. My recommendation is based upon the solid science behind it and the mountains of 3rd party credibility behind it, but failing to take one’s own advice is a recipe for impostor syndrome!

+3 Months Without Missing a Day

Fast forward to today and I’ve Dual N-Back trained over 100 days in a row. I was not a monk during this period, I was as busy as ever running two businesses, learning voraciously, and carrying on my sometimes ridiculous social life.

What made the difference between this unbroken consistency and my previous wishy-washiness?

10 Minute Training Sessions — I found that cutting the Dual N-Back training session down to 10 minutes made it way more manageable and easier to fit into my day. Also, as I’ve said in other places Dual N-Back training is pretty damn boring and it’s really easy to procrastinate when you are facing a whole 20 minutes of grueling brain training. Sure, I had to do double the sessions but that’s not a problem, I’m not in a hurry to master Dual N-Back training.

Coach.me — One of the few apps I have in my life that makes me more productive, in Coach.me you check in daily to habits that you want to train yourself to practice consistently. It applies some healthy social pressure to your quantifiable self-improvement, by sharing your check-ins with your followers. It also shows your progress visually which certainly adds to the motivation factors. I was delighted to find a small community of Dual N-Back trainees already active on Coach.me, I joined the habit and began checking in daily. Once I hit the 50-day point there was NO way I was missing a day. A couple of times I trained in ridiculous states of exhaustion after long nights spent on the dance floors of Medellin. I started training first thing in the mornings when my mind was the sharpest.

I think my experience here highlights one of the most subtle yet valuable effects of using Coach.me; since you are motivated to practice your habits and track your progress accurately you naturally start to get smarter about the way you organize and prioritize your day.

Mobile vs Desktop — One thing that made a pretty big difference in my training consistency was doing it on my mobile device as opposed to the PC. I just found it was easier to fit into one of the periods of intermittent leisure I schedule throughout the day.

Memory

Dual N-Back does not significantly affect long-term memory (sorry you won’t be able to instantaneously pull obscure memories out of your subconscious, like Eddie in Limitless) but it does help your short-term memory. In particular, I noted:

  • As a stereotypical Entrepreneurial-Creative-ADHD personality type, my mind has always jumped around A LOT during my workday. Rarely could I focus on just one thing for more than 15–20 minutes before I started to wonder if I should be spending my time on something else. This has improved significantly.
  • In my “day job” as a web developer, I need to keep track of lots of small, yet very specific pieces of information, like Article ID #s. If I’ve looked at a particular piece of information in the past 15–20 minutes I can almost always remember it accurately from my short-term memory. This has saved me a lot of time; navigating backward in my browser to find a key piece of data or searching Evernote files.

I’ve also noticed decreased incidences of…

  • Losing my train of thought.
  • Finding myself haphazardly jumping between Google Chrome browser tabs.
  • My mind wandering into areas of my personal life that bother or irritate me while I’m working.

Example: The other day I was at a friend’s house, I asked them for their WiFi password, it was just a random string of numbers; seven or eight digits long. About 45 minutes later somebody asked what the WiFi password was and I was able to tell them just from memory. Everyone was pretty impressed!

Presence and Mindfulness

Dual N-Back forces you to be present for the duration of the 10–20 minute training session. Any time your mind wanders off into the past or the future you will lose track of N-Back positions in your current session and your score will suffer. Dual N-Back is quite similar to the practice of focused attention meditation.
Example: As some top dating psychology experts suggest, dating should be an exercise in mindfulness

For me, dating is an exercise in mindfulness because I’m something of a workaholic so I find that it’s quite rare that I take the time to prepare myself mentally and sufficiently socially warm myself up before a date. It’s also rare that I make carefully laid plans beforehand, usually I just have her meet me at whatever bar, restaurant or cafe is within a 200-second brisk walk of where ever I’m at.
Couple this unpreparedness with the fact that I date a lot of girls who don’t speak English (my first language) or don’t speak it fluently and you have a recipe for, well, awkwardness!
Mindfulness is my secret weapon for beating the awkwardness that dating inevitably entails. I use the same mental muscles I developed Dual N-Back training to ignore the past, future, and all the small mistakes I’m making and to just drink in the moment, be ultra attentive to body language and enjoy her feminine presence.
By the way, dating people who don’t speak your first language, while a bit awkward, is a major lifehack for accelerated language learning!

Practicing in a Foreign Language?

Dual N-Back Pro can be played in English, Spanish, French, and German. After finishing my first 20 sessions I got curious about the other languages.
So I undertook another 20 sessions en Espanol (my second language) which marginally improved my Spanish due to the sheer repetition it entailed. Then I switched to German, however, I noticed something odd, Dual N-Back training in German significantly hurt my Dual N-Back scores. Even after +15 sessions, my scores were still consistently worse than my personal bests in English and Spanish. Despite being a little demotivated I finished the 30 German Dual N-Back sessions but I wasn’t evolving.
I switched back to training in English and my scores improved, so I guess Dual N-Back training in a language you don’t speak isn’t a good idea (at least for me).

Cognitive Performance Variables

One of the most useful things N-Back training shows you about yourself is how ineffective you become at tasks demanding your cognitive energy the more tired you are.
In the past, I was the kind of person who would stay up all night programming, writing, or working on problems that required a creative solution to hit a deadline. Now after I’ve hit a certain level of energy or hour of the day, I know when to call it quits.
This has trained me to be profoundly more efficient with the way I organize my workday. In the past, I may have been lazy about spending my cognitive energy on…

  • Rote processes.
  • Repetitive copy & paste tasks.
  • Responding to emails with questions I’m familiar with.
  • Surfing Facebook and social media.

I now employ a strategy I call Hour 2: Zombie Mode to ensure I’m not wasting cognitive energy.

Around Day 60 of Dual N-Back training, I hit a performance plateau that I still haven’t broken through. There is certainly a correlation between this performance plateau and trying to practice in a language I didn’t know but I can only guess as to causality. I’m a little disappointed that I’m not scoring better in the game after all the time I’ve spent, some Biohackers have made it to 8-Back within their first 25 sessions. I still haven’t made it past 6-Back (Update — made it to 7-Back!)
I did not receive a statistically significant increase in IQ. Before I started training so aggressively with Dual N-Back I scored 100 on an Anders Jensen IQ Test, after +100 days of Dual N-Back training I scored 101. While this was surprising and disappointing to me I do this for personal development, not for a test score.

The most valuable thing I got out of 100 unbroken days of brain training is the deeply internalized confidence; that if there’s something healthy for me, but difficult to practice, with the proper motivation mechanisms in place, I have the willpower to practice it with complete consistency and benefit intangible areas of my life in just a few months. However, to be honest I’m pretty bored of Dual N-Back training at this point and looking forward to diversifying my brain training.

Upgrade Your Intelligence

Endeavoring to increase my intelligence, I’ve self-experimented with a range of biohacking tech — Heartmath’s HRV training devices, Lumosity, and a couple of those different brain training headbands — and so far the free-ish Dual N-Back app beats them all. I urge Biohackers aspiring to upgrade their intelligence, to put in a month or two of Dual N-Back training before dropping coin on spendier tech!

Leave a Comment…

Let me know your experiences with Dual N-Back training, especially the transfer effects — how it affected your life outside of playing the game. Or have you used similar motivation mechanisms for personal development?

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Jonathan Roseland

Jonathan Roseland

Adventuring philosopher, Pompous pontificator, Writer, K-Selected Biohacker, Tantric husband, Raconteur & Smart Drug Dealer 🇺🇸