[Paleopsych] Slate: You Must Remember This: Are there memory-enhancement products that work?

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You Must Remember This: Are there memory-enhancement products that work?
By Sue Halpern
Posted Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005, at 5:34 AM PT

Tell someone you've been spending your days checking out
memory-enhancement products and chances are they'll say something like
"That's interesting"-long pause-"What did you say you were working on?"
The prospect of memory loss makes people so uncomfortable they
invariably make stupid jokes about it, then chuckle as if those jokes
were actually funny. "Sorry, ha ha, I'm having a senior moment." "Oops,
it must be early onset Alzheimer's!"

Statistically speaking, unless you live till about 90, the chances of
getting Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia is fairly low. Still,
the brain gets less agile as we age, and for many people mental tasks
that once seemed mindless, like remembering names and recalling words,
become noticeably more difficult. Even minor memory lapses can generate
big anxieties. So, the possibility that some thing-a vitamin, a
supplement, a set of cognitive exercises, a biofeedback machine-will
make us sharper, more focused, smarter, less forgetful, is desperately

At least it is for me as I progress farther into my 40s, misplacing my
keys and swearing I've never had conversations that others claim to
recall with perfect clarity. And what does the word "synecdoche" mean
anyway? I used to know.

There are currently numerous products that promise stunning gains in IQ
and remarkable increases in memory and the number will only increase as
the population ages. But do any of them actually work? While my first
inclination was to focus on over-the-counter pharmaceuticals like
periwinkle extract and colloidal gold because they required no
investment of time or mental effort, a quick survey of a defunct FDA Web
site (resurrected on The Memory Hole) detailing the harm that had
befallen people who blindly swallowed supplements assuming that because
they were "natural" they were safe, as well as a recent article in the
Lancet demonstrating that no supplement has yet proved to enhance
memory, convinced me to stay away from things I'd have to put in my

Instead, I decided to stick with products that might "grow my brain" by
laying down additional neural pathways (which typically happens when you
learn something new), and those that claimed they would change my
brain-wave patterns, making my brain more receptive to remembering.
These included compact disc recordings of certain kinds of engineered
sounds intended to unite left- and right-brain hemispheres; optical
stimulation machines that shoot a Morse code of white light at the
eyelids; software-based mental exercise gyms; and books outlining memory
programs. I started with 10 products-chosen because I had read about
them in best-selling books about memory loss or on those books' Web
sites, or that I had found through internet searches-jettisoned
three(two because they were far too complicated and the third because it
was just too dopey), and stuck with eight, which I used over a period of
two months.

One problem, though, was finding a reasonable research methodology. As a
lone individual, I could not conduct random, double-blind,
placebo-controlled trials. And memory, in any case, is elusive-hard to
get a bead on, let alone to measure. That you remember to pick up the
dry cleaning on Monday but fail to come home with a quart of milk on
Tuesday says little about the condition of your memory. (The
neurologist's rule of thumb: Don't worry if you misplace the car keys,
worry if you don't know what the keys are for.)

Still, I needed a way, however crude, of seeing if my memory was getting
sharper, so I signed up for an Internet-based memory testing site called
MemCheck ($69.95 per year; $9.95 per month). Intended primarily for
people with serious concerns about memory loss, such as Alzheimer's or
something called Mild Cognitive Impairment, MemCheck offers subscribers
two mental screening options. The first is an extensive battery of tests
that examines psychomotor processing speed, executive function (defined
on the site as planning, organization, and mental quickness), and
short-term memory; it takes about half an hour to complete. The second,
MemWatch, is an abridged version of the first. It tests short-term
memory and processing speed in less than 10 minutes.

After testing myself with MemCheck and finding out that my executive
functioning was excellent and my short-term memory was just OK, I took
the MemWatch test, which gave me a baseline score against which I could
compare my results in subsequent testings, after using the various
memory-enhancing programs and products. I assumed, much like a weakling
entering a gym to lift weights in order to build muscle, that if any of
these products worked as advertised, I'd be adding axons and dendrites
to my brain that would create neural pathways that would necessarily
raise my score. And the fact is, over two months, my score did go up, a
full 40 points. Whether this gain is actually meaningful in a practical
sort of way is not precisely relevant. What is relevant is that in
mid-September I was an 85 and by mid-November I was, consistently, a
126. Something happened.

It's possible that I simply got better at taking the test. It's also
possible that I got better at taking the test because new neural
pathways were laid down each time I took it. On the other hand, maybe my
improvement was a direct result of the neural pathways that had been
stimulated by one or more of the products I was using. Overall, I felt
sharper, more articulate, less forgetful, quicker. I could go to the
supermarket without a written list and bring home the 17 items I'd set
out to buy (due to a new strategy I'd learned). For the first time in
years I beat my husband at pingpong (quicker reflexes). I returned my
library books on time (because I could actually recall when they were
due). True, I forgot to feed the dog one morning, but these things

Though I would like to point to a single product to account for these
changes, I can't. They complemented each other. Some taught strategy,
some toned reflexes, some claimed to be integrating my brain in
subliminal ways. Some were a bust. Some were fun. A couple really seemed
to help.

I created a rating system with four components, each of which I graded
on a scale of -10 to +10: Efficacy (did the product have an effect on my
MemWatch score, 0 being "not at all," 5 being "I once saw my score go up
after using it" and 10 being "I saw my score go up pretty
consistently"); Difficulty (how hard was the program to operate and
implement, both in terms of setting it up and sticking to it, 0 being
"easy" and -10 being "oy"); Irritation (how annoying was it to use, -10
being extremely and 0 being not); and Fun (was the product fun to use, 0
being "zero" and 10 being "bring it on"). I then separated the products
into four categories-Aural; Books; Software; and Optical. My top pick in
each category is listed first.

Rembrance CD ($19.95). Rembrance is a CD of electronic music composed by
J.S. Epperson using "hemi-sync" "brain-entrainment" technology developed
in the 1950s by a sound engineer named Robert Monroe. By sending sounds
of one frequency to the right ear and sounds of another frequency to the
left ear, a third sound is apparently made by the brain itself as
integrates both left and right hemispheres, trying to make sense of the
information it's receiving. The name given to this third sound is
binaural beat. According to Monroe and his disciples, the binaural beat
can be manipulated to induce or "entrain" the brain into a variety of
different states, from deep relaxation to high alertness. This
particular CD is intended to lead the brain into a more focused state,
where it is most receptive to remembering. While it didn't do that for
me, its pleasant monotony was effective in shutting out distractions.
Its creators say that it works best when listened to through headphones.
Scores: Efficacy=2; Difficulty=0; Irritation=-1; Fun=4. Overall

Brain Enhancement CD (Transparent Corporation, $19.95). This is another
method of using sound to trigger particular brainwave patterns that
correspond to more focused and attentive states that are "typically
exhibited by incredibly intelligent, overachieving individuals." The
program uses various white and off-white noises like traffic and
repetitious industrial machinery, neither of which is exactly pleasing
to the ear. One time (out of many) I popped this in the CD drive of my
computer before taking the MemWatch test and was surprised to see my
score climb by five points. I took the test again and the increase held.
Still, I moved to Vermont to get away from freeways and factories. At
least Brain Enhancement emits no pollution. Efficacy=6; Difficulty=0;
Irritation=-2; Fun=1. Overall score=+5

The Memory Pack by Andi Bell (Carlton Books, $29.95). Andi Bell won the
1998 World Memory Championships by memorizing, among other things, the
order of an entire deck of cards in 34.03 seconds. He's got that kind of
mind and so, he claims, can you-if you practice the many tricks he
shares in the cheesy picture book that comes in the Memory Pack box.
Also included are a bean bag imprinted with an image of a bee-he
suggests you leave it in a conspicuous place if there's something in
particular you need to remember and when you see the beanbag it will jog
your brain and make you think of that thing-a set of cards labeled with
people's faces and names to help teach name recognition; and a memory
board game, the rules of which I'm still trying to learn. Bell's
idiosyncratic method for remembering long sequences of numbers by
assigning images to every number up to 99 (zero is a hoop; nine is a
cat; and 99 is Einstein, because the element Einsteinium has the atomic
number 99) and so on, all of which must be memorized, requires more work
than anyone but a competitive memorizer like Bell would be willing to
take on. Still, he does offer a number of practical, how-to methods for
remembering shopping lists and names and appointments, and they work.
Efficacy=8; Difficulty=-5; Irritation=-2; Fun=5. Overall score=+6.

The Einstein Factor by Win Wenger and Richard Poe (Audio Version,
$89.95; paperback version, $15). I was suckered into buying this audio
book by its claims that I'd become more focused, remember more, and
raise my IQ score about 40 points-all while shuttling my daughter to and
from school. While none of that happened (except the driving), I came to
appreciate the authors' belief that each of us has a genius buried in
our unconscious waiting to emerge through a kind of lucid dreaming
(called "image streaming") as a way of recovering memories to spark
creativity. (Thus the "portable memory bank" included with The Einstein
Factor is nothing more than a blank notebook.) But memories, or stored
remnants of the past, are not the same as memory, the physiological
function that must precede it. So, while the book encouraged me to
listen to the little voice within, it did nothing to boost my MemWatch
score or keep me from leaving the Einstein Factor in the car when I
meant to bring it into the house. Efficacy=0, Difficulty=0,
Irritation=0; Fun=3. Overall score=+3.

My Brain Trainer (The site currently offers a free two-week trial
membership but usually charges a nominal fee). If My Brain Trainer,
which is billed as "the world's first virtual mental gymnasium" were a
real gym, it would have plush towels and state-of-the art elliptical
machines. Instead, it has appealing graphics and 14 challenging
exercises that stretch different parts of your mind. Want to work on
your psychomotor reflexes? How about improving your short-term memory or
hand-eye coordination? If you're like me, you'll find yourself doing
some exercises because you are good at them, and others because you
think you should be better at them, just like at the real gym. I never
managed to improve my psychomotor skills, but I progressed steadily on a
short-term memory test that required me to remember random strings of
letters until I was consistently doing much better than almost everyone
else. I knew this because MBT allows each user to measure herself
against herself, her age group, all users, and the top performer. It's
competitive; it's addictive; and, because it trains some of the same
skills as MemWatch tests, it's effective in raising MemWatch scores.
Think of it as Pilates for the mind, but more fun. Efficacy=8;
Annoyance=0; Difficulty=0; Fun=5. Overall score=+13

Brain Builder ($7.95 month, $49.45 year). Brain Builder started as a
stand-alone piece of software, and for those who want something
portable, Brain Builder 3.0 ($49.95) is still available. The online
version, however, is more powerful because it has an interactive
component that allows users to keep track of their progress, a built-in
personal trainer, an online diary function, and a random number
generator that ensures no exercise is like another. The main premise
behind Brain Builder is that memory will improve as one's ability to
increase one's sequential processing-remembering longer and longer lists
of numbers and letters-improves. As its creators write: "Better
sequential processing enables us to take in more of what there is to see
and hear." Processing speed, its creators say, is also crucial to a fit
working memory, so Brain Builder measures both how much you remember and
how fast you can recall it. Oddly, Brain Builder's strength is also its
weakness-it is relentless, a boot camp for brains, quick to flash
"penalty" when you've made a mistake, and replete with anxiety-producing
music meant as "encouragement" that makes you so stressed out, you don't
remember why you thought this was a good idea in the first place.
Efficacy=8;Difficulty=0;Irritation=-3; Fun=3. Overall score=+8

Mind Spa (A/V Stim Company, $149). Mind Spa is a little machine with big
ambitions: to put its user into various brain states (meditative,
creative, receptive, attentive) using a combination of flashing white
lights delivered through a pair of specially designed glasses and
pulsing sounds that come from headphones, both of which are attached to
an easy-to-operate, cassette-sized unit. There are 12 programs (with
more available on the A/V Stim Web site), each keyed to a different
brainwave speed-from the quiet alphas of No. 3 to the high betas of No.
9. The idea here, as with simple aural brain entrainment, is that the
sound and light will, over time, encourage new pathways in the brain.
(Mind Spa's creator, psychologist Dr. Ruth Olmstead, has recently
published research that seems to show that this kind of stimulation is
effective in controlling ADD.) While it feels silly to sit at one's desk
listening to weird throbbing sounds while wearing goofy glass
light-emitting glasses, it can be surprisingly relaxing. I often fell
asleep-then woke up and saw my MemWatch score inch up. One caveat:
Optical stimulation machines have been known to induce seizures in
people with epilepsy and those with undiagnosed seizure disorders.
Efficacy= 8; Irritation=0; Difficulty=0; Fun=4. Overall score=+12

Shortly after I concluded my "experiment," I spent some time with real
scientists who study the aging brain. I told them about my "work," and
how my MemWatch scores kept on going up. They were skeptical. Not
skeptical that I was doing better-this they attributed to the fact that
my test-taking skills were improving-but skeptical that memory decline
could be staved off by increasing the number of random letters one can
recall, listening to hemi-syncing music, or slipping on light-emitting
glasses. But one of them, a neuropsychologist who specializes in looking
at why people who are mentally and physically engaged throughout their
lives seem to resist dementia most successfully, was less dismissive.

"Look," he said, "We don't really know. Why not do these things-they
can't hurt."

Sue Halpern is the author of the new novel The Book of Hard Things, as
well as two previous books of nonfiction. She lives in the mountains
above Lake Champlain.

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