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Brain Training

May 27, 2011

Hitting the books, or perhaps the iPad, Nook or Kindle, is one sure way of learning. An interesting summary of memory training techniques can be found in the April 7, 2011, issue of Nature.[1] One theory of a classical education is that any sort of learning experience makes other learning easier. Study your Latin, so you'll get math skills!

There's actually some science behind this folk wisdom. Long-term memory is associated with the synthesis of new proteins that are needed to convert short-term memories into long-term memories.

Eric Kandel and colleagues found that the cAMP response element binding protein (CREB), a protein involved in long-term memory storage, increases the number of synaptic connections in the brain. Learning makes your brain bigger; or, at least, better. Kandel shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for such work.

Physical training often involves exercise under constraint, such as running with weights, or training at high altitudes. The reasoning behind this is that actual competition seems easier when these constraints are removed. A classical example of this that doesn't involve sports is the Greek orator, Demosthenes (Δημοσθενης). Plutarch wrote that Demosthenes wasn't a born orator. He had to train for it.[2]
"He had also, as it would appear, a certain weakness of voice and indistinctness of speech and shortness of breath which disturbed the sense of what he said by disjoining his sentences."

It's written that Demosthenes would train by talking with pebbles in his mouth. To improve his breathing, he recited verses while running, and he spoke on the seashore over the roar of the waves to strengthen his voice.

Greek orator, Demosthenes

Demosthenes Practicing Oratory (Démosthène s'exerçant à la parole)

Oil painting by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842-1923)

Via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Mitroff, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has been testing a similar principle in connection with the brain's processing of visual signals. The sports equipment company, Nike, has developed "training" eyewear called Nike Vapor Strobe. Mitroff has done some studies of the efficacy of this eyewear, and he's presented some results in a poster session at a recent meeting of the Vision Sciences Society in Naples, Florida.[3-4] In this research, he was assisted by postdoctoral researcher Gregory Appelbaum. Not surprisingly, his research was funded by Nike.

The lenses of the Nike Vapor Strobe eyewear change state from transparent to opaque. The duty cycle is a fixed 100 msec clear, and an adjustable 67-900 msec opaque. This longer duty cycle means that you're looking at a scene just 10% of the time, with updates every second. As the theory goes, the brain has been trained by using the eyewear, so when it's removed, a ball's path can be seen more clearly.

This was, of course, a controlled experiment in which half of the study subjects were tested with identical, but non-functional, eyewear as a comparison group against the ones who did. About 500 test subjects were recruited from Duke University athletes in such sports as varsity football, men's basketball and men's and women's soccer. Also thrown into the mix (pun intended) were other throwing-type sports, such as Ultimate Frisbee, volleyball and juggling, and a few non-sports undergraduates.

The corp of test subjects was tested on visual-motor tasks before and after wearing the eyewear. These tasks were throwing and catching a ball; or, computer-based tests. Some of the test subjects commented that balls seemed to have slowed down after they completed the strobed viewing and went back to normal viewing. There was slight improvement on some tests after only two training sessions of twenty-five minutes each, although some subjects showed no improvement.

The training seemed to help the test subjects become more sensitive to small motions. Said Mitroff, "Not every test we tried showed differences, but several showed significant improvements."[3] There's a short demonstration video posted on YouTube.[4]


  1. Larry R. Squire, "Psychology: The art of remembering," Nature, vol. 472, no. 7341 (April 7, 2011), pp. 33-34.
  2. Plutarch, "Plutarch's Lives, with an English Translation by Bernadotte Perrin," (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA., William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1919), chap. 6, sec. 3. Online text available from The Perseus Project. Plutarch-Demosthenes, Chapter 6, section 3.

  3. Karl Leif Bates, "Strobe eyewear training may improve visual abilities," Duke University Press Release, May 19, 2011.
  4. Video: Duke researchers test strobe glasses, YouTube, May 19, 2011.

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Linked Keywords: iPad; Barnes & Noble Nook; Amazon Kindle; classical education; Latin; mathematics; science; folklore; folk wisdom; Long-term memory; biosynthesis; protein; short-term memory; Eric Kandel; cAMP response element binding protein; CREB; synapse; brain; Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; physical training; high altitude; ancient Greece; Greek; orator; Demosthenes; Plutarch; Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ; Wikimedia Commons; psychology; neuroscience; Duke University; Nike; Vision Sciences Society; Naples, Florida; corrective lens; transparent; opaque; duty cycle; millisecond; msec; controlled experiment; athlete; varsity football; college basketball; college soccer; Ultimate Frisbee; volleyball; juggling; demonstration video; YouTube; Nature; The Perseus Project.

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