Forget brain workouts—chanting mantras takes half the time and is more effective

I read some disquieting news recently. Apparently, science isn’t sure that brain workouts work. This bothers me because it means that I will have to delete the 23 brain-improvement apps that I have downloaded on my various i-devices. On my iPhone, I have Lumosity, Fit Brains, N back 2, and Clockwork Brain, among others. I subscribe to newsletters from Sharp Brains, take free trials with Mind360, and read up everything I can on how to preserve and nurture aging brains. For good measure, I am also attempting to learn a new language via Duolingo; and memorize some Sanskrit verses—Sanskrit boosts brainpower, according to the Vedas. And my mother. I also take mindfulness meditation courses online (Satya Nadella does online courses too, and hey, if the new CEO of Microsoft can do them, I have no excuse).

My rendezvous with online brain training began as a quest to improve my memory. I have always been the forgetful sort. I am what Ayurveda calls a Vata body-type. Vatas have a high metabolism, a surfeit of ideas, a restless spirit, thin bodies with bones sticking out, and flighty eyes. Malcolm Gladwell is a classic Vata. I don’t know if he is forgetful but that is a Vata trait too. When your mind is preoccupied with many ideas, you tend to forget that you’ve put your spectacles inside the fridge while pulling out the beer. As a child, my parents rued my forgetfulness. Their solution, however, had nothing to do with brain training games and apps. Brain-training games, according to my father, were simply repackaging what the Hindu and Buddhist traditions had discovered eons ago. My Hindu parents turned to 5,000-year-old techniques that would still and calm the mind: meditation. In their view, meditation and pranayama (breathing techniques) would serve me better in terms of improving my memory and calming down my restless disposition. “Why don’t you just meditate for 10 minutes everyday?” my mom often said when I was a teenager. “It will change your life.”

Of course I didn’t. Like all children who rebel against repeated entreaties from parents, I took a lifelong aversion to meditation that still hasn’t changed. It also has to do with disposition. Running works for some; meditating works for others. Some runners say that they are in a zen state when they are pounding the pavement. All these methods lead to improved physical and mental health. I just haven’t found one that I can stick with.

It was only in my forties that I decided to do something about my forgetfulness. A friend told me to try something called Dual N-Back. N back is a series of tasks that allows cognitive neuroscientists to measure and improve working memory. Dual N-back is a variation suggested by Susanne Jaeggi and others, which introduce two different stimuli—one visual and one auditory—that the participants need to keep track of. Although it sounds complicated, it can be easily learned. There are numerous apps that are based on Dual N-back. My favorite is called IQ Boost. It provides auditory stimulus in the form of numbers and visual stimulus in the form of spaces. The idea is that you remember the number and space that was stated 1 iteration before, then 2, then 3, then 4 and so on. For about three months, I diligently played the game everyday for about 15 minutes: N back 2, then 3, then 4. In my experience, the game worked. It allowed me to retrace my steps; to remember what I had done two minutes before, then three, then four, and so on.

In interviews and podcasts, Joshua Foer, author of the book, Moonwalking with Einstein, talks about how winning the memory championship didn’t help him remember where he puts things. But IQ Boost did help me remember places where I had left spectacles, books, keys and all the other paraphernalia of busy modern life. Giddy with success, I furiously downloaded other apps. Lumosity is the most popular but Fit Brains (with separate focus and memory components) is equally good. I began playing these everyday, going from Clockwork Brain to Lumosity when I got bored and becoming better at certain tasks as I continued playing. For example, I found myself getting good at remembering the location of an increasing number of squares; and becoming quicker at calculating math problems of increasing complexity. But I gradually stopped seeing their connection to the everyday forgetfulness that made me seek them in the first place. I plateaued, in other words.

What the latest studies show is that online brain training lets you become better—at brain games. You swipe the center bird in the direction in which it is flying and you get good at it; even if you want to kill yourself after a dozen iterations. You do the math problems that come packaged in falling droplets and you get good at math. By disassembling brainpower into byte-sized problems, brain training companies have made megabytes worth of money.

Neuroscientists aren’t convinced that these games work, however. Sure, there will be a little organic increase in your brain processing power, but no more than if you attend a lecture, learn a new language, or read this site everyday.

A parallel strand that is gaining momentum in the brain-improvement field has to do with more profound objectives. It involves brain-training but not through games and apps, but through gratitude journals and seeking happiness. Stanford’s 2013 roundtable webcast, held last October and moderated by Katie Couric, featured five experts discussing happiness. The Atlantic has reported that hundreds of students in Harvard University are studying ancient Chinese techniques. Both these strands have brain improvement as their core goal but their approaches are different. The brain games and app seek to improve working memory, concentration, focus, multi-tasking and all those other skills needed to function better in everyday life. Their goal, in my view, is short-term brain-improvement, even though some of them claim that the effects of their brain training sessions are long-term. The other strand, which goes back to the meditation techniques that my parents advocated when I was young, is spiritual in its bent. It aims to change the brain from the inside out—through acceptance, gratitude, and equanimity. UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) offers online classes on adapting ancient techniques to modern life. In India and China, ancient cultures both; this includes movement techniques such as tai chi and yoga; meditation; breathing (the same as pranayama and called Qi Gong in China); prayer; and chanting. All these practices are supposed to improve your brain and deliver the benefits of brain-training games and then some.

One fine morning a couple of years ago, my mother gave me “mantra deeksha” as a sort of birthday present. Deeksha means spiritual initiation. Mantras are Sanskrit phrases that are repeated quietly for a specific million number of times. The practice of chanting is broadly called “Akshara Laksham,” which means “as many hundreds of thousands of chants as there are syllables in the mantra.”

Om” is the simplest and arguably the most profound and powerful mantra, according to Hindu mythology. In one mythic tale, Lord Muruga explained the meaning of ‘Om’ to his father, Lord Shiva. I don’t know the meaning; and I haven’t even gotten close to the meaning in terms of reading Sanskrit texts on it. Advanced practioniers say the meaning and effects of mantras are to be realized, not just understood. “Om Namah Shivaya,” is another mantra. Hinduism, the religion I practice (sometimes devotedly and sometimes in a haphazard way as is typical of Vata people) has countless such mantras. Repeating these mantras on a fairly regular basis will cause profound changes in mind-body physiology and psychology, as witnessed in the Tibetan monks who have been studied by mind-body scientists. Zoran Josipovic, director of the Contemplative Science Lab at New York University has been “peering” into the brains of Tibetan monks since 2008 using fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machines. A meditation practitioner himself, Josipovic states that meditation cultivates “attentional” skills. The question for me was the following: what was a better model to use in my life: meditation or brain training? The easy answer is both, because they offer tangential but broadly similar benefits. But that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. I needed to make a call; choose a practice.

On that day, she gave me “deeksha,” or spiritual initiation, my mother taught me a very specific mantra. In the Hindu practice, you have to learn a mantra from a guru. You can’t just read it off a book and start chanting. Well, you can. But it won’t have the same effect as a customized, individualized mantra given to you by a wise guru who has seen you and your problems in person. I am not supposed to reveal my mantra. I am to merely chant it, sitting if possible in a lotus position. Huffing and puffing—figuratively speaking, given that mantra practice is all about not huffing and puffing—I forced myself to take a few minutes out each day to chant this mantra. I am sure that mantra-chanting offers many benefits but the one I was tracking was memory improvement. In that area, it worked. My memory improved. When my husband asked where I had kept the income tax statement, I was able to trace my steps, not just for the last minute, but for the last few days and remember that I had heaved the income tax papers along with all the other junk mail and yellow envelopes.

I am at a fork in the road. I cannot do both brain training exercise and meditation. I simply don’t have the time (a lame excuse, I know) or inclination for 10 minutes of mantra chanting and then 20 minutes of brain-training online games. I have to pick one or the other, a tough choice because I am inclined toward the apps and the games. They offer the busyness I crave, that I am used to. Simply sitting in one spot and doing nothing is extremely tough for me. Chanting mantras is a compromise because, at least, it feels like I am doing something. There is one side benefit to sitting cross-legged and chanting quietly. It gave me the proverbial sense of peace that meditation is supposed to give. I don’t get that from the brain training apps, but I did get it after 10 minutes of sitting still and chanting mantras silently. Maybe it is a more holistic method of stilling and opening the mind; or maybe I have just decided to stop rebelling against my mother and all the practices that I grew up with. Maybe the “wisdom” I feel is really a sign of maturity; of acceptance.

For now, till science verifies the power of brain training apps, I’ve decided to free up some memory on my iPhone and delete every single one of them. I can’t tell you how liberating that is. I almost feel like jumping up and down and screaming—or rather, in my case, sitting down right now, with my feet cross-legged in the lotus position, closing my eyes, and engaging in some quiet mantra chanting.

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