How to Improve Self Discipline: Dual N back Experiment

For those who have been following my blog, currently I am doing teacher college. I am still struggling with distraction, and mental burnout (due to ADHD). I concluded earlier that ADHD is a result of brain damage. I believe that this brain damage can be caused by wrong diets, prenatal brain damages, environmental toxins, metal poisoning, or abusive upbringing.

Most people, with or without a condition such as ADHD, have a certain degree of struggles with lack of focus at times. We all want to be more disciplined and achieve more, but again and again most of us fall short and feel guilty. Very few of us are fully happy with our self discipline.

Self discipline is really a function of the brain, and brain is like muscle—the more you work it, the more it get strengthen. In my search for a cure, I have come across a few promising solutions, and one of my most recent experiments is playing a computer based brain training game called the Dual N Back, for 40 minutes each day. It’s free for download.

The point of this game is very simple. The window constantly produces a stream of figures and sounds in a sequence that you need to retain and update in your mind, and while the sequence is still going it tests if you recall what was shown a few rounds earlier.

It trains the user’s “working memory”, which is like RAMs for computers. The more RAMs a computer has, the more windows it can operate at the same time. Similarly, the stronger we develop our working memory, the better, faster, and longer we can focus, and switch focus from task to task. (i.e. multi-tasking)

Dual N back also trains users to filter out distraction, maintains a prolonged span of attention, and therefore directly impacts our self discipline. Inhibition (i.e. suppression of impulses) is a function of the brain. The more you train the mind to ignore distractions and focus on one thing at a time, the better your inhibition becomes.

Workout for the Brain

It’s like doing push up. At first I was horrible. I could hardly complete the Dual 1-back. For the first 6 months since I started I had been doing a session of 20 minutes every few days. It was hardly enough for my brain to learn how to focus better and filter out distractions.

About 3 months ago, I visited the Arrowsmith school in Toronto (the founder is the author of the bestseller, The Woman Who Changed Her Brain). It is a private school that provides tailored brain exercises for individuals who have learning disabilities. They have achieved very good results for the last two decades. Many kids and adults have successfully reversed their cognitive defects by following an individual plan that suits their diagnosis. A director of the school told me that, to achieve lasting change in the brain, each area of the brain that their student works on requires a consistent amount of mental exercise for 40 minutes a day, 6 days a week. No more. No less.

It was a life changing revelation for me. No wonder I failed again and again trying to develop a better self discipline! Not only do I need to know what it really is, a function of the brain, but I also need to know what I need to do specifically to make it grows stronger. It takes 40 minutes of brain exercise almost every day, at the right level of difficulties, to stimulate the brain to change.

If we try to force our brain to focus for too long, or to work on mental task that is too overwhelming, we would get burnout. It’s like lifting too much weight. The brain needs the right level of challenge, for a consistent amount of time each day, to rewire itself.

What People and I Said about the Dual N Back

They report remarkable changes. People get off ADD medication, report higher IQ score, learn things much quicker, beat chess players who are at higher ranks, develop deeper interest in math and other subjects, and so much more, since they started playing the Dual N back game. (You can google their reports on Google groups, or the website of the game)

As for me, I have been playing it for 40 minutes, 6 weeks a day, for about 3 months now, and I also have been combining that with physical exercises, including aerobic, and supplement such as fish oil. For many people, this is a lot. By now they would have been working on higher levels in Dual N back. For me, I still have a long way to go. It would take a while before I see significant results.

My current college schedule is, however, very overwhelming. As part of the program, I have been teaching at an elementary school as an intern for weeks, and boy I never knew being a teacher requires so much focus. As a teacher, not only do I have to plan each lesson, but I have to keep on average a hundred of students focused. If the teacher isn’t organized and focused, the students would get out of line too.

My level of focus is like a roller-coaster. My lesson plan is skeleton, and non linear. My supervisor at the elementary school agreed that I am not a linear person, which mean I don’t think in a straight sequence, but I am all over the map at once. I think I need at least 3 personal assistants and an agent to help me manage my life.

At this point, I can’t tell how much Dual N back has been helping me, because I haven’t got enough sleeps and I was over my head with the work loads. When you don’t get enough sleep, the brain can hardly repair itself.

But still here is my progress curves

During the first month of trying Dual N back I couldn’t sit still for 40 minutes working only on this task, so I would watch a movie at the same time. This would explain the first portion of the curve being so low. Although I didn’t focus solely on the task, it was still very good for my brain because the harder I was working on filtering out the distraction (the movie), the more my brain is changing.

By the second month, I was able to focus on the task entirely for 40 minutes a day.

I will post more personal reports on this for months to come :)