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MINDFIT first review - taking my mind for a ride

In addition to this weeks article: The dawn of cognitive technology, IsraCast brings you the first ever review of the MindFit cognitive software, recently released by the Israeli company CogniFit.

       
  Product Card  
  Product name: MindFit  
  Type: Software
 
  Developer: CogniFit  
  Availability: Now
 
  Download Only: $ 129
 
  Boxed CD: $ 149  
 

Just type-in ISRA10 when asked for promotion code
 
     

When I received the new version of the MindFit software from CogniFit I already knew more or less what to expect, since I had already seen an earlier version about six months ago. The software version I received was in Hebrew (although versions in English, French, Spanish, Polish and German are also available), this is important since CogniFit recommends that each user should work with a software in his mother tongue due to the language skills the software works on.




The Task Pool - Over 20 different cognitive tasks.

A few words of clarification before we start this review: MindFit had been marketed in Israel under the title MindFit 50+. The software was developed to preserve and in some cases improve the cognitive abilities (i.e., memory, attention span, perception, etc.) of people over the age of 50. As I intend to show in this review the label 50+ was somehow misleading and was more part of a marketing strategy than an actual limitation on the age of the user and was thus eliminated from the title of the newly released U.S. version. Actually, one of the things the software excels in is learning the strengths and weaknesses of the user and adapting itself to them. By doing so the software creates a unique training session for each user. This mechanism can quickly adapt itself to people with highly developed cognitive abilities as well as to those who are already feeling some mental degeneration. Each task on MindFit can reach higher and higher levels depending on the performance of the user, eventually challenging even young healthy individuals with highly developed cognitive abilities.

Installation and first use:

Two terms that will appear over and over in this review are "ease of use" and user friendly." Although the software can reach a very challenging level when pushed to the limit, the target audience dictated a very simple and easy to use format that can be used even by people who have little or no previous experience with computers. Although in recent years computers and the internet have been widely adopted by all levels of society, including older people, many of them still find the new technology hard to use. In thisrespect MindFit is as simple and as straight forward as you can get.

Installation of the software took a few minutes on the test computer (the minimum requirements of the software according to CogniFit are: Pentium III 1000, 128mb ram and Windows 2000/XP OS, meaning even most three-year-old computers can run the software). After the smooth installation process there is a short one time on-line registration which requires the user to enter an individual code (which I received with the software). This code will later be used each time the user enters the software for identification purposes. The last short phase before actually using the software is a one page questionnaire, after which the user enters an introductory screen that explains the different aspects of the software.

MindFit main page - Exercise these lazy brain cells.

After reading about the software, the user will be directed to the main page where he will be able to select from a list that includes several options such as a training session, an individual task via the Task pool, switch user and information. Other functions that can be performed from the main window are getting feedback from the "personal coach" (more on this later), checking your computer sound setup, sending e-mails with questions and requests to CogniFit as well as sending your results back to the company. Although you do not need to be connected to the internet in order to run the software it is recommended that you send your results to CogniFit at least once every two weeks. Since there is no personal data transmitted (the software never asks for a name, only a user number) there should not be any confidentiality problems.

When a user first starts to use the software he or she undergoes a three day evaluation process. Each training session takes approximately one half hour to complete and most of the tasks included are fairly simple and meant to evaluate specific aspects of the users cognitive abilities, such as reaction time, which is measured by quickly pressing a square moving along the screen, memory which is tested by showing various objects one after the other and asking the user to click at the bottom if they were already shown before. Other cognitive abilities which are tested in the evaluation stage are: time evaluation, naming, coordination and special perception. At the end of the evaluation process the user receives a list of 14 cognitive abilities in a descending order which represent how well he or she succeeded in each cognitive task. There is no score and the results are mostly relative to the users other cognitive abilities and not to those of other users. As we shall see later on in this review this method of presenting results is the common method throughout MindFit and it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Exercising your brain:

"Supermind" - Guess the golf ball number

After completing the evaluation process the user begins the training program. Just like in a gym, a personal training program is constructed to fit the needs of each user. In my case the software decided to start with what is known as working memory or short term memory exercise (after analyzing correctly that short term memory is not exactly my strongest forte). The exercise I was given was called Supermind and is basically the computerized version of a well known guessing game. In Supermind the computer picks up a number which the user must guess. The user tries to guess the number picked up by the computer and is given small red and white flags to indicate whether the user picked up a correct number in the correct order (red flag), just the correct number (white flag) or an incorrect number (no flag). The goal of the first stage was getting three red flags, a mission I accomplished admirably given my usual incompetence with such tasks. Moving along to four flags proved a more challenging task and I suspect that even highly competent individuals can find five or more flags a demanding task.

Before moving to the next task on the training program, a quick word about the interface and graphics. The interface of MindFit is very simple and straightforward; there are very few options available to the user which creates a non- threatening environment. CogniFit insisted that almost the entire operation of the software could be done using the mouse alone. One thing I found missing from the on-screen interface was the pause button (although there is a button showing a question mark which leads back to the task explanation screen). As for the graphics, do not expect Doom III or even 3D, the graphics are simple 2D, almost spartan, but it is usually clear and gets the job done by eliminating unnecessary distractions. In regard to distractions, I cannot stress more strongly how important it is to perform the training program in a distraction-free environment. Trying to finish a task while your cat is frantically running around the room, your boss is talking to you on the phone or you are in the middle of eating lunch is probably not the best idea (a fact I learned the hard way after viewing my third day training results). One last point before we return to the training. MindFit includes a comprehensive narrating function. Every instruction which is written on the screen is also read out loud in a very clear and slow manner. This is very important since many people react better to voice commands than to written ones (as it was demonstrated to me by my results in a few more advanced tasks later on in my training). For people who feel the narrating is too slow or just plain annoying there is always the option of pressing next and moving straight to the task itself, although you will still need to hear the instructions of any task at least once.

"Crisscross" - Semi-multitasking.

Back to the training program and the second task called, Crisscross, here I found myself having to observe a moving ball inside a box divided into several regions of different colors. Each time the ball hit one of the box walls it changed color and the goal was to estimate where the ball would hit next and quickly press this part of the wall so it would match the color of the ball. Although this task might sound complex, it is in itself fairly simple, the catch being that every few seconds you have to switch your attention to a different mission of tracking a ball through a maze. Although this is not a multitask exercise per se, it does require the ability to quickly shift attention from one mission to another. It is usually considered that on average women are better at these tasks than men and after going back and forth between the two tasks for a while I was completely reassured of my masculinity.

"What happened to my mouse?" Try to keep up with your mouse frenzy behavior.

The third task on my first day was called What happened to my mouse? which is an accurate title since it describes exactly my reaction when I first started it. In this task you receive a small jigsaw puzzle with images and numbers from one to four. Your task is to assemble the puzzle by pressing the parts in the right order. This could have been a very simple task if my mouse cursor wouldnt have started to move erratically and made a mockery of my attempts. Each time I tried to move the mouse up, the cursor moved down, when I tried to move the mouse to the left, the cursor moved right. This evil tango between my mouse and the cursor continued for a few minutes and when it was over, a blinking message was waiting for me with my personal coach. The personal coach is a very clever idea introduced by CogniFit that can help you by analyzing your performance and giving you tips about your strong and weak spots, your training method and various other subjects. In this case the personal coach was letting me know that the switch between up and down movements was apparently too difficult for me. My only complaint about the personal coach is that it did not appear too often. Actually apart from some system messages the only help I received from it was the one I just described. Since I believe the personal coach can be a very useful tool if implemented correctly, I can only suggest CogniFit work to improve its activity.

These are only the three tasks that I received during the first training day. MindFit actually has more than twenty different tasks divided in different ways creating a large variety of training exercises. Each training exercise is built to train a different cognitive aspect (memory, attention span, decision making, problem solving, hand-eye coordination, etc.). CogniFit recommends using the software three times a week for approximately twenty minutes each time. From my experience this assessment might be a bit too short, but if the user concentrates on performing the tasks and not stopping to watch TV and talk over the phone he should be able to complete a full day training in less than half an hour.

One word of advice before we continue, MindFit, like any other training method based on repetitive action, is totally dependent upon the will and diligence of the user. If one does not follow the training program he should not expect to see results.

Results Results Results:

A typical results page - Still needs some refinements.

An important aspect of any training is the ability to measure ones achievements and compare them with both his own previous record and the average for similar other users. In this respect MindFit is skimpy to say the least. Results are shown in the form of a graph which usually shows the users response time and his accuracy level in a specific task. The results are always shown only after the second time he has performed a task and are relative only to his own previous accomplishments and not to other people. Furthermore when the user finishes a specific task his results are compared only to the first time he performed the task and he is not shown the full history of his performance.

When I approached CogniFit and asked them about this issue I was given a very interesting answer. Apparently they have been aware of this issue for a long time and the main reason it was not changed dramatically since the previous version I looked at six months ago is not technical but psychological. According to what I was told, many people, especially elderly people have a great difficulty confronting their deteriorating cognitive abilities. When their results are shown to them by the software for the first time many of them can feel depressed, angry and disappointed. Since these feelings are counterproductive, the developers are trying to avoid them by restricting the amount of information available for the user. Since it is obvious that this restriction is not the ideal solution to the problem the developers explained to me that they are experimenting with different methods for presenting results and when a specific method will be selected they will incorporate it into the software.

Does it work?

Now we reach what many people have been waiting for, the million dollar questiondoes it work? Like any other complex thing there is no simple yes or no answer to this question, but I will do my best to try and convey my impressions. After using the software for a month I can definitely say that I feel some improvement when it comes to multitasking and fast switching between tasks (this subjective feeling is further supported by the results I received from the Crisscross task which showed approximately 5% improvement in my success rate). A different task in which I demonstrated an even higher improvement was naming (the ability to quickly recognize an object and remember its name). In this task the software recorded almost 8% improvement. When it comes to my greatest weaknessmemory, my improvement was only marginal but it should be remembered that CogniFit states that the minimum training period before starting to see results is 8 weeks. Since I had only been using this version of the software for the last month or so my memory might still have a chance. Expecting the software to work miracles in such a short period of time is like expecting to become a body builder after going to the gym for a few weeks.

Conclusion:

So what can I say about MindFit after a full month of testing? Actually, quite a bit. Although it was originally marketed for older people, the software can adapt to the level of the user and be very challenging at times. The software itself is innovative, easy to use, has a very simple and straightforward interface, clear 2D graphics and most important of all, at least in my case, it showed improvement in a variety of tasks after a relatively short period of time.

Of course no software is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. Besides minor annoyances such as the lack of an on-screen pause button and less than active personal coach, the greatest problem I currently see with the software has to do with the way the results are presented. Since CogniFit is aware of this issue I can only hope it will be improved quickly.

To conclude this review I can say this: whoever, young or old, feels his or her cognitive ability is not what it used to be (or never was) and is willing to spend about an hour a week improving on it should try MindFit. After all, regardless of your age or state, your brain is the most precious asset you will ever have.

Thumbs Up : Still needs improvement:

Seems to work

A more active personal coach

Adaptive technology (can fit both young and old people)

Results are not informative enough

Simple and straightforward interface

 

Clear 2D graphics

 

Useful narrating

 

 

Iddo Genuth

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