The Technology Behind How Thinkie Works

Nick White
April 22, 2024
A deep-dive into the science, research and technology that enables Thinkie.

The research, science, and technology behind Thinkie can appear daunting at first, but most of us are already familiar with the fact that brains age with the passage of time. What you may not know is, this process can be addressed through brain training, i.e., the act of "exercising" your brain to stimulate blood flow and activate cognitive processes.

What does that activation process look like? Allow us to address some of the most common questions when we introduce Thinkie to a new audience.

1. Theory and mechanism of brain training

Fluid vs. crystallized intelligence

What types of intelligence does Thinkie improve?

Intelligence is classified into fluid and crystallized intelligence, as proposed by Horn and Cattell[i].

Fluid intelligence is the capacity to acquire, process, and manipulate novel information. It involves processing speed, intuition, and the ability to discern patterns. These capabilities affect reasoning, problem-solving, working memory, and the ability to discover rules. Fluid intelligence tends to peak during late adolescence and early adulthood and then gradually declines.

On the other hand, crystallized intelligence is based on years of experience, education, and learning, and includes language proficiency, general knowledge, accumulated wisdom, and insight. It usually increases after the age of 20 and remains stable into old age.

Thinkie aims to enhance fluid intelligence through specialized exercises meticulously designed to optimize brain function and facilitate cognitive growth. By targeting this aspect of intelligence, Thinkie helps individuals sharpen their ability to process new information and tackle complex problems effectively.

Where does training occur in your brain?

Higher brain functions occur in the prefrontal portion of the cerebral cortex, known as the “control tower” of the brain. Functions of the prefrontal cortex include:

·      Short-term memory

·      Attention

·      Thinking

·      Decision-making

·      Suppression of impulsive behavior

Areas and functions of new mammalian brain. The prefrontal cortex must be activated in order to attain improvement in cognitive function and overall brain health.

Thus, the more effort you put forth using Thinkie, the greater your potential cognitive gains. Increased engagement of the prefrontal region during training exercises may facilitate more efficient neuroplasticity by reinforcing the neural circuitry underlying the brain’s executive function.

The effect of cognitive function correlates with level of activity in the brain's left hemisphere dorsolateral prefrontal cortex during training.

What aspects of brain function are Thinkie games designed to affect?

Brain training enlarges the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. When that area becomes enlarged, the person experiences improvement across a wide variety of capabilities including memory, learning, understanding, guessing, reasoning, inhibition, intention (planning), attention, and judgment.

Brain blood flow volume by activity and area.
What types of games does Thinkie offer?

Thinkie game functions are categorized into 5 types:

·      Mental speed: Relying on logic, math, word and visuospatial skills, these games are great ways to increase brain power, as they engage multiple cognitive abilities simultaneously

·      Memory: Designed to improve memory, attention, focus, processing speed, and problem-solving, these games can also help with visual recognition, attention to detail, and critical thinking

·      Concentration: Can improve sustained attention, visual recognition, and short-term memory skills

·      Prediction: Anticipating the outcome of future events

·      Attention: Divided attention games can improve visual attention, visual scanning, comparison skills, reaction control, and focus 

Imagining the brain as a well-equipped computer.

How can I make my brain training more effective?

Getting the most out of your training is simple: just try as hard as you can to work as fast as possible. In so doing, you’ll powerfully activate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of your brain. We know that the efficacy of cognitive training is correlated to the level of activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex detected during training, as measured by change in blood flow. Increased blood flow during training is the optimal condition for maintaining and improving cognitive function.

What if some games seem too easy for me?

That’s ok – you’re still activating this crucial region of the brain by concentrating on simple tasks and completing them quickly. In fact, according to Dr. Kawashima, world-renowned neuroscientist and developer of the Thinkie brain games, if the games sometimes seem too easy, this is done on purpose.

As he says, “My research shows speed with accuracy is more effective than complexity. The games seem simple, but they are not. They are designed by neuroscientists who study which activities lead to more blood flow to the brain, and therefore work the brain more. Although it seems counterintuitive, simpler games are more effective for users of any age."

2. fNIRS, the Thinkie sensor, and the concept of brain age

How does Thinkie sensor measure brain activity?

The Thinkie sensor utilizes functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology, a non-invasive, portable method that irradiates near-infrared light through the scalp to measure changes in blood flow (hemoglobin) to the human brain. Changes detected by Thinkie indicate alterations in cerebral blood flow volume, which in turn reflect an increase or decrease in neural activity. The change in blood flow, measured by the change in light returned to the Thinkie sensor, is calculated scientifically using the Lambert Method.

How does Thinkie know when my brain is working hard?

The Thinkie sensor measures relative changes in blood flow. Thus, it is first necessary to establish a baseline measurement when the brain is at rest. This baseline makes the rise and fall in blood flow more detectable and is the reason for the initial calibration countdown before beginning training. If you take care to establish a good initial baseline measurement for your brain, Thinkie will more easily detect changes as you increase cognitive load.

Blood volume increases as oxygen is sent to the brain. Changes in hemoglobin concentration are measured using infrared light.
What is the significance of Thinkie points?

Brain activity is measured by the changes in blood flow in your brain in comparison to the baseline established during a 15-second calibration prior to beginning play. Thinkie points represent the highest score achieved during the game, defined by a 100-point maximum. The higher the score, the greater the change in blood flow volume and the harder you worked during training.

Remember, Thinkie points measure effort during training, not your achievement. It is unimportant how well you played the games – what matters is that you challenged yourself by playing hard.

How does change in blood flow relate to Thinkie points and color changes during training?

Recall that brain activity is measured by change in blood flow volume from the initial baseline taken during calibration prior to beginning training.

The larger the change in blood flow volume as measured by the sensor, the greater the rise in score. This absolute change is gauged on a 100-point scale and is recalculated in 1-second increments.

Change in Thinkie score as related to brain activity, starting from baseline measurement.
What is brain age and what does it represent?

Scientists have calculated an inverse linear correlation between the brain’s processing speed and its chronological age. To measure the brain’s processing speed we use a test called mental rotation, which serves as a proxy for estimating brain age. As processing speed improves, brain age declines, and vice versa.

As you train your brain to improve processing speed (as measured by the mental rotation exercise), your brain age improves somewhat linearly. For example, if were to you train your brain to score 10 years younger than previously scored, this would indicate a 1.2x improvement in processing speed (i.e., 20%).

The fact is, aging naturally leads to cognitive decline for everyone. But there is a solution! You guessed it: training with Thinkie can improve your brain age and help you maintain that improvement.

Formula for calculating brain age from Thinkie score.
Is fNIRS brain training truly effective?

Research conducted by institutions such as Tohoku University, Université de Lorraine, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, demonstrates the potential of fNIRS-based brain training interventions to enhance cognitive function and promote neuroplasticity.

The Tohoku-Lorraine findings correlate Thinkie brain game scores to significantly increased brain activity, habituation, and improved cognitive function in comparison to the control group. Furthermore, the Thinkie brain training group also showed unique improvements across short-term, long-term, and visual memory.

Tohoku-Lorraine study comparing brain game scores with/without neurofeedback. Source: Cognitive Training with Neurofeedback Using NIRS Improved Cognitive Functions in Young Adults: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial

A second report, from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides methods, measures and results pertaining to the Effects of Cognitive Training (ECT) study. This study was designed to investigate the effects of engaging in 4 weeks of the app-based ABC program (Thinkie) vs. playing Tetris. The study, sponsored by Mitsui, was conducted by Drs. Acevedo and Collins at UCSB. Data collection for this project began in May 2021 and ended in December 2021.

Effects of cognitive training vs. playing Tetris. Source: Cognitive Training with Neurofeedback Using fNIRS Improves Cognitive Function in Older Adults

As you can see, by targeting specific brain regions and monitoring their activity levels, one can achieve a tailored approach to cognitive enhancement and thus improve specific cognitive functions.

Critics may question the accuracy and reliability of fNIRS technology. Thinkie's rigorous scientific validation and decades of research lend credibility to its efficacy. Moreover, advancements in sensor design and data analysis algorithms have bolstered the precision and sensitivity of fNIRS-based brain training systems, minimizing potential sources of error and ensuring robust test results.

[i]Horn JL, Cattell RB. Age differences in fluid and crystallized intelligence. Acta Psychol (Amst). 1967;26(2):107-29. doi:10.1016/0001-6918(67)90011-x. PMID: 6037305.

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