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Do Brain Training Games Live Up to the Hype?

By Jeff AndersonJune 26, 2013
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People are exceedingly afraid of losing their intelligence and memory. Our collective fear of cognitive decline has created a market for new “brain games” or “brain training programs” that improve attention and working memory. But, do brain training games work?

Learn more about how this new market could effect cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

What Are Brain Games?

Brain games are typically video games that challenge the player with various puzzles. The games are popular on smartphones and tablets, but are also available as PC software, and on video game consoles. There are a huge variety of puzzles that confront players, and they’re designed to be enjoyable rather than a chore.

For example, one problem in the iPhone app, Fit Brains Trainer, shows a side view of stacked geometrical shapes and asks the player to match it with the appropriate top view of the same stack. This is an example of a puzzle that summons the player’s spatial intelligence.

Most of the brain games target various realms of intelligence, including logic and mathematics, linguistic and musical intelligence. Of course, improving working memory is a key target of the exercises as well.

Big Industry, Target and Claims

A 2011 article in Business Insider said the industry is worth more than $300 million per year, and with the proliferation of mobile devices, it’s safe to assume that figure has probably continued to grow. Search data from Google indicates that U.S. search volume for the term “brain games” has increased dramatically since 2004, and reached an all-time high in May of this year. For instance, one of the biggest brain game makers, Lumosity, states that it has more than 35 million members on their website.

Brain game puzzle examplePart of the reason that the industry has been so successful is that they don’t only market to seniors fearful of age related memory decline or diseases like Alzheimer’s, but every age group is fair play. These businesses also promote their products to parents of young children, students who want an edge on the SAT, and young adults who want to be a step ahead of their counterparts in competitive careers.

The brain game business is a big industry that makes big claims. Many companies make somewhat grandiose claims. Fit Brains Trainer (mentioned in the puzzle example and above), for instance, claims using the app can improve memory, concentration, problem solving skills and even lead to “positive mood changes.”

Lumosity is more tempered in its claims, citing research in their efforts to persuade potential buyers of its benefits. Its webpage reads in part, “Multiple research papers have been published on Lumosity’s effectiveness.” They do not note that the methodology and relevance of these studies has been vigorously questioned by experts.

Can Brain Training Make You Smarter?

The effectiveness of brain training is controversial, and largely in doubt for many age groups. For example, a New Yorker article from April of this year, bluntly titled “Brain Games are Bogus,” outlined many of the doubts about these programs, and the article notes researchers have raised significant questions about the ability of these puzzles to raise intelligence in children and healthy adults.

A recent meta-analysis published by the University of Oslo found that there may be very limited benefits from brain training exercises, at least in healthy adults and children. Their research suggested that the benefits of brain training are short lived and limited merely to the task that was practiced, not to other tasks or general intelligence. The authors of this study also noticed that the benefits of brain training may be overstated because “teams that find nothing tend not to publish their papers.”

Dr. David Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, dismantles many of the claims made by companies like Lumosity, noting flaws in the studies that they use to backup the efficacy of their product. In the interview, Dr. Hambrick says one of the only demonstrated ways for healthy individuals to improve brain function is through physical exercise.

Interestingly, none of these experts critique the potential for brain training programs to delay dementia or improve its symptoms, and that’s because there is some evidence that they can do just that, despite the fact that benefits for other groups may be limited.

Brain Games May Delay Dementia or Temporarily Improve Symptoms

Older woman and a child playing brain gamesWhile the prospect of brain games and other similar types of brain training raising one’s general intelligence is dubious, there is some evidence that mental activity can help delay dementia or temporarily decrease cognitive problems in dementia sufferers.

A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that brain-training, or what they referred to as a “cognitive stimulation therapy programme” improved cognition in seniors with dementia and that results “compared favorably with trials for drugs for dementia.” Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) also described a cluster of three studies indicating possible effectiveness of mental exercises as a therapy for dementia. More than 3,000 people were enrolled in these studies, some for up to five years, and the NHS said patients “showed significant improvements in auditory memory (processing spoken information) and attention.”

Numerous other studies attest to similar findings. But there’s no secret to brain training. The Alzheimer’s Association has long said that mental activity can help prevent Alzheimer’s and related dementias. In fact, the Alzheimer’s Association of Australia has even released its own popular and free app, BrainyApp, which includes mental training, among other features, and which says that it may help “reduce your risk of developing dementia.”

While brain training may not make you or your kid smarter, it may well help you ward off dementia, or help your elderly parent with dementia to temporarily function better.

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Traditional Mental Stimulation May Work Just as Well

There are certainly benefits from mental stimulation, but traditional forms of mental exercise may work as well as the commercial brain training programs we’ve described:

  • Playing a game of chess or bridge
  • Solving a crossword or Sudoku puzzle
  • Learning a new song or dance
  • Reading a good book from the library
These are all great ways to keep your mind active without buying some product that has you spending even more than ever time in front of a screen.

Of course, if you enjoy the challenge of playing these brain training games, and many people do, by all means do so. They certainly can’t hurt and may well have some benefits. But don’t feel as if you need to go buy brain training system just because you’ve got some gray hair or recently misplaced your car keys.

Have you or a loved one participated in brain training? How has it is helped? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jeff Anderson