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Brain Games

If you Google “Brain Games” the search service reports: “There are about 95,000,000 results.” This tells me that I am not the only one who wonders about this topic and there are a lot of folks willing to tell us about it. The first Google-listed result is Lumosity, the firm we have heard advertising for some time. They claim to “challenge attention and memory with scientific brain games. We’ll create simple daily workouts with exercises that reflect your choices. Informed by neuroscience research, Lumosity exercises are engineered to train a variety of core cognitive functions.”

Created by Neuroscientists

Lumosity is a successful company that was created by a Stanford neuroscience doctoral student who never got his Ph.D. The company has several staff who are Ph.D. neuroscientists and there are other companies who also have neuroscientists developing the “games” that are purported to “train” the brain as you would train your body for a marathon. In other words these creators of the “exercises” employ various methods that repetitively test attention, memory, and other cognitive functions. Principles learned in clinical psychology and in the science of neurocognition are used in the exercises. The presumption is that if the exercises are used each day, the brain will develop pathways that improve in the domains one wants to improve, like memory. 

Training the Brain

Skeptics have pointed out that the concept of training the brain is not like training for a marathon, since the brain is not a muscle that gets larger and stronger with repetitive exercises. This works in the gym for the biceps, but the brain is a mushy organ full of neurons, receptors, and proteins that all have specific function. And the biologic evidence for the enhancement of critical functions by “exercises” is absent. Nevertheless, a large number of people do the brain training. According to Elizabeth Day writing in The Guardian, Lumosity had revenue of $24 million in January of 2014. The Lumosity app was downloaded 50 thousand times a day in January. It has been estimated that the entire industry in 2014 collected $1.3 billion. This has become big business. The fundamental idea is that the exercises that are called games by some will improve performance of the individual in the areas that they target. The training is to be distinguished from real games like crossword puzzles and Sudoku, which are games with no specific neuroscience target.

Scientific Evidence

There has been some scientific study and a lot more rhetoric about this controversial topic. The idea gained national recognition in 2008 when Jaeggi published a scientific article that showed with specific cognitive exercises that there was a significant increase in subjects’ IQ. Subsequent studies have not duplicated the remarkable first report that got the entire concept launched. In fact, the most recent data that examine all the studies concludes there is virtually no or very little evidence that the brain games or training improve overall intelligence, memory, or other higher cognitive functions. What they will do is improve the performance on the particular test that one trains with. So there is certainly good data that shows that if one engages in learning one particular exercise, performance in that particular exercise does improve. What has not been proven is that this translates to improved life skills that involve intelligence and informed decision making. In a very strongly worded summary of the subject, 69 neuroscientists at Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute wrote: “there is no solid scientific evidence to back up the promise” of so many of the commercial vendors of brain games/training.

What They Do Not Do

There are several important things that brain games/training does not do. First, and most importantly is it takes away time that might otherwise be used in an activity that has been proven to enhance health, including brain function, and that is exercise. An hour a day exercising will pay much greater benefits than an hour sitting in front of a computer and being sedentary. Another problem with these computer games is that they do not improve social interactions which are well known to improve mental function. It is hard to socialize if one is working hard on the computer game in front of you. They could take you away from higher order functions like reading that are known to improve intelligence. Finally, the exercises have not been proven to prevent any of the forms of dementia. There is no shred of scientific evidence that the games/training will prevent Alzheimer’s, for example. 

The Bottom Line

Everyone wants to be smarter than we are: this is especially true as we age, when we find that we are not as quick as we used to be. There is a very significant industry that plays on our fears and hypes our hopes that we can get better brain function by using their products. My advice is go exercise rather than sitting in front of your computer; however, if you enjoy spending the money on the brain games then do it, but realize it is more personal entertainment than brain function enhancing. That’s OK as long as you make time for the things that do improve your mental function.