Train Your Brain

I’m a big fan of video games, puzzles, and brain teasers. So the notion that so-called “brain training” games can help improve mental function and stave off dementia has some appeal to me. It also makes a certain amount of sense – exercise your brain and its function will improve.

And yet, as a skeptic, I have always been bothered by the specific claims made by marketers of games, websites, devices and programs. The formula is probably familiar to you, a specifically designed program is optimized to stimulate brain function, improve integration of information, and improve global function.

The website promotion for Brain Age, for example, claims:

Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. All it takes is as little as a few minutes of play time a day. For everyone who spends all their play time at the gym working out the major muscle groups, don’t forget – your brain is like a muscle, too. And it craves exercise.

The blood flow argument is pure hand-waving. The muscle analogy is perhaps more apt than intended – do muscles respond to a specific exercise or to any exercise?

When it comes to the brain the phrase use it or lose it does have some merit, but the notion that specific mental tasks are superior to others for overall brain function has never been compelling.

Now, a new review of research published in JAMA by Dr. Peter J. Snyder supports this conclusion. He reviewed 10 randomized controlled trials and found that ordinary (and often free) mental activity, such as social activity or crossword puzzles, is as or more effective than “brain training” games, gimmicks, or programs.

Specifically he found that the literature is sparse on this issue, but what does exist shows that for healthy adults there is no advantage to specific brain training programs, their benefits are short duration only, and that subjects may improve in the specific task but this does not generalize to overall mental function.

Certainly we would benefit from more research in this area, but what evidence we have suggests that you should not waste money on expensive games or programs. But the good news is that you can get the benefits you are looking for by keeping mentally active even in simple ways.

Although not addressed by this study, it is also common for companies to specifically claim that their brain-training exercises alter the brain waves. This is just an added layer of pseudoscience used for marketing. Any company that claims they can improve your brain waves is engaging in pure quackery. Some companies even claim to do this passively, just by listening to their tapes, for example. This would actually be counter productive, as it is active participation in any mental activity that seems to be important for improving mental function.

The market for brain training products this year is estimated at $225 million.  This is not all necessarily waste – many may find Brain Age or other such games to be fun in their own right. Just don’t by the hype.

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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26 thoughts on “Train Your Brain

  1. Rogue Medic says:

    See, all of the anti-science trolls are really just providing stimulating mental exercise to prevent early onset of brain deterioration. :-)

    OK, not all of them. Some really are so stupid that it hurts to read their comments. That can’t be good, unless you get a good laugh at them.

  2. ADR150 says:

    I recently received an email from my grad school program director about a speed reading seminar that is being offered.

    [here's a link to the seminar's website - it has videos of the seminar itself ]

    I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the idea of speed reading. Of course, some people can read quite a bit faster than others, but I’m not sure that there’s significant additional potential among high school educated adults.

    Is this a matter of processing speed? I watched a couple minutes of the seminar’s videos (#3 “How to boost your reading speed through drills”), and in one of them he seems to be arguing that our reading speed is limited is because we say the words silently in our mind. He then makes what seems to be a false analogy by equating the need to practice fundamental skills for basketball (offense, defense, strength and conditioning) with those of reading (speed, comprehension, retention).

    Then to practice “speed” he tells the class to move their finger or pencil across the page. “We’re just going to look at the words; we’re not going to “read” the words. Think of this as a hand-eye coordination drill.” wtf? …”Before you can read words faster, you have to get used to seeing them faster” !!! lol …”and the last thing you have to do [for the speed drill] is CONCENTRATE” wow

    i cant make it any farther, this is torturous.

    …OR am I mistaken in my assessment? Is there any real evidence that this stuff works?

  3. Fredeliot2 says:

    There was a recent article on the generation of new brain cells (I think it was in Scientific American) that claimed that they die in a couple of weeks if not used. This indicates that continuous mental stimulation is a good thing.

  4. Dacks says:

    Ginger Campbell just had an interview with Dr. Michael Merzenich on her podcast, The Brain Science Podcast. His whole approach is the idea of using neuroplasticity to regain loss of brain function.

    Are you familiar with his work? Is it credible. Dr. Campbell seemed quite enthusiastic.

  5. daedalus2u says:

    There is quite good data that humans don’t form new brain nerve cells late in life. This was in a PNAS article where they looked at C14 levels in brain DNA (post mortem). The C14 levels will track environmental C14 levels at the time those cells last divided (and formed new DNA).

    Selling products to make one smarter reminds me of a product I occasionally hear advertised on the radio, (usually on April 1), called Fred’s Smart Juice. Guaranteed to make you smarter. The ad has a person trying it, then spitting it out spluttering “this is urine!”, to which Fred replies “see, you are getting smarter already”. That may be the same mechanism by which some of these other products work.

  6. tmac57 says:

    ADR150:”Then to practice “speed” he tells the class to move their finger or pencil across the page. “We’re just going to look at the words; we’re not going to “read” the words. Think of this as a hand-eye coordination drill.” wtf?”
    People that have problems with reading,(of which I am one) often do have trouble tracking the printed word across the page. So this exercise could help to condition eye to track more precisely. I took a speed reading course in college and it did seem to help me, but it takes practice.

  7. tmac57 says:

    Steve, in the latest issue of onHealth (published by Consumer Reports) Dr. Robert N. Butler (prof. geriatrics Mount Sinai S.O.M) said that to keep your mind vital in old age one of the things you should do is “use your brain..” and not by doing Sudoku or Crossword puzzles but something really hard like learn a musical instrument or new language.
    Do you agree that those lesser activities aren’t that useful?

  8. DevoutCatalyst says:

    I’m studying 3 foreign languages, 2 of which are exotic and thus more difficult. I spend hours each day on this enjoyable pursuit. I now possess a plurality of ways to experience my senior moments. (Your mileage may vary.)

  9. Skip says:

    I tried for a little while but never saw it more than a gimmick. It was supposed to help with ADHD and/or Dyslexia.

  10. Fifi says:

    As someone who was top of my class in speed reading (yes, we were taugth to speed read at my alternative high school), I can tell you that going right to left faster won’t make you into a speed reader, the key is going down the center of the page. You know how you can read and understand a text even if only the first and last letters of a word are correct? It’s the same kind of thing where you’re getting the gist or symbolic reading and not a detailed reading. (I’m sure this isn’t even close to the proper terminology or way to describe this “symbol recognizing” aspect of the written word but hopefully it’s understandable to those here reading this! ;-)

  11. MKandefer says:

    The way you’ve described speed reading, it’d be useful for reading a fictional story, but completely useless for studying more technical documents. Why would a high school even bother with it?

  12. Fifi says:

    I went to an alternative high school, it was one of only many interesting skills I learned. It’s actually very useful, particularly for studying where you’re going over material you’ve already studied. It doesn’t replace a good slow read with breaks to ponder and integrate what one has read (and is a terrible way to read fiction, particularly if it’s for academic purposes) but it is actually quite useful for getting the gist of something, finding a particular piece of info in a book or going over texts one has already read more slowly previously. (When you’re taught speed reading it’s judged by how fast you can read and still comprehend what you’ve read – understanding and comprehension being more important than speed.) My main point in bringing it up was that speed reading isn’t about moving one’s eyes left to right as fast as possible.

  13. Harriet Hall says:

    One of the key concepts of speed reading is that if you discipline yourself to read quickly, you stay focused, your mind is less likely to wander, and you will understand and retain more. They tell you to adjust the reading speed to the material. You can zip through light fiction but must take more time with poetry. For nonfiction or technical material, it helps to skim through it quickly and then go back and read more carefully the second time. If you read fast, you can read a book twice in the same time it takes someone else to read it once. I took a home study course in speed reading and I think I benefited from it – even though my “before” speed was already what the course expected for the “after” speed.

  14. mike D says:

    I have a “Brain Evolution” game on my smartphone for down times. It has various “brain” games, but by far the best is a simple arithmetic game. It gives you a score based on how many correct responses in a given time period with increasing difficulty as you progress. After playing it for about 6 months, my simple math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) is keener than it ever was. Of course, it’s simply practicing arithmetic.

  15. Fifi says:

    Harriet – I was also already a fast and avid reader before learning how to speed read. Perhaps we have a bit of a positive bias towards speed reading as a good thing? ;-) It’s certainly not how I read most of the time but it’s a skill I find handy in a variety of situations.

  16. Joe says:

    Three octogenarians talking:

    #1 My memory is so bad, sometimes I pick up the phone and I can’t remember if I am answering it or placing a call.

    #2 Sometimes I am on the porch and can’t remember if I am leaving or returning.

    #3 Ha! Nothing like that happens to me, knock on wood (rap, rap). Just a moment, I have to answer the door.

    Rimshot … laughter.

    I took a course in speed-reading. Then, I read “War and Peace” in 36 minutes. It’s about Russia.

    Horns blare … applause.

    Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

  17. daedalus2u says:

    I only became a fast reader once I stopped the intermediate step of verbalizing the words I was reading. There are many words that I fully understand that I don’t have the slightest clue how to pronounce.

    Reading something and understanding something are two different things. To “understand” something, you have to have the neural structures that can represent that idea and cognitively manipulate it. If you don’t have neural structures to represent that idea, you can’t understand it, you can’t even think it. Being able to recite something by rote isn’t the same as understanding it. You can only “understand” something when you have conceptually connected it to the rest of your conceptualization of reality and you can use that something to think with (i.e. cognitively manipulate it). For me, reading technical material is easier than reading fiction. If it is really good technical material, it all fits with what I already know so all it takes is filling in a few gaps which strengthen the whole schema and make the whole schema easier to understand and remember. Fiction is quite arbitrary, with arbitrary relationships with arbitrary properties.

    For most scientific and technical ideas (for most people), the limiting factor is re-configuring the neural structures to accommodate the new idea. That is difficult for most people because natural human neural structures are not optimally configured to learn scientific and technical things. They are configured for learning things like language and how neurologically typical people think. I talk about this a great deal in my blog on “theory of mind vs theory of reality”.

    An analogy that might be useful is to think about how to describe vision to a person who was congenitally blind, and whose visual cortex never received signals from the retina and so never developed. To the scientifically illiterate, trying to understand science is like that. They have no reference points to understand things from a scientific viewpoint.

    I think that is why the Creationists can only put up the straw man argument of Darwinism. They have no ability to conceptualize knowledge except as with their “theory of mind”, as arbitrary relationships given down from on high by a religious leader. Something is “True” because the “leader” said so, by definition. The only source of “Truth” is Revelation; Revelation by God, revelation by prophets, revelation by teachers.

    You can only know something is “true” if a trusted person tells you it is true. Then it is only as “true” as your relationship with that person. To question the “truth” is to question the relationship that you used to establish that “truth”. If your “trust” fails, then your world view has no foundation and you are truly lost.

  18. SDR says:

    I have always been a naturally extremely fast reader. Much being said here by those who have taken speed reading courses, activities about the techniques are what I’ve done naturally all my life. Maybe that explains why I am able to read so quickly, although I also retain the information easily while reading so quickly.

  19. Karl Withakay says:

    RE: “There are many words that I fully understand that I don’t have the slightest clue how to pronounce. ”

    I find it very beneficial when reading (especially with science fiction) to replace strange words like unusual names of people and places with more recognizable words in my head to help speed up the reading process (I tend to do it in Shakespeare sometimes, too). It does make it more difficult to discuss the book with others who have read it when you don’t know the actual character and location names used in the book.

    ME: “I thought that Jones guy was the killer”

    OTHER GUY: “There was nobody names Jones in the book.”

    ME: “Well, it was the guy whose name looked kind of like Jones, maybe it was Jonenerousum or something and I just called him Jones to make reading his name easier.”

  20. Spiv says:

    As far as training yourself to be smarter, I think it sort of depends on how you judge it. Certainly a person can be trained to recognize patters better or indulge in various kinds of “creative thinking” systems when they get stuck on a problem. That sort of thing will certainly improve your IQ scores on certain departments. Are you actually smarter for it? That’s a philosophical question.

    Exercising your brain? Any task you don’t do for a while you tend to lose some of. Upkeep on these things, be it a language, process, or whatever, certainly is necessary. Does it make you live longer or prevent dimensia? I haven’t seen much in the way of research on this. Anyone?

  21. tmac57 says:

    daedalus2u:”Reading something and understanding something are two different things. To “understand” something, you have to have the neural structures that can represent that idea and cognitively manipulate it. If you don’t have neural structures to represent that idea, you can’t understand it, you can’t even think it. Being able to recite something by rote isn’t the same as understanding it.”
    That is a very interesting point. I worked in the telecommunications field dealing with many emerging technologies, so there was a lot of new learning required. I always was one of the last to finish during reading and testing sessions due to my slow reading, but I was always afraid that if I just tried to go over the material without integrating it into my existing knowledge framework, then I wouldn’t fully understand it.
    Ultimately, I was the one who was always fielding problems and technical questions from my coworkers who learned just enough to take the test.

  22. Danio says:

    Does it make you live longer or prevent dimensia? I haven’t seen much in the way of research on this. Anyone?

    The only thing that comes to mind is the Minnesota Nun Study

    When this first came out, it seemed to hit the ‘do crossword puzzles, live to a ripe old age and never lose your mind!’ angle pretty hard, but they seem to have scaled back from that somewhat.

  23. daedalus2u says:

    One of the things that any kind of mental activity does is raise NO levels. NO is the neurotransmitter that triggers the vasodilation that accompanies mental activity and which is observed via the BOLD fMRI technique.

    I very strongly suspect that the NO released during mental activity produces NO/NOx compounds (probably S-nitrosothiols) that trigger mitochondria biogenesis in the liver. The brain is such a large fraction of metabolic load, mostly all from glucose which is mostly all made in the liver. There has to be some sort of feedback signal from the brain to the liver to signal how much liver there needs to be to support the glucose needs of the brain. NO is what triggers mitochondria biogenesis and liver regeneration, it would make sense that there is some integration of metabolic load which is transduced into some (complicated) NO-type signal.

    Not all mental activity produces the same levels of NO, social activity produces more. Positive social activity produces more still. Feelings of love produce a lot, and may explain why couples live longer than single people.

  24. platowannabe says:

    Something it doesn’t look like this study covers is dual n-back training where there apparently is evidence of actually increasing IQ.

  25. Jon Newman says:

    People with a strong enough interest in the effect a certain sort of mental effort has on the brain might find the following article a good place to start.

  26. LindaRosaRN says:

    I learned a few months ago that several school districts in Colorado are buying (literally) into the nutty Brain Gym program. Argh.

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