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.