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By Dr. Merina Su on

Do brain training games work?

Dr. Merina Su continues the conversation in the heated debate about whether brain training games actually work.

As a neuroscientist, I get asked this question a lot. Like, A LOT. Who doesn’t want to be smarter, faster at solving problems, more productive at work, or better at remembering names?

Nerve fibers in a healthy adult human brain
Nerve fibers in a healthy adult human brain © Wellcome Images.

Imagine if you could do all the above simply by playing a few games online, or on an app, for a few minutes a day. That is the promise of brain training games. Games that could help prevent age-related memory decline, like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Games that could help you perform better at home, work, and school. Games that could increase your IQ and improve your mood.

The promise of brain training relies on the scientific concept of neuroplasticity, the fact that the brain changes throughout life, not simply by growing more neurons but actually changing the way these neurons work. For example, London black cab drivers have a bigger hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories of places, and professional musicians have larger auditory cortices, the part of the brain that processes sound.

The easiest way to understand neuroplasticity is by picturing the brain as a muscle. The more you exercise that muscle, the stronger that muscle becomes. If you want to run a marathon, you need to start jogging, and you need to build up your fitness with consistent practice. Similarly, you can view brain training as neurobics, a workout for your neurons. Neurobics has become extremely popular (and big business) in little more than a decade, yet science still has a very hard time with answering the question ‘Do these games work?’

Personally, I have tried some of the brain training games and apps out there, and I’ll admit, they’re fun and engaging. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly pleased to see my scores go up every time, hoping this reflects my brain’s health. Yet the scientist in me remains skeptical.

Model of a human brain, sectioned, French, first half 19th century.
Model of a human brain, sectioned, French, first half 19th century.

Yes, playing a game that asks you to recall as many words that start with the letters ‘BR’ as possible for 5 minutes every day will make you quicker at coming up with words that start with ‘BR’ and will probably expand your vocabulary with many more words that start with those letters. But will it make you better at writing that essay for school or  report for work? Will it prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Well, probably not. In the same way that jogging for 10 minutes every day will not make you a better dancer or a football player. A point further determined by Professor Adrian Owen of The Brain and Mind Institute, Western University, Canada, who said: “As we showed in our Nature study in 2010 on 11,000 people who brain trained for a full six weeks, they got better at every single task they trained on. But amazingly, they didn’t get better at any other tasks at all, including some that appeared to be very similar to the trained tasks.” And it’s this lack of generalisability of brain training games to the real and complex world that causes scientists to caution against neurobics.

For me, it wasn’t the lack of evidence that stopped me from continuing neurobics – I play plenty of games that have no scientific foundation of benefit what so ever (Candy Crush, I’m looking at you). It was the fact that I’d rather spend those 10 minutes a day being out in the world, interacting with people, learning new skills and doing physical exercise – all complex tasks that I know for certain use a myriad of brain functions at the same time, therefore exercising my brain without any conscious effort.

Have you given brain training a try? What do you think?

This post was inspired by Power UP, our hands-on gaming event. To find out when PowerUp will return, click here