What Is Brain Training, and Can It Really Make You Smarter and Healthier?

The surprising facts you need to square away before you play
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The surprising facts you need to square away before you play

Have you heard about the brain training craze?

Staying mentally sharp and taking steps to prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia is on all of our minds. And you might have heard that brain training can help. The idea is based on the concept of neural plasticity, which means that the central nervous system in the brain is capable of changing its structures over time in response to learning or injury.

It’s been a hot topic for a few years, but I’ve only recently started using Lumosity, a popular brain training program. Every night, I log in on my iPad and complete three exercises designed to improve some aspect of brain functioning.

Programs such as Lumosity or brainHQ promise scientifically backed exercises that will benefit you in other areas of your life. Spend a few minutes every day playing games to exercise your brain and reap the long-term benefits. Sounds great, right? It turns out that it might not be that simple.

The Jury Is Still Out

There is a great deal of disagreement in the scientific field over the effectiveness of brain training. Dr. John Swartzberg, from the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, wrote in his recent Live Science editorial that he and other scientists believe the research touting its benefits are poorly designed and unreliable. He cautions that before brain training exercises are viewed as a cure-all (or prevent-all), more robust research needs to be done.

On the other hand, in late 2014, The Atlantic analyzed promising research suggesting that there are benefits. In short, “that training significantly enhances fluid intelligence—the fundamental human ability to detect patterns, reason, and learn.” And an article in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience cites a study that found improvements in executive functioning (e.g. memory, reasoning, problem solving) in participants who completed exercises.

I found a number of research studies in addition to these with results that fell on either side. So, what’s a girl to do about this brain training business?

Get Better at a Very, Very Specific Task

Some brain training programs claim that completing their exercises will help you improve in other areas of your life. BrainHQ says that individuals participating in its program have felt more confident about the future, found employment, or experienced sparked creativity.

Outside research, such as a full clinical trial conducted by BBC Lab UK, has determined that although improved performance is possible after playing the game for a while, the skills learned in that particular exercise can’t be generalized to other tasks. The BBC Lab UK found that “people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.”

Similarly, the Scientific American says, “The consistent finding from this research was that when people practice some task, they get better on that task, and maybe on very similar tasks, but not on other tasks. . . . But you won’t get better at real-world tasks [such as] doing your job, driving a car, or filling out your tax return."

Another study did find that certain brain training games can improve performance in real-life situations that were very similar to the conditions and format of the game. In other words, you may get really good at identifying which shape belongs next in a sequence, but it might not help you remember where you parked your car. In this instance, the specific skill you walk away with would be recognizing visual patterns. That’s great for a musician reading notes but might be less helpful for others. The benefits really depend on how relevant the specific skill is in your day to day.

Boost Your Mood

While new or improved skills are one thing, brain training programs have also been linked to other beneficial outcomes. Programs such as SuperBetter have been found to improve participants’ moods, according to research. Developed by Jane McGonigal (you can hear more about it in her TED Talk), SuperBetter uses video game principles to help individuals achieve their goals. These can range from overcoming depression and anxiety to losing weight or overcoming another life challenge. McGonigal developed SuperBetter to help her overcome her own depression after a severe concussion. Two clinical studies found that it reduced anxiety and depression symptoms, increased optimism, strengthened relationships, and increased feelings of happiness and satisfaction with life.

Another study found that an iPad app called Wizard helped individuals with schizophrenia to increase motivation (a common struggle for those with schizophrenia), boost self-esteem, and improve memory. Participants played the memory game for a total of eight hours over a four-week period (or about seventeen minutes per day). So, depending on what you play and how often you play it, these sorts of brain training games could provide you some benefit. But (needless to say) if a brain training game makes you feel less-than (it’s too difficult, or you just don’t enjoy it), it’s probably not doing you any favors.

Learn Something New

Despite doubts from some, brain training exercises do seem able to help you master a new skill and gain new knowledge, both beneficial to improved fluid intelligence. Scientific American reports that scientists have identified what can help improve cognitive abilities: physical exercise and learning something new. UC Berkeley’s Dr. Swartzberg agrees, saying, “Stimulating activities such as learning a new skill or taking classes can strengthen neural connections and produce other positive changes in the brain.” These can help improve what scientists called “crystallized intelligence”—the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience that rely on accessing information from long-term memory. But specialized digital games aren’t the only way (or even the proven best way) to reap these benefits. Rather than hitting up your tablet, try learning a new sport, language, or instrument.

Until the scientific world reaches a consensus on the effectiveness of brain training, knowing what to make of these programs can be confusing. Some in the scientific community caution users not to expect life-changing results. Yet research also shows that playing brain exercises regularly can be a way to learn something new, boost your mood, and develop a particular skill.

I, for one, will keep playing despite these mixed research findings—the thrill of seeing my score improve day by day is enough of a mood-booster for me.

Art Credit: Clare Owen