Our brain is arguably our most valuable asset, so it’s no wonder that there are multiple industries dedicated to helping our brains stay strong and active. However, not all of these industries seem to provide the brainpower they promise.
Despite the rise and popularity of brain-training games for improving cognition like Lumosity, Elevate, and others, controversy exists about the scientific validity of brain-training games. There’s even a whole website dedicated to identifying whether brain-training programs actually work and which programs are more beneficial than others.
For those who are seeking to improve their cognitive abilities or prevent their mental decline, a deeper dive into brain games can be useful in deciding whether to pursue a brain-training program. Continue reading to learn more about brain games, whether they are effective, and whether any games can actually improve your mind.
What are “brain games?”
Brain-training games are activities or games specifically designed to have players complete tasks that will strengthen their memory, improve their concentration, and/or boost their problem-solving abilities.
For over a decade, brain training programs have been increasing in popularity and are available in a wide variety of forms, both online and offline. Brain-training games can range widely in difficulty but are generally quick to complete and intended to be played on a regular basis. These games are typically targeted toward older adults, who may participate in them due to an increasing concern about their risk of developing a cognitive disease, like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Are brain games effective?
Many brain games claim to improve cognition and general mental function, which is why the majority of users are drawn to them. However, contradictory evidence exists about the effectiveness of brain training.
One study of various brain games—including crossword puzzles, number games, and other brain-training video games—found no increase in the participants’ working memory. While our brains can be trained to learn and excel at a particular brain game, this study demonstrates that those skills don’t seem to transfer over into other, more general aspects of cognition.
However, other researchers defend the validity of brain-training exercises and claim that there is evidence to support that brain games do improve general cognition. Studies like this one indicate that memory training may actually be significantly effective in improving general intelligence.
Another position in this heated debate is that existing studies on the effectiveness of brain training are unreliable due to flaws in the study design or failures to adhere to best practices that are crucial to drawing clear conclusions. This means that the question of whether brain games are effective is still unanswered—and may stay that way for a while to come.
What games are actually good for your brain?
While officially labeled “brain-training” programs may or may not help you increase your overall brain function, familiar games you may already enjoy can actually provide you with cognitive benefits, especially for seniors. “It’s important to our residents to find ways to exercise their minds,” said Dan Daly, administrator at Lawton Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, a skilled nursing facility in San Francisco, California. “Participating in games and activities is a great way for them to both strengthen their cognitive abilities and enjoy some quality recreation time.”
Although these games aren’t designed specifically for brain training, some studies have shown that they may provide positive cognitive effects:
- Mahjong. A centuries-old Chinese game, mahjong is played by matching sets of tiles together. One study of patients with dementia found that playing mahjong produced consistent improvement across all aspects of cognitive performance, regardless of how frequently the game was played.
- Jigsaw puzzles. For many people, putting together a jigsaw puzzle is a stimulating pastime. In one study, researchers saw that jigsaw puzzling strongly engages multiple cognitive abilities and found that long-term experiences with jigsaw puzzling may benefit general cognition.
- Chess. Chess has long been considered a highly cognitive game, but research on the effects of analog games like chess has shown that they are associated with less general cognitive decline in the elderly, especially in relation to memory and cognitive speed.
Whatever your experience level with brain games, scientists are ultimately undetermined whether they can actually improve cognitive function in the way that users hope. With new knowledge about brain games and other activities that can improve your mind, you can rest assured that your brain will be well taken care of.
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.