Brain games: They’re not quite there yet

Head Mental Waves

Brain games…since when did we actually need them? In all their forms…brain games stem from the idea or perhaps the fear that your brain, in all it’s complexity, is actually not working at its best in daily life, especially as compared to others. In some cases, this could be due to brain damage, mental illness or advanced age. The moment memory falters, mental reactions times are diminished, reading is laborious or understanding logic becomes muddled, we turn to something external to improve what is internal.

The study of human memory, goes back as far as we know in the West to the time of Aristotle in his treatise On the Soul. If you will remember, he compared the human mind to a blank slate (tabla rosa) and hypothesized that humans are born free of any knowledge and become the sum of their experiences. Aristotle compared memory to making impressions in wax. This idea, to focus on memory, has been an important driver in the memory-aidscreation of brain games. Think about the tools we use today to ensure an efficient memory…Post-a-notes, flash cards, the note section of our smartphones,  to-do lists, grocery lists, etc.

In the early 2000’s, digital brain-training games emerged as the newest way to sharpen memory skills. They were often marketed as having a wide range of benefits, from helping people remember names/numbers and memories to possibly preventing or delaying dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease.

Each of these “games” are structured exercises for your brain to enable you to better use specific brain areas and/or functions.  “Brain training software systems” are regarded as  fully-automated applications designed to assess and enhance cognitive abilities. Some of the claims that new customers are told is that playing brain games will increase intelligence, alertness and most importantly give you an edge on learning faster and more efficiently. In other words, if you adhere to a particular and rigorous regimen of cognitive exercise through their programs, you will reduce cognitive slowing and forgetfulness, and fundamentally improve your mind and brain.

In 2014, Stanford University’s Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin gathered the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to share their views about brain games and offer a consensus report to the public to share their views on these games. They stated that “there is little evidence thatneuronation-brain-games-perceptionplaying brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” They additional stated that claims promoting brain games are “frequently exaggerated and at times misleading. Cognitive training does however produce statistically significant improvement in practiced skills that can sometimes extend to improvement on other cognitive tasks administered in the lab”. Then again in 2015, a recent article in Scientific American Mind “Can You Train Your Brain”  concluded that the research findings, in general, do not indicate that brain games increase our intellectual capacity.The global market for software and biometrics needed for brain games is projected to cap at 6 billion dollars by 2020. The targeted population runs the gamut from children having difficulty in school to middle-aged adults trying to get an edge up to seniors who find their memory lagging. Other than the fact that most people want their brains to work to their best ability, marketing has been useful in instilling the fear that we just might not be up to par with the others. As such, when a particular product is advertised as being educational, backed by science and able to give you something you may lack, it can be tempting to buy into the product.

Recall that our brain’s are an infrastructure of about 100 billion neurons that connect and send signals. Our capacity to memorize is interwoven within this memorystructure. Memory comes in 2 categories, short-term memory (SH) (or working memory) that acts as a flexible temporary storage of information that is vital for everyday cognitive activities such as learning new words, following instructions, and planning actions and long-term memory (LT) that is a more permanent
storage that helps us recall memories from childhood, for example. LT memory is formed by repeated strong neuronal firing that establishes ‘neural grooves’ as such, neural pathways are actually formed.

One way in which brain games came into making their claims is that working memory has been linked to various cognitive disorders including dyslexia, ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, language difficulties, and dementia. Presumably strengthening working memory with specifically designed brain-training games, should enable one to see benefits in this vast array of disorders. However, we are still too far to make the connection between lasting cognitive enhancement and brain games.

Brain Games -a waste of time?

No, these games are not a complete waste of time. After trying out several, I can say that they do provide mental stimulation, they’re fun and engaging. In fact, these programs can probably compliment and enhance other daily activities by providing novelty and challenge (see below for a few of the ones I’ve tried and enjoyed).  Additionally, they do show that training on a task helps us to get better at it…”practice makes perfect”. However, this would be expected given the brain’s plasticity and its innate ability to learn and understand pattern recognition.  As such, a more compelling question we need to ask is, “Does playing brain games help me in other aspects of my life?”

Given what we know, we need to perhaps engage in things we do know that promotes a healthy brain and a subsequently stable mind.

So what to do BEFORE you do a brain game ….

1. Get more sleep: There is interesting research that indicates that sleep loss has a negative impact on mood, cognitive performance, and motor function.
2. Exercise: Exercise has been shown to improve aspects of cognitive functioning and that cognitive and neural plasticity is maintained throughout the life span.
3. Learn something new and difficult: Learning a new language, how to draw/paint, or how to play a musical instrument will provide cognitive benefits but only if it’s challenging.
4. Be more social: Research indicates that socializing can enhance aspects of cognitive functioning. Having a sense of connection to others and your immediate environment is important for mental health and stability.
5. Maintain a healthy diet: The mind and body are connected and, while I do advocate a Paleo diet,  any healthy diet helps improve and maintain aspects of cognitive functioning.

“Cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles”

Some brain games you can try

I’ve personally tried the games below and found them to be fun, interesting and stimulating at least in the beginning. Their claims of reducing my brain age, improving my memory or enhancing my cognitive progress…well, the games are just not there yet.

However, there’s always an exception to the rule and I’m interested to see the exciting work coming out of the Gazzaley lab.They have developed an in-house brain game, Neuroracer, that did in fact show very positive results in terms of cognitive enhancement…

Click on the title and get further information about each game.

Dr. Kawashima

dr-kawashima

In More Brain Exercise Dr. Ryuta Kawashima’s popular brain-training games have players complete short, fun exercises specially designed to stimulate different parts of the brain. There are 15 challenges to unlock as well as a Quick Play mode, bonus games, and calendars and charts to keep track of progress.

Elevate

 elevate

Elevate takes the most practical approach. Their games are designed to target specific problems people have, like trouble calculating a tip or difficulty writing a clear email to a colleague. They focus on a specific task and offer step-by-step instructions.

Lumosity

luminosity

Lumosity has been around since 2007 and has more than 50 different games. Lumosity’s Human Cognition Project works with scientists from over 40 universities.

Peak

peak

Peak develops games with experts at major universities. The program has 40 games that actually feel like games more than educational testing. Games focus on training memory, attention, problem solving, mental agility, etc. The Advanced Training Programs focus on training very specific skills. Peak also has a virtual brain training coach.

 

Article excerpt from: Optimal Mental Functioning: Total Brain Access, all rights reserved

The baseline measure

Before we can talk about enhancing, improving or augmenting our mental capacities, we first need to first understand what’s normal, what’s the baseline function of our own mental capacity. We seem to intuitively know what is normal for the general population, but are we sure what it means on an individual level?

As it stands, we as a group, can be nicely represented on a simple graph, the Gaussian curve, named after the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. I’m using this graph to represent us from a mental functioning perspective. It turns out to be quite useful to describe not only mathematically but also visually how we are “distributed” in society.  Statistically, we see that most of us, as a group, fall somewhere into the distinctive bell shape of this curve (99.74%).

normal

We seem to function relatively well. By this, I propose that our baseline is that we are mostly able to engage in productive activities, adapt to change, cope with challenges, understand the spoken word, act upon our thoughts, engage in future planning and socially interact with others.

In essence, we function in such a way as to live independent lives. This in itself would seem to be sufficient as these abilities lead to having a relatively normal life. However, as you see, in the graph above, there is a significant variation from the middle of the graph to its ends and that it changes rather quickly. The area from the center line to the left-handed side of the graph, gradually represents a diminished baseline mental function (as I define it above) while the area from the center line to the right-handed side of the graph gradually represents an enhanced or optimized mental function.

This is important to consider, as I will argue, you can very directly influence, change and enhance your mental function as it relates to this curve. But before we go into the how’s, we need to first address some fundamental questions when we consider optimizing our mental functioning.

  • Why bother?
  • What needs to improve?
  • What are the gains? 

Having the possibility to function at capacities that were not previously realized, that is, above our own baseline normal, is what will be explored.

 

Article excerpt from: Optimal Mental Functioning: Total Brain Access, all rights reserved