Do brain games make you smarter, or just better at brain games?

"Improve cognitive abilities,
such as memory and concentration,
with sleek, fun and addictive games
designed by neuroscientists."

These are the types of claims you’ll hear from developers of brain games. People are buying them, too. The games and the promises.

In fact, "brain training" has become a billion-dollar industry!

The concept of using games to train your brain can sound pretty appealing. You use a fun and challenging app on your phone or computer. And you can not only pass the time, but also become smarter in the meantime.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

That’s because it might be.

Brain Games, Not Gains

Unfortunately, current research doesn’t support many of the claims made for brain games. That’s according to a new study published in the science journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

"Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way," said Wally Boot. Dr. Boot is an expert on age-related cognitive decline at Florida State University.

Millions of people around the world typically spend more than $100 a year and hundreds of hours "training their brains." So, this is a big finding from the FSU research team.

The theory behind most brain games is that they can improve your working memory.

"Working memory" is the thinking skill that focuses on memory-in-action. That is, your ability to remember and use relevant information while you’re in the middle of an activity.

Working memory helps you hold on to information long enough to use it. It’s crucial to concentration, and can affect how well you learn something.

The FSU team examined whether improving our working memory would translate to better performance on other tasks. Or, as the researchers called it, "far transfer."

All study participants were given information they needed to juggle to solve problems.

Researchers tested whether the games enhanced players’ working memory. They also looked at whether it, in turn, improved other mental abilities. (Reasoning, memory and processing speed.)

Wrap Your Mind Around This …

There was some good news. But for most who want to use these games to stay sharp, it’s probably not enough.

As Neil Charness, lead author of the study, explains:

"It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits.

"But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are?

"And the answer is probably no."

Adding to a consensus among other published studies is this …

Brain-training games aren’t improving your cognitive skills, but rather just making you better at the games themselves.

So, it’s not surprising then that the brain-game industry has recently come under legal fire. Some companies are facing fines as high as $50 million for false advertising.

Have you ever used brain games before? Were you able to improve your memory beyond getting better at playing the games? Perhaps you are thinking about trying these brain-training exercises anyway. Does this new research change your mind at all? Please let us know in the comments section.

Happy and healthy investing,

Journal Reference:
Dustin J. Souders, Walter R. Boot, Kenneth Blocker, Thomas Vitale, Nelson A. Roque, Neil Charness. Evidence for Narrow Transfer after Short-Term Cognitive Training in Older Adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2017; 9 DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00041

Your thoughts on “Do brain games make you smarter, or just better at brain games?”

  1. Even genetic makeup may determine to what level skills can be developed after a certain
    age. Research supports increased brain activity when new skills are attempted and
    developed. Why would doing crossword puzzles have anything to do with remembering
    item placements? Focusing in the moment and using visual ability has been proven to
    help remember where you put something. There are many areas of development each
    separate unto themselves that require separate development exercises for skills the
    triggers for which are in different parts of the brain. There is much we just now learning about the human brain and some still question if the mind is separate from but uses the brain.

    Time and research will reveal exactly what is and isn’t possible for the human in this
    realm of existence.

  2. When one asks the wrong question one gets one wrong answers. Mental
    exercises for old folks have an entirely different effect than mental
    exercises for young children. As implied in one comment on this study, all
    mental functions are complex and have multiple consequences. A primary
    problem with us aging folks is memory. But young children need to learn
    problem-solving techniques and gain confidence, etc.

    The Florida State study I did not gain access to. But my hunch is that the
    goal was to perpetuate the old myth that one’s IQ is genetic and fixed and not cultural or environmental. So, leave it alone.

    Far more scientific studies, such as those of Robert Rosenthan at Harvard
    and my research in Fiji show all sorts of good things about us humans and
    our brains, that the attitude of the teachers and hundreds of other
    variables influence mental performance, etc.; everyone (except very senior
    citizens) can master any skill or trade with 10,000 hours of dedicated
    study and practice according to one of the best writers around today,
    Malcolm Gladwell.

    So. Let’s remember that orthodox psychology still promulgates the notion
    that only 2% of humans are potential geniuses. What did God do to the
    98%, or the rest of us, make us unequal?



    Professor William Maxwell, Ed.D.
    The Global Academy for International Advancement

  3. A colleague of mine who is interested in this stuff once told me about a study involving two groups of seniors. One group was pretty much sedentary, the other merely walked for at least 20 minutes per day. The rate of cognitive decline was way faster in the sedentary group than the walking group. The explanation was that just walking uses 90% of the brain. Think about it – just walking is actually highly controlled falling. We take it totally for granted, but it’s a very complex thing. We still haven’t build a robot that walks like a human, have we? The argument is that just walking fires all them neurons, and that regular firing keeps them from getting gunked up. So, if you like paying good money for brain games, doing soduku, etc., go for it. Just don’t think it’s preserving your brain. To preserve that gray thing holding your ears apart, get off that bit where so many keep their brains and take a walk…

  4. No, I don’t think brain games make you smarter, but they do increase your skills at that game. I do sudoku and it keeps me busy, especially when there is nothing to watch on tv or other activities. Games are fun and hopefully keep your brain from wandering and having nothing to think of except for how old we’re getting. My mom is 95 and has dementia, so trying things keeps me feeling I might have a chance of not being that situation. Being social I think is a greater way of staying mentally sound.

  5. I do Luminosity about 3-4 times a week with the idea that it can’t hurt to do the exercises and I think your right the more you do them the better you get, it’s a challenge just like running or something else you like to improve your results each time, I guess thats an ego boost I’m 82 and some of the exercises help in keeping you focused because there are times when my mind wanders.

  6. So would this also mean that a widely spread notion that learning another language at an advanced age is not necessarily useful in preventing or slowing mental deterioration as one ages?

  7. Probably more significant is quality sleep patterns to keep cognition and memory functions.

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