"Brain Training" via videogames: breakthrough or big lie?
September 6, 2008 10:29 PM   Subscribe

Brain Training Games like Brain Age are a big hit lately -- Do you think they actually improve cognition?

[Note: already aware of this thread about sharpening the mind in general. Good advice over there.]

Being both a gamer and a fan of brains puts me right at the intersection of this demographic.

Brain Age 1 & 2 (for Nintendo DS), Brain Challenge (for PC, and Lumosity (browser/online) all have similar claims - improve memory, focus, cognition and reaction time through simple puzzles.

Certainly sounds great, and i'd like to believe that this type of training actually increases my mental capacity outside the game. That said, i am not alone in my skepticism of a game's ability to do this on its' own. There are lots of studies that seem to show both positive and null effects of these games. The biggest problem seems to be that the bulk of the positive results seem focused on showing how well peoples scores within the framework of the game after practice, and not much else.

Does anyone have any evidence, anecdotal or academic in nature that shows more concretely how much these games can actually improve cognitive function?
posted by phylum sinter to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The only evidence I know of is that in studies of the elderly, those who regularly perform cognitive tasks don't lose their mental acuity as quickly. (crosswords, suduko, brain quest, whatever) This makes a certain amount of sense, as there's evidence that supports a 'use it or lose it" type model for many neural pathways.

Since you're probably already mentally engaged in your job, your playing of other video games, and your other hobbies, it's unlikely to improve your IQ or mental capacity. It will, however, make you better at solving little puzzles of that sort.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:06 PM on September 6, 2008

I don't have any studies to hand, but it does seem with brainpower that 'use it or lose it' as as applicable as it is with muscles. Think about learning a second language; the longer you don't speak it, the less you are able to speak it.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:08 PM on September 6, 2008

BBC thinks so. They scored well outside the game.

Thats only math. And kids.

I dont know of any meta-analysis of all these studies. It probably doesnt exist.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:32 PM on September 6, 2008

From what I understand, these brain-arobics are a good way to keep the overall mind sharp and aware. However, there will be only a noticeable benefit in the way you solve similar problems to the ones brain age or the sort subject you to.

Think of it as a technologically advanced crossword. Yes, overtime your skills at solving crosswords will rise (especially once you start seeing repeat clues), but it won't make you better at deducing a who-dun-it mystery.

The key focus to these type of cognitive exercises is to keep your brain open to change, lessening the carving of neural pathways that might otherwise be taken for granted. They don't raise your IQ, they won't make you smarter. They'll just prevent you from letting your mind coast along in a inactive, stagnant state.

Again, I'm no expert. That's just what I understand from the various books and published findings I've read (which, by the by, I'm too lazy to cite at the time).
posted by self at 12:25 AM on September 7, 2008

Best answer: The best evidence for these games working is the study discussed in your 'great' link. The study is here, although only the abstract is free if you don't have access through an academic library. Here is a commentary from the same PNAS issue. If you can't read the study, basically they trained people using a dual n-back test, the people improved at that task the more they trained, and finally they measured the subjects' fluid intelligence using the unrelated Raven's Advanced Progressive Matrices and Bochumer Matrizen-Test. They found that the more people trained and improved at the dual n-back test, the more they improved their scores on the fluid intelligence tests. Whether those commercial games are as good as a dual n-back test is hard to say. I haven't really played any, but I know that the dual n-back requires probably the most concentration of anything I've ever done.
posted by Durin's Bane at 5:30 AM on September 7, 2008

I could easily say it can't hurt... Having played Brain Age 1 and 2, I definitely noticed I got better at the skills the games tested. My Brain Age went from somewhere in the 50's to start to the 30's, and eventually got all the way 'down' to the brain-age equivalent of a 20-year-old - a virtually perfect score in the eyes of the game. Did I feel smarter? No. But I felt sharper than I ever had in my life. Perhaps it was the awareness that the game tends to give you, but you actually begin paying attention to how long a task takes you to do - and focusing your efforts to do it faster next time.

What exactly is your goal here? If you're trying to improve your brain function while playing a game, you can't go wrong - and you can't really lose anything. Sorry I can't answer your question and provide evidence beyond my own experience, but it was definitely money well spent.
posted by chrisinseoul at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was dead a long time, at least 8 minutes without oxygen, usually not a good plan for my brain, not what I intended to do that day, etc. Heart attack took me out. I not only had physical therapy -- I was weak as a wet kitten -- but also 'speech therapy' which is way, way more than about just speech, it's about cognitive functions of many descriptions. I was initially scheduled for six sessions, almost certainly more to follow.

Lots of plain old logic -- here's a box, a triangle, a circle, a box, a triangle, and ______ where I am to fill in what should logically follow. The tests start easy and get progressively more difficult, you've got to have a mind that can bend spoons. The therapist would give me the sheet, I'd truck through it, hand it back, she'd give me another sheet, I'd truck through it and hand it back, etc and etc.

I don't recall if it was two or three sessions that we completed, at the end of that last session the therapist told me "Um, you don't need to come back again; your cognitive functions are just spiffy." I asked her did she mean that I'm doing fine for a guy who'd been dead a long time without oxygen; she said no, that I was doing these things faster than most anyone, and with accuracy.

Guilty pleasure -- I love Freecell. I've got a serious Freecell thing going on over here. Also Minesweeper. As we spoke about my abilities, demonstrated via these logic exercises, she asked if I did anything like this; I hung my head and copped to these shameful addictions, Freecell and Minesweeper. She told me that the only explanation she had for my doing as well as I was doing was because of my playing these dang games.

Was she right? Is she right? I don't know. This wasn't a scientific, double-blind study conducted by gaseous, frowny-faced guys in white lab coats, it was just me and Freecell and a very surprised speech therapist, her attempt to make sense of what she saw me do. Anecdotal, for sure.

Scientific or not, correct or not, I'm damn sure glad that I'm able to write these words, that I'm able to read and write and play Freecell and ride my bike. I'm often slow to recall peoples names, or link a name with a face, or put a face in context -- just how do I know this person? -- but fact is that I had these things going on before it all came down. It does seem to be exaggerated. But talk to lots of people my age (47 when it happened, 53 now) and you'll find that they are having the same lapses, or that is what I find anyways.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:26 AM on September 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

a customer's kid (6 years old) was found to have sustained brain damage by his asshole father three years ago or so. they didn't catch it until recently (thought this whole time he had inherited his mother's learning disability combined with ADD). the dr "prescribed" a DS and brain age 1 & 2. he said that the damage the kid received could be reversed and fixed by doing puzzles like that and the brain age games has the best overall scope.
posted by nadawi at 12:06 PM on September 7, 2008

Response by poster: Great answers everyone, a testament to the utility that sometimes gets buried in the blue [usually under a SLYT, heh] - i've been going through all the 'brain games' i can find lately, and as far as i can tell i just miss school, or at least the part of school that made me feel like i was getting smarter and am just too much of a skeptic to trust a game to do the same thing for me just yet.

Knowing more about the methodologies used to test cognitive function (thanks Durin's Bane) has filled in a few gaps in my skepticism. The next step is to get a better grasp of the tests mentioned in his answer.

Likewise, the anecdotal personal experience given by dancestoblue gives me some hope not only for the human brain to grow even after physiological crisis, but also some in regards to how we might aid that regeneration. Many thanks for sharing that account.

It seems like most of the intelligent people i know have at least some kind of daily brain-stretching routine -- whether that means they allow time to be buried in a book, do sudoku, crossword puzzles or other puzzle games. I'm sure that the old adage of a brain being like a muscle (that benefits from exercise) does apply, i'm just still wondering about how much one type of exercise can benefit the most core elements of brain functioning.
posted by phylum sinter at 10:01 PM on September 15, 2008

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