It is a multimillion dollar industry but it is also plagued with controversy.
Many people swear by it. A way of keeping your brain active. Staving off cognitive decline. Maybe even preventing or delaying the appearance of debilitating symptoms associated with disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.
But on the other side of the fence is the increasingly hard-to-ignore scientific reality. And this reality is that some brain training exercises are actually no better than playing a standard video game. In other words, there is nothing particularly special about them from a mental performance perspective.
The scientific reality
Further confirmation of this reality was presented in a study published this month in the Journal of Neuroscience. The researchers performed a comprehensive comparison of the brain training exercises offered by the company Luminosity against generic computer based games which don’t target any particular cognitive function or sequentially increase their difficulty.
As you might expect, people did show improved performance for the Luminosity brain training exercises. They got better at them over time. But when you looked at whether this actually carried through to a more generalizable cognitive improvement, outside the bounds of the specific exercise, there was no difference between the brain training exercises and the generic computer-based games.
Of course, there are some caveats to bear in mind. Firstly they tested the exercises and games on young healthy individuals where they looked at cognitive improvements, rather than focusing on older individuals where you might expect to see a slowing of cognitive decline. In support of this, there is preliminary evidence that other forms of brain training, such as those developed by the University of Cambridge, can actually be effective at enhancing thinking and remembering skills in those who suffer from mild cognitive impairment, an early form of dementia.
And secondly, this doesn’t mean that brain training “doesn’t work”. It does. It is just that the improvements that you get with it are no better than those you could get simply by performing other everyday thinking exercises which aren’t marketed under the guise of “improving your brain”. In other words, you don’t need to perform (or pay for) “brain training” to keep your brain sharp. You just need to use your brain effectively.
In particular, you need to keep learning. Learning something new. Or improving the skills you are already good at.
Because learning keeps your brain in motion. It changes the neural wiring. And in some instances, it can even “grow” regions of your brain. Musicians, taxi drivers and perfumers, all experts in their own right, have been shown to have a larger brain “volume” in regions which are involved in auditory processing, navigation and olfactory processing respectively.
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What's more these changes which occur after achieving a certain level of “expertise” have been shown, in some instances to protect against age-related decline in these regions.
For example, researchers have consistently found that learning to play a musical instrument, either throughout your lifetime or even just during those critical childhood years, can have a long-term neuroprotective benefit. This ultimately translates into an improvement in the speed with which you are able to process sounds and speech when you reach old age compared to individuals who have not undertaken any form of musical training.
But whilst learning to play a musical instrument can certainly help to some degree, it is unlikely to be the answer to preventing widespread cognitive decline. This is because, a bit like the Luminosity brain training tasks above, the degree to which the benefits generalize to other cognitive functions outside the auditory or verbal domains is relatively limited.
Because it is not so much that you should be “training” your adult brain. It is that you should be enriching it.
Making sure that you are being intellectually stimulated. That you are seeking meaningful social interactions. That you are keeping physically active. These are all ways to enrich your life on an everyday level.
Enrichment is a principle which is more commonly applied to ensuring healthy child development, as any parent or educator will know. But an enriched lifestyle not only helps develop those neural circuits in the first place. It is also necessary to maintain and protect them in later life. Helping to stave off the much feared cognitive decline typically (but not always!) associated with old age.
And although the science behind why some people’s brains age faster than others is complex, and some factors are imprinted in your genes and therefore beyond your control, next time you find yourself repeating the same routine day in day out - the daily grind - maybe ask yourself... “Am I doing enough to enrich my brain?”.
Isn’t there something better?
And although brain training exercises aren’t exactly harmful to you, you maybe also have to ask whether sitting in front of your favourite portable device of the moment and doing the same button pressing exercise over and over again is the best way to spend your precious free time?
Is it the best form of enrichment that you can think of?
Surely we are all a bit more creative than that.