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Tech Workouts to Build Brain “Muscle”?

I recently read an article in the January 18, 2010 issue of Time magazine concerning “Workouts for Your Brain” by Bonnie Rochman. She reviewed some of the recent software and tech devices designed to enhance cognitive functioning. She also briefly examined some of the research findings as to whether such software really does enhance cognitive functioning. There is a similar, more in-depth article in the April/May/June 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind entitled “Brain Trainers” by Kaspar Mossman.

There certainly are a lot of options, and bold claims to go with them, for software and games designed to improve our noggins. Games for the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS such as “Big Brain Academy” and “Brain Age” have been extremely popular, selling millions of copies. There are games like these for the PC and iPhone as well.
So, down to the critical question: Do they work?
Now, I haven’t reviewed ALL of the data, of course, but here are some fairly safe conclusions (at this time):

  1. There is a growing body of research that indicates that our brain does work somewhat like a muscle. Working your brain out, through challenges, and learning new things, grows more and stronger synaptic connections. In some cases, it appears that it even helps us to form new neurons entirely. These findings suggest that working out our brains slows down age-related cognitive declines. So, it is good to keep our brains learning new things.
  2. Although that it is likely that some of these software programs help to improve cognitive functioning, the claims made are outstripping the empirical evidence to back those claims. In other words, the cart is a bit before the horse. These companies have products to sell and, to some extent, are capitalizing on our fears of cognitive decline and/or the promises of enhanced cognitive functioning – being better than the Jones’.
  3. There is a major problem of generalizability of the results. That is, sure we get better at these cognitive games and exercises, but does this translate into better performance in areas in our every day world? This is a critical question which is much harder to prove.
  4. Are these software games and tech gadgets differentially more effective than pursuing other intellectual challenges such as sudoku, crossword puzzles, learning to play guitar, learning a foreign language, etc.? This is another critical question because it could be that these cognitive training programs work…but no better than other cognitive challenges out there (that would be my guess).
  5. A compelling argument for brain training games and software: If they are fun and engaging such that they consistently help us challenge ourselves (and our brains), then that’s wonderful. It is like joining a really nice gym. If joining that wonderful new gym with all of its fitness classes and shiny equipment gets you into the gym more than you would have otherwise, then it is a good thing.

So, there you have it. Try out some of these brain training games. Many of them are very fun and they will give your brain a great workout. While they won’t turn us into Einsteins, they probably help some and won’t hurt – unless the “hurt” is our disappointment when we discover that they don’t turn us into Einsteins.


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