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Video Games: Do They Help Train the Brain?

A recent article was published in the April 20, 2010 online journal Nature called into question the idea the video games can enhance cognitive functioning. In the study, 11,430 volunteers between the ages of 18-60 participated in this online study.  Participants were randomly divided into one of 3 groups and practiced a series of online tasks for a minimum of 10 minutes a day, 3 times per week, for 6 weeks. Group 1 worked on activities associated with reasoning, planning, and problem-solving – abilities that are correlated with general intelligence. Group 2 did activities that are associated with short-term memory, attention, visual-spatial abilities, and math – exercises often found in commercial brain training games such as Brain Age and Big Brain Academy. Group 3, a control group, used the Internet to find answers to obscure questions.

Prior to the start of the study, the researches conducted baseline measures of cognitive abilities and then after the 6 weeks of study participation. They found that all groups made marginal performance gains, but the groups performed similarly – there was no advantage to practicing with the brain games.

Interestingly, these study results seem to be counter-intuitive at first. Doesn’t the brain work like a muscle? Isn’t that what the researchers from the field of neuroscience are finding? I’ve blogged numerous times on this subject, including one in which I touted the benefits of brain games, and I also reviewed books such Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain in which science writer Sharon Begley covers the latest research on neuroplasticity.

I don’t think I’m going out onto a limb to say that I think video games can enhance cognitive functioning in some respects. There are shortcomings to the study in Nature that leave this possibility quite open. Merely playing a brain game a few minutes per day a few times per week is unlikely to enhance cognitive functioning. It would take a lot more practice time than participants did in the Nature study.
Imagine that I had a number of people in a study designed to enhance athletic prowess (e.g., speed, power, agility, flexibility, endurance, strength). Let’s say I take a physically active group of people (akin to people who already use computers, the Internet, and play video games in the Nature study). I take this active group and have them practice playing tennis at least 10 minutes per day, 3 times per week, for 6 weeks. Then I try to see if that tennis practice improved the group’s overall athletic prowess. I seriously doubt that it would.

To improve at anything, it takes practice – lots of it. To improve something like overall cognitive functioning, much more than 30 minutes per week for 6 weeks would be needed to find any improvement. Now, I don’t see video games as a some panacea for improving our cognitive development. In fact, I think there are a lot of false claims being made about brain games and their potential to enhance cognitive functioning. Watch out for snake oil! Think of all of the millions of parents who bought Baby Einstein videos with the belief that this would turn their 6 month old into the next…well, Einstein. We have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse.
I’m quite certain that other research will be published that shows that video games and certain types of brain training software does improve cognitive functioning. Indeed, well-documented research exists already that some brain training software does improve working memory (e.g., Cogmed).

I think a balanced view is in order here.  Brain games are likely to help some, but which ones, how to use them, with whom, and what results to expect is still open to debate. In the meantime, if you want to improve the cognitive functioning of you or your children, here are the foundational activities that are sure to pay off:
1. Get plenty of sleep.
2. Have a healthy diet.
3. Exercise regularly.
4. Get lots of positive, connecting time with friends and family.

I know these are “too” basic, but they are often overlooked in favor of a more entrancing solutions. I doubt anything will ever be found to improve our cognitive functioning that can match these 4 fundamentals.

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