by Susan G. Mason
What are Brain Games?
The term “BTG” more narrowly refers to web or mobile apps developed specifically to maintain or improve cognitive functions such as short-term memory, attention, brain speed, reasoning, and problem-solving. The premise of BTG is that by repeatedly playing games that challenge specific cognitive functions, people can improve the mental abilities necessary for daily activities. These BTGs typically rely on well-researched, adaptive computer algorithms that are matched to the cognitive level of the individual player, and the games adjust themselves in difficulty level in response to the player’s progress.
The most basic and intuitive analogy for brain training is that it is like physical training. Ordinary games are often compared to walking or housecleaning, while computer-based BTGs are said to be analogous to weight-lifting at the gym. Just as a person can build muscle strength and endurance by doing daily bicep curls and leg lunges, it seems reasonable that someone might be able to build mental might and stamina by practicing BTGs on a regular basis.
Neuroplasticity and the Scientific Premise for Brain Games
One of the important discoveries to arise from research on neuroplasticity over the past 60+ years is that the human brain is capable of growth and development even into old age. It had been long thought by the scientific community that the brain was a “non-renewable organ.” The assumption was that individuals were born with a finite number of brain cells, and that the cells slowly died as people aged. We now know that positive physiological changes in our brains can occur well into old age, and that these changes can be brought about by many factors including exercise, a healthy diet, positive social interactions, and keeping one’s mind engaged.
Yet, as people age, their hippocampus (a region of the brain closely associated with memory and spatial orientation) shrinks, and their memory, information processing speed, attention, reasoning, and focus often suffers.
Dr. Henry Mahncke, the CEO of Posit Science, explained in a recent podcast, “As we get older, it’s like our brain’s a radio that slowly gets tuned off the station and gets more and more static. And as a result of that internal noise, our brain has to work harder to process what we hear and what we see, and because it’s working harder just to do the basics, it’s not able to engage attention and memory and thinking systems as effectively as it used to.”1
Mahncke, whose company developed the blockbuster brain-game site www.BrainHQ.com, said that addressing this problem of “neural noise” is part of the central premise behind the brain-training exercises his team of neuroscientists created. The site has 50+ brain games, and Mahncke says that each seeks to improve the speed and accuracy of information processing in either the auditory, visual, or cognitive control system.
“The games are engaging, they’re visually compelling, and they can be fun to do, but they are designed with a deep understanding of what changes in brains as we age and how to rewire the brain to give us better cognitive function,” says Mahncke. The games are designed to be intensive, repetitive, and progressively challenging, since only by learning new skills does the brain build and refine neural pathways.
Big Business and Fun Games
Lumosity, perhaps the most well-known of all brain-training companies, has more than 100 million registered users from 195 countries. Millions more people log on daily to other brain-training sites such as CogniFit, Peak, and BrainHQ. Most people simply enjoy the fun and excitement of playing the games, relishing the feel-good vibes that come from reaching the goal of each challenge. Some of the main BTG offerings are summarized in the Table below.
There are hundreds of peer-reviewed research reports in scientific and medical journals showing that most people do get better at playing the games over time. This alone makes common sense and is largely undisputed.
Can You Train Your Brain? Four Apps to Explore
† All four companies have free versions. The listed prices are for full access.
Claims and Controversy
Near-transfer and far-transfer learning lie on a continuum, and in the case of BTGs, defining, teasing out, and measuring the differences is the cause of ongoing debate. Advocates of BTGs claim that the far-transfer effects of the games are real and measurable.
On its website, BrainHQ states that its programs were evaluated by independent academic experts at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Southern California as part of the IMPACT (Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training) clinical trial. A total of 487 healthy adults older than 65 were enrolled in the trial, half of whom participated in BrainHQ’s brain-training program and half of whom were in an active control group. The results were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and according to Mahncke, the participants in the brain-training group “showed a beautiful, significant improvement in standardized, generalized measures of memory, the kinds of things a neuropsychologist would use to test your memory.”1
Lumosity’s Lumos Labs has a collaborative research program, the Human Cognition Project, with more than 90 partnerships with universities and with neuroscientists, psychologists, education professionals, gerontologists, and medical experts. Similarly, CogniFit says that independent research shows that its brain-training programs “help stimulate cognitive functions and improve brain plasticity.”3
Yet, despite these claims for generalized cognitive improvement (as opposed to improvements in game-playing), there is yet to be a full consensus. In 2014, Stanford University’s Center for Longevity published a letter signed by 69 neuroscientists saying that although BTGs could provide isolated benefits, there was no compelling scientific basis for claims that the games could improve generalized cognitive functioning.4
A 2016 meta-analysis led by Dr. Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois involved the review of more than 130 journals cited by BTG advocates, as well as over a hundred additional articles cited on the websites of leading brain-training companies.5 Published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the meta-analysis led Simons and colleagues to conclude that there was “no compelling evidence” that BTGs can help individuals with cognitive activities such as recalling the names of friends or remembering to take daily medications. Significantly, the analysis pointed out research flaws in the cited studies—problems with too small sample sizes, inadequate control groups, errors in statistical interpretation, and misinterpretations of near- and far-transfers. (It should be noted that Mahncke of Posit Science, and others in the BTG field, were quick to return fire, saying that the meta-analysis itself was flawed.6)
In January 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that Lumosity made misleading claims regarding cognitive improvement and imposed a $2 million fine on the company. The FTC said, “Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting that their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”
More recent research by the University of Texas’ Dallas Center for Vital Longevity is more nuanced. Lead researcher Dr. Chandramallika Basak, Associate Professor of Cognition and Neuroscience at UT-Dallas, states that effective cognitive training during late adulthood can help maintain, or even enhance, our cognitive abilities, among both cognitively healthy individuals and individuals with MCI. However, the cognitive enhancements demonstrated by her research participants were “limited to specific training modules.”7,8
According to Dr. Dorothy Bishop, a neuropsychologist at the University of Oxford, one possible downside of BTGs is that they can encourage people to spend their free time in front of a computer screen rather than spending that time socializing with friends and family, exercising, reading, working on a hobby, or engaging in otherwise positive activities.6 Moreover, people who don’t enjoy games may find the BTGs tedious or frustrating. Another possible downside is that BTGs carry a financial cost—albeit relatively small, anywhere from about $40 to $120 per year (see sidebar).
What we Know for Sure
We know that for many people, the games are fun, challenging, and provide something to look forward to each day. They are well-designed, visually stimulating, and can be done virtually anywhere, since they are available on smart phones (Android and IOS-based), tablets, and computers. Because the games don’t require much physical effort, they can be enjoyed by people suffering from achy knees and bad backs, as well as by individuals whose mobility is more severely impaired.
The games automatically adapt to the ability of each player, either raising or lowering the bar to the precise level that allows players to “win” regularly enough to reap congratulatory messages or to unlock a virtual jackpot. The feeling of victory after winning a game is psychologically rewarding and can bolster a person’s confidence and even improve their mood. This psychological boost may be a big part of BTGs’ “secret sauce.” Positive emotions generated by interacting with the programs boost the level of dopamine in the brain, the feel-good chemical that plays an important role in generating brain-cell growth.
The science of neuroplasticity has taught us that the brain is always capable of change. Keeping the brain active by reading, playing cards, quilting, watching the evening news, having fun with BTGs, or looking at old photo albums may well help some people maintain their memory and mental agility. As Basak notes, “even an aging, slightly impaired brain can still make positive changes.”7
2. Toy S. People spent $1.9 billion last year on apps to keep their brains sharp as they age—here’s what actually works. Market Watch website. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/older-americans-spent-19-billion-last-year-on-apps-to-keep-their-brains-sharp-heres-what-actually-works-2019-05-24. August 16, 2019.
4. A consensus on the brain training industry from the scientific community (summary). Stanford Center on Longevity website. http://longevity.stanford.edu/a-consensus-on-the-brain-training-industry-from-the-scientific-community. October 20, 2014.
5. Yates D. Review finds little evidence that brain-training games yield real-world benefits. Illinois News Bureau website. http://news.illinois.edu/view/6367/412702. October 3, 2016.
6. Yong E. The weak evidence behind brain training games. The Atlantic website. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/10/the-weak-evidence-behind-brain-training-games/502559. October 3, 2016.
7. Fontenot S. Researchers’ analysis confirms effects of cognitive training for older adults. The University of Texas at Dallas website. www.utdallas.edu/news/health-medicine/basak-cognitive-training-2020. April 20, 2020.
8. Basak C, Qin S, O’Connell MA. Differential effects of cognitive training modules in healthy aging and mild cognitive impairment: a comprehensive meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychol Aging. 2020;35(2):220-249. doi:10.1037/pag0000442