Will Brain Training Make You Smarter?
By Deane Alban
Last year over $1 billion was spent on brain training programs, making this an exploding new industry. But do brain training programs live up to the hype? Are they worth the time and money spent? Do the benefits gained translate to better overall brain function?
The top brain training companies have teams of researchers and scientists developing and testing their products. The creators of the brain training programs consider concepts as complex as neuroplasticity, adaptivity, fluid intelligence, and cognitive reserve when developing new exercises. They publish their own research results to substantiate their claims of improving brain functions such as memory, concentration, focus, problem solving, and reaction time.
Clearly, a tremendous amount of effort has gone into the research and development of these brain games by some very intelligent people. It all sounds highly scientific and pretty impressive! But of course, the creators of these products have a vested interest in proving that they work as advertised.
When I looked at independent studies that were not associated with any brain training company, however, I found there to be about equal evidence that brain training works – and that it doesn’t!
Here are two major studies that came to very different conclusions.
The ACTIVE (Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) study was funded by the National Institute on Aging. This study showed that not only did brain training work, but that the benefits can last long after the training has stopped. Surprisingly, participants who were checked five years after their training ended still showed detectable brain improvements.
On the flip side, the Brain Test Britain experiment was by far the largest ever study of computer-based brain training with over 13,000 participants. The conclusion of this study was that there was no evidence that the benefits of brain training transferred to real life brain skills. Brain training was found to be no more beneficial than spending an equal amount of time using the internet.
You understandably might be more confused than ever but here is my take on this.
Hi-tech brain training is in its infancy. It was only a few years ago that scientists realized you could improve your brain at all by any means. Brain training programs show promise and will only get better as more research is done.
As things currently stand, I would say that brain training could work for you but is not necessary.
If the idea of brain training appeals to you, take one for a test drive before making a commitment. Most brain training programs offer free trial offers.
Here are some tips for picking a suitable program:
Substance. You need to know if a program has even a shot at providing you any real benefits. Choose one that has been scientifically designed and tested to improve memory and other related cognitive functions.
Style. Choose a program designed for your level of technical comfort. You want to find it fun with just the right amount of difficulty. How do you feel about competition? Some programs will be comparing your games scores to those of other players.
Demographics. No single brain training program addresses the needs of every demographic. Some are better suited for the younger crowd while others are designed specifically for Boomers or seniors. There's one program on the market created specifically for women.
Notice how you feel after you play. You should be mentally energized and refreshed. If you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, annoyed or bored, either this is not the right program for you, or you need to adjust the program’s level of difficulty, if that’s possible.
I don't believe brain training is the best way to stop mental decline for everyone. Most of us already have way too much "screen time" and would benefit from other kinds of activities instead.
If you're very sedentary, physical exercise would provide more brain benefits than playing games online. If your life is very stressful, spending those 15 minutes engaged in a stress reduction technique such as meditation would almost certainly be a better choice.
There are many real world ways to stimulate your brain. Time-tested activities that challenge your brain include playing chess, learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or enjoying a creative hobby such as photography, gardening, woodworking, or sewing.
The bottom line is that your brain thrives on variety to keep those synapses firing. Consequently, the more different kinds of mental activities you participate in, the happier and healthier your brain will be.
Deane Alban holds a bachelor's degree in biology and has written about natural health for over 20 years. She is the author of Brain Gold: Brain Fitness Guide for Boomers, a step-by-step customizable program for preventing and reversing age-related mental decline. Discover the latest ways to protect your most valuable asset and stay mentally sharp for life at her website BeBrainFit.com.