If you want to start some real beef between a group of scientists, here’s what to do: ask them how brain training games work. Specifically, the downloadable smartphone kind. When I began researching this feature for Byrdie UK, I had no idea that I was about to wade into one of the most passionately debated areas of modern brain science.
So to dramatically summarise the debate before we really dig into it all, here’s the crux of the matter: In the scheme of things, brain training apps and games are still relatively new, so while the appeal of improving memory, productivity and more is huge, research into their overall effectiveness is fairly limited. Many of the studies that have been done are either small-scale, so possibly not truly representative of people en masse, or commissioned by the companies marketing said games and apps—thereby flagging issues of bias and credibility. That said, scientists, including this neuroscientist, are mostly in agreement that “training” of some form can and will improve brain health and cognitive dexterity. The problem is that when it comes to the best methods, there’s far from a consensus—especially when it comes to the involvement of digital devices.
Nevertheless, we’ve delved into the debate and done our own digging to discover the brain training methods that have scientific evidence to back them up.
The Theory: How Brain Training Works
Despite the debate around brain training games and apps, the idea that the brain can be continually “trained” and moulded to be healthier and more robust (a concept known as brain plasticity), is one that most neurologists now agree with. In fact, between two groups of scientists that have each issued opposing public statements on the effectiveness of commercial brain training games (you can read the letter against here, signed by 70 scientists, plus the rebuttal here with 120 scientific co-signers), it’s one of the only points they all find common ground on.
“Think of your mind as a muscle—with exercise, good nutrition, plus adequate rest and recovery, it will become stronger and perform better,” explains Emer MacSweeney, a neuroradiologist and CEO at Re:Cognition Health. “Playing brain games such as Sudoku or doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles are enjoyable activities that can challenge the brain and possibly improve memory. Everyday mental challenges, such as memorising shopping lists, maps and calendar dates can also help to maintain cognitive alertness; if your brain remains alert, it will keep your body active and healthy. As they say; ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.’”
Brain Training Games: The Argument For
One of the leading scientists behind the development of brain training games is Michael Merzenich, Ph.D. A key influence in brain plasticity research for five decades, Merzenich has developed BrainHQ—an online hub of brain training games and exercises, powered by top neuroscientists and all based on this principle. “Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the brain’s ability to change physically, creating new neural pathways and connections, in response to new learning or stimuli,” he explains on his website. “These physical changes can happen at any age and go hand in hand with functional changes.”
So how does this work in the real-life context of daily game playing? Exercises such as those found on Brain HQ focus on engaging the brain’s natural plasticity, or ability to change and develop, to sharpen the basic learning processes behind specific skills such as memory, attention and focus and brain speed. Developing games that will directly, and more importantly, effectively, target these learning processes, however, is a tricky business.
While companies like BrainHQ and app store rival Peak are founded on published, peer-reviewed research (studies that have been backed by other scientists in the field) to back its games, not all companies are quite as committed to this. U.S. company Lumosity, for example, was recently forced to pay $2 million (approximately £1.4 million) to settle allegations that it had deceived customers with claims of increased performance at work or school as a result of their brain training app. Which brings us on to…
Brain Training Games: The Argument Against
While the science behind brain plasticity and our ability to keep learning and developing our neuro-skills is widely accepted, the idea that digital devices aren’t the best way to improve these is a core argument for critics. As is the lack of credible scientific backing for many commercial apps that claim huge brain training benefits—especially among younger adults, who have yet to experience the cognitive decline that often comes with age.
“There is an overwhelming number of new brain training games and apps that make claims of boosting the brain and staving off cognitive decline,” says MacSweeney. “In a recent study, however, it was revealed that brain training games in young, healthy adults do not improve cognitive ability, except in the specific areas of the games.” In other words, while you might become excellent at tap-tapping a bird through a winding maze or solving a word jumble, that’s often as far as these new skills will take you—there’s no transfer into daily brain function.
Our reliance on devices is also a huge concern for MacSweeney. “The average person now checks their phone up to 85 times per day, which is having a profound effect on the cognitive function of individuals,” she notes. “This can affect concentration and attention span; making people distracted and also making the brain lazy (smartphones are literally making people less smart!). We no longer need to memorise information such as calendar dates, phone numbers, maps, directions or instructions—all this information is accessible at the touch of an icon.”
“We are in an age where people rely on their phones and trust them more than their brains. It is important to learn how to remember things, however, and it is possible that generations who have not had the discipline of having to learn and retain information may be less adept at doing this in the future.”
The Byrdie Verdict: How We're Approaching Brain Health
After weighing up the arguments on both sides, here’s what we’ll be doing to improve our brain health, memory, productivity and more.
1. Cut down on device time. MacSweeney raises great points about our digital dependence, while endless scrolling of social media has been shown to also increase anxiety levels. So for the sake of our brains, we’ll be making more effort to unplug—and remember birthdays without the Facebook notification.
2. Check the evidence. As much as we’ll be cutting down digital time, it’s a fact that smartphones are in our lives. With moderation, however, we do believe they can be used positively. So we’ll be looking for brain training games that come with plenty of verified scientific backing—you can see our picks below.
3. Get moving. Mental and physical well-being go hand in hand, and getting your body moving, especially outdoors, has been shown to boost mood, concentration and productivity. So we’ll be taking exercise outdoors where we can, embracing walks in the park and getting plenty of vitamin D while we’re at it.
The Brain Training Games to Try
BrainHQ: Available online and also as an app in the Apple App Store or Google Play, BrainHQ is backed by top neuroscientists and over 100 peer-reviewed research papers. You can use the free version, which offers up one brain training activity per day, or you can subscribe to the full package from £10 per month.
Peak: Created alongside scientists, including researchers at Cambridge University, Peak takes a more visual approach to sharpening the learning processes behind memory, mental agility, problem-solving and communication. It’s available as an app on iPhone and Android, but the best parts of the service are subscription-only, starting at around £4 per month.
Sudoku: The old classic is still at the top of the list when it comes to brain training, as it develops logical thinking while also calming the mind. There are plenty of Sudoku apps for both iPhone and Android—for beginners we like Sudoku Puzzle World, which is free to download.