Dec. 11, 2014 -- For more than 2 years, Jeanne Roach found a seat at an open computer terminal in the e-café at the Villa Gardens retirement community in Pasadena, CA, and she did a “20-minute circuit workout” for her brain.
“You look at a series of pictures, then the pictures are removed, and you’re asked, ‘In which picture were the men wearing hats?’” says Roach, 88, a retired human resources specialist. “There are math problems – what we used to call ‘story problems’ when I was growing up. I happened to do pretty well with the word games, but not well with the math.”
The challenges, according to game-maker Dakim BrainFitness, are meant to exercise six mental skills: long-term memory, short-term memory, language, computation, critical thinking, and the perception of spatial relationships between objects (called visuospatial ability).
Dakim is one program in the estimated billion-dollar-plus industry known as computer-based brain training. Lumosity, perhaps the best known in the industry, boasts 50 million users. Some play for free. Others buy unlimited monthly or annual access for $15 per month or $60 per year. Lumosity and its many competitors promise to preserve or improve memory, among other mental skills, and prevent or delay mental decline and even dementia.
But can a video game deliver all of that?
Probably not yet, says Sandra Chapman, PhD. She's chief director of The Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas. Brain-training games are popular for the same reason as diet pills, she suspects. They seem like a quick fix.
Computer-Based Training Vs. Other Activities
While research shows that people who play the games get better at them -- and may even stay better at them long after they stop practicing -- it’s harder to tell whether gamers function better in other aspects of life.
One study followed nearly 3,000 elderly adults for 10 years. Those who completed computer-based cognitive training reported less trouble carrying out the activities of everyday living than those who didn't. But, critics argue, it’s common for study participants to think a treatment helped them whether it did or not. Roach felt that way, too.
“I can’t say that I was consciously aware of [being sharper in my day-to-day life], but I do feel that it was beneficial. For instance, with challenges remembering names,” she says.
While computer-based brain-training exercises could temporarily slow the progress of dementia, even in people who already have mild to moderate disease, other activities that stimulate the brain seem to work just as well.
Critics of brain-training games note that studies show greatest benefits of these games when they compare game users to peers who do nothing else. Studies that compare elderly brain-game players to elderly people doing a different activity, such as viewing documentaries and answering discussion questions about them, often find that both groups reap some sort of mind-related benefit. Nintendo’s "Super Mario Brothers" brought brain benefits in one study. Board games staved off dementia in another.
Roach says she eventually abandoned the brain-training games because there were too many other interesting things to do.
“We’ve got lectures, music programs, and community-service groups that we can get involved in,” she says.
Karen Miller, PhD, is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. She says computer games might do better at continually challenging the user.
“If something is novel and challenging to the brain, then that’s going to benefit brain function. If you’re good at playing bridge, we want you to learn mahjong or chess,” says Miller, who was a consultant to Dakim in the development of the BrainFitness software. “Whether it’s a computer program, a class, chess, or Sudoku, it should be novel and stimulating."
More Brain-Boosting Tips
Chapman suggests that people who want to stay their sharpest should engage in higher-level thinking. If you want to stimulate your brain, read, have a conversation, and make plans, she says.
And in a culture where people are already spread too thin, it might be better to take a nap. “Resting your brain is just as important as stimulating it,” Chapman says.
That’s not to say that computer games couldn’t one day help exercise the muscles of higher-level thinking.
“I think in the future, video games could be more than just responding correctly ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They could stretch the mind to synthesize bigger ideas,” she says. “But it’s infinite the way our brains can do things, and it’s hard right now for a computer to simulate that.”