If you’ve ever felt like you’re doomed because you simply don’t have time to engage with the dozens of “brain training” games, websites, and Apps out there, here is some good news for you: You’re not missing out on much. That’s the view of over 70 cognitive scientists who issued a statement last month saying that despite the widespread notion that brain games can make your smarter, more alert, less forgetful and a better learner, “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.”
Evidence for Brain Training is insufficent
The cognitive improvements shown in research studies in labs are typically narrow and fleeting, and “[t]o date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” says the statement, which was spearheaded by the Stanford Center of Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
This doesn’t mean that the brain is not malleable, particularly at younger ages, nor that you can’t learn specific skills from the games, the scientists say. What is not yet clear is that this learning is long-lasting, or that it makes you better able to perform meaningfully in real life, they add, calling for additional research in the field.
“People want a quick fix for brain health. Much like we all take a daily vitamin, people are searching for something that they can do, that doesn’t take much time,” Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., Founder and Chief Director of the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter, said in an email interview. “But our brain is the most complex and truly amazing organ in our body, and a quick fix won’t cut it to improve brain performance.” Dr. Chapman wasn’t one of the signatories to the statement, but believes that there is insufficient scientific evidence to suggest that brain training, as it exists now, can significantly improve an individual’s higher-order cognitive ability.
The 2013 spending on brain fitness hardware and software–not including paper-based products or in-person classes–was $1.3 billion worldwide and is expected to rise to $6 billion by 2020, Dr. Chapman said, citing data from research by SharpBrains that was also reported in a recent The New York Times article about brain training games.
Training one task vs. everyday life
Dr. Chapman acknowledges that the so-called “brain games” can be fun and entertaining, but cautions that they train very specific functions: “If you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you might get really good at crossword puzzles. The same goes for Sudoku, and any other similar games. But the effects do not spill over to other untrained areas and do not elevate critical frontal lobe brain functions such as decision-making, planning and judgment — functions that allow us to carry out our daily lives. And just like physical workouts, when you stop doing the exercises, your brain loses the immediate gains,” she said.
In her research on how to improve cognitive functions, Dr. Chapman doesn’t focus on speed of processing, memory, or learning an isolated new skill. Instead, her training program encourages the use of a common set of multi-dimensional thinking strategies to synthesize information and to eliminate toxic habits that impair efficient brain performance.
Here are some practical brain sharpening tips from Dr. Chapman:
- Stop habits that work against healthy frontal lobe function, such as multitasking. “Research shows that our brain can only do one thing at a time well,” Dr. Chapman said. “So when we constantly shift attention from one activity to another, or entertain every interruption from a smart phone beep or email alert, we are making it harder for our brains to do their job.” Multitasking may make us feel more efficient but it actually overloads and fatigues the brain and ultimately makes it less efficient. Moreover, multitasking pours a toxic stress hormone, cortisol on the memory center of the brain.
- Temporarily cut ties with technology, even if it’s for just for 30 minutes, to improve brain health. “Studies conclude that overuse of Smart phones, tablets, video games and other electronics can hurt our ability to think deeply,” Dr. Chapman said. “Instead of being tethered to your technology, manage it. As an alternative to moving from screen to screen, App to App and responding to every mobile ping, turn off phone, email and App alerts and find a quiet place when completing a task of substance.”
- Stop relying on rote thinking. “Translate your world to think like a reporter and work your brain to construct provocative thought-filled ideas,” Dr. Chapman said. “Move away from surface-level, uninspired thinking and instead challenge your mind to think in themes, which will strengthen connections between different areas of our brain.” For example, when you are presented with large amounts of information, try to synthesize it into a few “power-packed big ideas.”
If your goal is to better your brain across your entire lifespan, the main lesson from Dr. Chapman is this: Push past the predictable. “Our brain can focus on vast details, but it was built to do so much more, like innovative thinking, appreciating different perspectives, and figuring out new plans,” she said.