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Do Brain Training Games Work?

The human brain contains billions of nerve cells and trillions of synapses, and has a petabyte of storage (the equivalent of a thousand gigabytes). It’s amazing at solving problems, seeing patterns, and abstract thinking yet the average person still sometimes fails to retrieve even the most basic words from its memory banks, a phenomenon that’s so common it even has its own name – Tip of the Tongue Syndrome.

For all its horsepower, the brain isn’t infallible. There’s evidence that our increasingly on-demand society is taking its toll on our attention span, a point mentioned in a recent 888poker article about the mental aspects of poker. The same piece of content notes that human’s natural ability to multi-task is equally poor (one extra job reduces our attention on the first by 37%), to the extent that 888 recommends that players joining its Sit-and-Go and multi-table games focus on a single opponent at a time.

With the above in mind, it’s probably fair to say that we’re all a little bit paranoid about the capabilities of our grey matter, the sheer number of brain-training games standing as testament to that fact. But is it actually possible to boost our brain with mental exercise or is Dr. Kawashima, the face of Nintendo’s Brain Training series, just leading us on?

Placebo Effect

The short answer is “no” – at least, in the vast majority of cases, it is. According to a 2010 study by psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen, becoming more proficient at a dedicated brain training game means exactly that; the brain gets better at pattern recognition (for example) within the confines of a particular game but not overall.

However, another piece of research conducted in 2016 indicated that some people could increase their IQ by five to ten points due to a placebo effect among those who were especially enthusiastic about brain training. Put another way, re-wiring your brain to improve memory recall may simply be a question of belief.

The issue with the latter study is that its results are highly specific and therefore not representative of how the wider population responds to brain training. Expectation can make the brain behave in very strange ways. For example, people given sugar pills in medical trials sometimes experience side effects like nausea because they’re written on the bottle the real drug comes from.

NeuroRacer

Ironically, more conventional video games, the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Call of Duty, may actually trump specialized titles as far as brain training is concerned. There are several studies that have found links between playing games and the repair and maintenance of brain functionality in people with degenerative diseases.

For example, pensioners playing NeuroRacer, a driving game made by the University of California, were able to return the quality of their memory and attention span to a level comparable with that of a 20-year-old after just twelve hours of play. The same applies to Sonic All-Stars Racing; players boosted the same metrics by 30% after gaming for fifteen hours.

In many cases, the significant factor appears to be multi-tasking. NeuroRacer has players perform separate tasks while driving a mercifully virtual car, while two months’ play on DS game Super Mario 64 produced improvements in gamers’ motor control and navigation. The DS, notably, requires the player to switch their attention between two screens.

While we’re still a long way from being prescribed several hours of Pokémon or Mass Effect by doctors, and perhaps even further from a truly useful brain training game, the evidence suggests that people of all ages can benefit from supplementing their health and fitness regimen with a game or two of Overwatch.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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