We have all seen the advertisements: train your brain for better memory, learning, and power! Cognitive training is one of the hottest new trends in self-improvement. And, if you have been misplacing keys or regularly missing appointments, it may be tempting to sign up for these “brain games”. The hope that after a few weeks of puzzles your brain will be churning out names, dates, and cell phone numbers like you are 17 again is indeed a tempting lure.
The question is: Does brain training really work? As the number of cognitive training interventions grow, researchers have come to understand that there are in fact approaches that do work, while others do not1. Thus, not all brain training is created equally. Before you invest your time and money in a brain bootcamp program, it is important to identify a cognitive training strategy that is the best fit for you.
Here are 2 points to consider:
1. What goals do you hope to achieve from brain training?
There is no right or wrong reason for wanting to enhance our brain function – everyone has room for improvement! But, the specific goals you have set for yourself might be better achieved through certain types of cognitive training compared to others.
Dust off the cobwebs
Perhaps you are striving to break the TV binge-watching habit and are looking for fun and engaging ways to mentally get off the couch. If this is the case, brain games like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, quizzes, and word problems might be the way to go. These are not truly “brain training”, but instead are “brain games”. They can help you dust off any mental cobwebs, but will not create a global improvement in brain function.
Or, you might be seeking out cognitive training tools to improve your working or short-term memory. This is no surprise – as we live longer, we are faced with the need to fend off cognitive decline for as long as possible. Research tells us that the best way to prevent symptoms of aging, neurodegeneration, or cognitive decline is to improve brain performance in a sustained manner2. Many brain training programs boast exercises “proven” to boost brain benefits. But, if these exercises are merely proven to improve your performance on a specific task type, they will not generalize into real-life situations. These exercises often fall into the “brain games” category, discussed above, and are not true brain training paradigms. Read carefully about these cognitive training programs and ensure that scientific evidence shows a generalization of brain benefits.
Alternatively, perhaps your doctor suggested you consider a cognitive training program to help treat a disease. In these cases, brain training is “prescribed” by your doctor. Biofeedback, neurofeedback, and brain stimulation (in the form of tDCS – transcranial direct current stimulation3) are increasing in popularity as approaches to brain training. They are inexpensive and safe techniques that have been increasingly shown to enhance or normalize brain functions. In fact, a growing number of general practice physicians are adding medical treatments and resources such as these for patients who wish to improve cognitive function. Of course, how you use these techniques will affect the outcome of training. Working closely with your doctor can help ensure that your brain will get the individualized training it needs.
2. Are you willing to commit to brain training?
Brain training to improve cognitive function in a sustained manner is more than just mental activity, it is mental exercise. And like physical exercise, mental exercise should train as many “muscles” as possible. This means incorporating novelty, variety, and challenge into your training paradigm and cross-training a variety of intelligence capacities, like emotional, executive, and perceptual skills4.
Just as you wouldn’t expect to derive lifelong benefits from running a marathon tomorrow and then not exercising ever again, you should not expect lifelong benefits from a one-time brain training activity. True cognitive training programs are no quick fix for a healthier brain. For the desired cognitive boost, an effective training program should be individualized, adapt to performance, require effortful attention, increase in difficulty, and be performed systematically.
It will take effort, but don’t shy away from the challenge! Pick the best type of brain training to accomplish your goals, and stick with it. Your brain will thank you for your hard work.
1 Melby-Lervag, M., Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49 (2): 270-291.
2 Willis, S., Tennstedt, S., Marsiske, M., et al. (2006). Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Outcomes in Older Adults. JAMA, 296 (23): 2805-2814.
3 Gill, J., Shah-Basak, P., & Hamilton, R. (2015). It’s the Thought That Counts: Examining the Task-dependent Effects of Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation on Executive Function. Brain Stimulation, 8 (2): 253-259.
4 Kueider, A., Parisi, J., Gross, A., Rebok, G. (2012). Computerized Cognitive Training with Older Adults: A Systematic Review. PLoS ONE 7 (7): e40588.
Morgan Ingemanson is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine studying neurobiology. She specializes in functional neuroimaging and has been investigating the use of robotic devices for rehabilitating motor function after stroke. She is interested in mapping CNS repair and developing therapeutic interventions for neurorecovery.