Can your phone help you to ‘train your brain’?

Imagine if you could improve your memory or attention skills by playing a game on your phone. There is a lot of hype behind brain-training apps, which are now being used by tens of millions of people worldwide. The idea behind these games is that they keep your brain mentally “fit” and can even improve aspects of mental functioning.  Playing a fun game to optimise cognition is appealing, particularly considering the impact this could have on ageing adults.  However, to what extent do these games actually improve mental function?

What exactly is brain training?

Cognitive training, also known as brain training, is the method of exercising your brain through mentally stimulating games with the desired outcome to boost brain function. It uses the same logic as one would use for going to the gym to improve physical abilities – namely that brain training improves mental abilities through daily mental workouts. The purpose of these games is to help people become better at tasks that involve problem solving, reasoning, memory, and attention, with some games claiming they target specific mental skills whilst others claiming a more general mental fitness.

There is an obvious appeal to improve skills like attention and memory, as these skills are required in many daily tasks, including studies and work. Additionally, a body of research has found that having advanced cognitive abilities such as learning and memory are linked to academic achievement and overall success in life. As a result, it is of great interest as to whether an individual can target and hone specific mental skills through the simple task of playing a game.

The problem is – it is fairly controversial as to how effective these brain-training games actually are. Research has investigated whether the claims that brain-training games can improve cognition are true, and most studies have demonstrated either no mental cognition benefits, or otherwise reaped inconclusive results. These brain-training companies claim that their games help sharpen mental skills that are translatable into daily life, however, what seems to be the case is that playing these games only results in the individual getting better at these games. It seems unlikely, based on the current body of research, that commercial brain training games allow the player to develop transferable mental skills into everyday life.

So what’s the issue?

While it is true that playing brain-training games is not bad for you, the danger lies in the claims that these brain-training companies allege they do in absence of evidence-based support.  Some brain-training companies have made claims suggesting their product “improves consumers’ cognition, their performance at school and work, protect them against dementia, and help treat symptoms of ADHD”. However, none of these claims are grounded in peer-reviewed studies, and brain-training companies that reference studies tend to reference those they have financed themselves. These companies also tend to rely on anecdotal evidence from their consumers, quoting how their customers have “never felt sharper”, rather than drawing on scientific metrics reflecting actual cognitive ability. While quotes from customers can be compelling, it tends to shroud any rigorous research that does not support their product. It is also important to note that engaging in these games are demonstrated to increase sedentary screen time, which has been associated with impaired mental and physical health.

Does this mean it’s all doom and gloom for trying to keep your brain healthy and active? Absolutely not! While the jury is still out regarding the efficacy of brain-training games, there are many other, well-established activities that contribute to overall brain health. We know that maintaining physical health has significant effects on your cognitive function and reduces risk of cognitive decline. This can include lifestyle aspects of a healthy diet, regular physical activity, consistent sleep patterns, and steady blood pressure, which are all known to be protective against cognitive decline later in life. Maintaining a strong social life and involvement with your community is demonstrated to keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated, with studies showing that these activities maintain mental wellbeing and cognitive function. Managing stress and mental ill-health is also important for cognitive function, as chronic mental illness is demonstrated to affect memory and increase risk of dementia.

Finally – it IS important to keep mentally active, but in the right way. People who engage in personal and meaningful activities, such as volunteering or hobbies, feel happier and healthier. Research has demonstrated that learning new skills can improve your reasoning ability and enhance memory, with studies showing this to be particularly significant in older adults. Mentally stimulating activities such as reading, learning a new skill, or volunteering help the brain become more adaptable in mental functioning. There is also a growing body of research investigating scientifically backed memory training, reasoning training, and process-speed training, and while these have reaped positive results, it is important to recognise that these training mechanisms are different to what is sold commercially.

While playing these games are rewarding and can bring a lot of joy to the player, it is important to be wary of companies overselling their benefits. Computerised brain training may provide an exciting opportunity for future research; however, the commercialisation of these products can limit the full effect they have on mental functioning. There will never be a one-size-fits all for optimising an individual’s mental abilities, and it is often best to engage with a variety of mentally stimulating activities to maximise cognitive health. If you play a brain-training game, you are only getting better at playing that game – but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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