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Do Brain Games Really Work?
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Fri, Sep 7th 2012
When I worked for the Alzheimer's Association in downtown Chicago, I loved walking up Michigan Avenue and exploring its many glorious shops and restaurants. But there was one store I never visited, although it might have seemed an obvious choice for me.
On the store's website, it claims to offer products that "strengthen your brain" and "increase your intelligence" while still having fun. Sounds like the perfect store for someone working to put an end to a serious brain disease, doesn't it?
Yet I view this store - and others like it - with concern and skepticism. Why? Because products and programs such as these are rarely backed by any credible, scientifically sound brain research.
It's understandable why brain games such as puzzles, software, and competitive diversions are such a hit these days. Today's parents are consumed with seeing their children achieve academically and become scholastic stars. Young adults are obsessed with our competitive corporate culture and yearn for ways to become sharper, smarter, and more effective at their jobs. And baby boomers are terrified of getting old and will try any prevention regimen they believe might delay aging - including a regimen that includes brain games.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think brain games are dangerous or even a waste of time - that is, if you find them enjoyable. But I do believe that they can squeeze time and money from you if you don't enjoy them and are engaging in them only because you think they will improve your memory, concentration, intelligence, or mental performance.
Here's what we know about mental activity and brain health: When we use our brain in new and novel ways, we create new neurons (brain cells) as well as more connections between neurons. This can enhance brain functioning. Are there specific types of activities that have been shown to enhance brain functioning more than others? No.
That's all we know. The only factor that matters is whether the activity is new and novel. You can buy puzzles and software at "brain stores," but once you're accustomed to those products and how they work, they will cease to challenge your brain. Think of this concept as we think about physical exercise. When we engage in the same exercise routine for awhile, our body stops being challenged and we no longer yield the same health benefits. We have to mix things up a bit in order to keep seeing results.
This applies to mental activity, too. But in the realm of brain games, that can get pretty expensive! Here's an alternative: How about checking out some new books from the library? As long as they deal with topics that are new to you, you're good to go. And…they're free.
How about signing up for a class or picking up a new hobby? These activities can be relatively inexpensive and their benefits last much longer than a plastic toy. Or how about my favorite free mental activity - volunteering for a cause you know nothing about? Not only are you stretching your mind to new experiences; you are helping others in the process.
You can do all of these things and still drop in a "brain game" store once in awhile. But if you buy something, do it because you think it's cute or fun - not because you think it's going to make your brain work better.