Who knew that computer games could actually do more than suck time from your schedule? Thanks to some recent research, you may now have an excuse to increase your screen time playtime.
The research is shedding light on an emerging field called health games, often referred to as “brain training” or “brain games.” Just like those available for the Wii, Playstation and Xbox, among others, brain games are interactive and designed to be fun and engaging. But entertainment is not their main goal. “Brain training games are based on neuroscience and scientifically designed to improve core cognitive abilities, including memory, attention, speed and problem-solving,” explains neuroscientist Kacey Ballard, Ph.D., a researcher at Lumosity, a subscription online brain training program.
So how do these brain training programs differ from your average video or computer game? “To fit into this category, these games have to fall into one or two areas,” explains Bill Ferguson, Ph.D., editor-in-chief of Games for Health Journal, a new bi-monthly peer-reviewed publication the subject. “They have to be preventive in nature, like a game that helps people overcome eating habits that lead to obesity.”
Adds Ferguson: “Traditional video games are appealing not only because they’re entertaining, but also because many give you the opportunity to compete and fail, and then adjust your behavior to get better. Health researchers found that they can translate this appeal to aspects of people’s lives that are more important than entertaining, like losing a few pounds or improving memory.”
Research into brain training is relatively new and most studies are small scale. But the results look very promising in that brain training may, well, train your brain while you’re having fun.
Here are some of the potential benefits these brain games may provide:
A recent small study at Stanford University looked at children who had brain injuries as a result of cancer. These included problems with memory and thinking skills including organization, problem solving, attention, controlling behaviors, regulating emotions, planning, evaluating one’s successes and failures and changing course if necessary.
After 40 sessions of brain training exercises over an eight-week period, “the children showed higher brain function after the training program compared with before the training program,” notes study author Shelli Kesler, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Neuropsychology and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at Stanford University School of Medicine. “The children showed improved problem solving, processing speed and memory as measured by standardized tests.” (Another study at Stanford University School of Medicine by the same author found children who did a brain training program improved their math skills.)
So how can these results help you? “The fundamental message of this and similar studies is that the brain is very plastic, even after an injury, and its function can be improved with practice,” says Kesler. “It is important to stay mentally active in order to reduce the effects of aging, disease and injury on the brain, and cognitive exercises may be a convenient and accessible way of doing that. Like most things, it probably has to be done rather regularly and consistently to have an effect.”
Feeling down about yourself? Playing brain games may help. In a very small-scale pilot study at the University of California, Berkeley, looking at how brain games may help people manage their emotions, participants who trained for a half hour a day for 30 days had a self-esteem boost that the control group did not. Those who reaped the benefits were the ones who started the study feeling negative about themselves.
“Participants reported that they became better able to handle stress and negative emotions in their lives,” says study author Anett Gyurak, Ph.D., a post-doctoral scholar at Stanford University in the department of psychology and the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “They also reported reduced depression symptoms. For example, one way that depressed people handle stress is that they mull a problem over and over and over again in a non-constructive way. In the study, we observed a reduction in that kind of ruminative thinking style, and instead they were more problem-focused.”
Although Gyurak cautions that this was a small study and that more careful research needs to be done, people who start the training find that they’re better able to handle their existing difficulties and stressors.
Brain games may help improve willpower and even help with addiction. A study conducted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands set out to see if brain training could help enhance the memory of a group of people researchers called “problem drinkers” and boost their willpower to abstain from alcohol. The drinkers were divided into two groups — one doing 25 challenging sessions of working memory training and the other a control group. “Problem drinkers in the active condition group increased their working memory, which was not the case in the control group,” says study co-author Reinout Wiers, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Amsterdam, who specializes in the assessment and modification of cognitive processes in addiction. The brain training group also drank less than usual for over a month after the study was over.
“In those problem drinkers where drinking was driven to some extent by automatically triggered appetitive processes, training their brains helped,” adds Wiers — meaning that these drinkers had strong, automatic positive associations with alcohol that increased their “appetite” for a drink. “In problem drinkers where this was not the case, drinking was not affected by training the brain.”
Though it’s not entirely clear, experts have theories as to how this type of brain training can help something as strong (or easily weakened) as willpower. “The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive function — the brain processes involved in planning, impulse control, willpower and abstract thinking,” explains Ballard. “Scientists theorize that brain training games that improve executive control can help reduce automatic impulses and thus improve willpower.”
Better problem solving
Want to boost your ability to find creative ways to solve problems? Training your brain can help. A University of Michigan study looked at something called “dual n-back” tasks. “This is when an exercise presents users with a series of visual and auditory stimuli and then challenges them to identify whether these match the ones that were presented a certain number of trials previously,” explains Ballard.
The research revealed that study participants were better able to solve new problems creatively and improved their memory after this training than before. In fact, researchers say they saw improvements in as little as four hours of playing.
Take it with a grain of salt
Despite these promising studies, more research needs to be done — and some experts remain skeptical about the power of brain games. “In general, people get better at the tasks that they practice,” says Jessica Grahn, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain and Mind Institute at The University of Western Ontario in Canada, whose peer-reviewed study on the subject appeared in Nature. “In our study, we found that in six weeks of training, people got better at the specific tasks that they practiced, but this did not transfer to other tasks. This was true even for participants who practiced hours and hours each week. We only required a small amount of practice, but participants were allowed to practice as much as they wanted, so some did a lot.”
That said, it can’t hurt to train your brain, especially if you’re having a blast along the way. “Overall, people who enjoy these kinds of games will derive benefits,” says Gyurak. “Just the fun factor alone is an undeniable aspect, so if you enjoy these games you can play them regardless and you may reap these other benefits, too.”
Though study authors couldn’t share which games they used and some aren’t commercially available, here are some sites that offer exercises aimed to train your brain.
Although there’s no prescription for how much play equals progress, go ahead and play the games you like, follow the rules and have fun. Who knows? You might boost your brain power along the way, too.
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