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Do Brain Games Really Boost Brainpower?

See if crossword puzzles, Sudoku and brain training websites are worth the hype

A recent column by New York Times blogger Nick Bilton discusses the addictive quality of video games and how we might use them to make our minds stronger, faster and healthier.

According to Bilton's piece, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are using neuroimaging techniques to peer into gamers' heads, collecting data to help make video games that "change as you play, getting easier or harder, depending on your performance." The goal is eventually to develop games that rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function.

But with all the buzz about brain games—such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and even brain training websites—it begs the question: Can brain games be beneficial to brain health?

As a cognitive neuroscientist, this is a question I get asked a lot. And the answer is yes and no.

While the games are fun and engaging, there is insufficient scientific evidence to suggest brain training as it exists now can significantly improve an individual's higher-order cognitive ability.

What we do know is that brain games improve the specific function that is being trained. So, for example, if you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you might get really good at crossword puzzles. The same goes for Sudoku and any other similar games. But the affects do not spill over to other untrained areas and do not elevate critical frontal lobe brain functions such as decision-making, planning and judgment—functions that allow us to carry out our daily lives. And just like physical workouts, when you stop doing the exercises, your brain loses the immediate gains.

If you like brain games there is no harm in doing them, but chances are you are better off giving your brain some downtime and gearing up for deeper level thinking. I recommend taking practical steps to build and maintain robust brain health. The first simple step is to stop habits that work against healthy frontal lobe function.

For example, eliminate multitasking. Research shows that our brain can only do one thing at a time well. So when we constantly shift attention from one activity to another, or entertain every interruption from a smart phone beep or email alert, we are making it harder for our brains to do their job. And while multitasking may make us feel more efficient, it actually overloads and fatigues the brain, making it less efficient. It also creates stress, which pours a toxic hormone called cortisol on the memory center of the brain.

Temporarily cutting ties with technology—just for 30 minutes—can also better brain health. Studies conclude that overuse of smartphones, tablets, video games and other electronics can hurt our ability to think deeply. Instead of being tethered to your technology, manage it. As an alternative to moving from screen to screen, app to app and responding to every mobile ping, turn off phone, email and app alerts and find a quiet place when completing a task of substance.

The key to investing in our brain health now and our cognitive reserves for the future lies largely within our remarkable frontal lobe and its deep connections to other brain areas. Our brain can focus on vast details, but it was built to do so much more, like innovative thinking, appreciating different perspectives, and figuring out new plans.

So, instead of relying on rote thinking, translate your world to think like a reporter and work your brain to construct provocative thought-filled ideas. Moving away from surface-level, uninspired thinking and instead challenge your mind to think in themes, which will strengthen connections between different areas of our brain. For example, when taking in large amounts of information, synthesize it into a few power-packed big ideas. Our brains become quickly jaded by routine so push past the predictable to better your brain health across the lifespan.

Your brain is the most complex and truly amazing organ in your body, and it's encouraging to see more people taking interest in keeping their brain sharp. In the coming years, I expect to see more meaningful online brain training developed. But, for now, start taking practical steps to build and maintain brain health—steps that have been proven to work.

Copyright Sandra Bond Chapman

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