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Could the Latest Word Game Really Train Your Brain?

The newest online word game is wildly popular, but could it help your brain?

Key points

  • The latest online word game craze, Wordle, seems like a good brain exercise.
  • Research on cognitive training with older adults suggests what elements of these online games could work.
  • Whether it's Wordle or something else, it's worth your time and effort to stick with the games you enjoy.

The rising popularity of Wordle, the latest online word game, challenges players to guess a five-letter word in six moves through a combination of guesswork, logic, and vocabulary skill.

You begin this game with a set of five blanks, and over the course of the six moves available to you, you have to figure out the letters in the word and eventually their positions. If you’re the social type, you also get the added challenge of posting your results to your friends.

Once you’re done, you have to wait until the next day, meaning that, unlike other video games, patience is required.

Each new video game to enter the panoply of available entertainments, if not distractions, raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to boost your brain. Because many people fear the impact of aging on their brain, these games hold the further exciting prospect of countering time’s impact on your ability to remember, respond quickly, and even improve your mood.

Given that people are willing to spend significant sums of money on what are unproven memory supplements (e.g., Prevagen and Neuriva), the idea is certainly attractive that a free (and ad-free) game could work where those pills do not.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Solve Word Puzzles?

If you’re not familiar with Wordle, you can give it a quick try and then come back to learn more. Playing the game gives you a sense of what skills it may be tapping into. It’s important to note that this particular game is too new to be scientifically tested, but the steps it involves all have clear counterparts to the brain’s activity. If you try Wordle and end up hating it, think instead about which games you do enjoy. Maybe you’re a Wheel of Fortune fan; Wordle is somewhat similar.

To begin the game, you start with a set of complete blanks. No clues at all. This means that you can engage in a little five-letter free association, or you can take a more strategic approach in which you try letters that you know are high in frequency. Already, then, you’ve conducted one important potentially brain-preserving task in that you have to be comfortable with complete uncertainty, a healthy stress to put on yourself from time to time.

You’ll then use the information you’ve gained (both confirming and disconfirming) to start eliminating possibilities, matching potential matches against your vocabulary storehouse. This engages your “episodic buffer,” the part of your working memory that coordinates past knowledge with new knowledge.

You’ll go through these steps sequentially, with each one requiring that you inhibit the irrelevant information of the letters shown to not be in the word (another great skill to have). In the end, when the magic moment arrives, and you’ve solved the word, you can turn to social media and perhaps have a good laugh with your friends.

These steps aren’t specific to Wordle, of course, but they do represent a sequence that “should” promote some healthy brain functions. Now, it’s time to take a look at the research.

Researchers Weigh in on Brain Training Games

There is a growing body of literature on the impact of brain training games that focus on the target audience thought to be at most risk of memory decline–namely, older adults. Although the history of this research dates back to the mid-1990s, the field has gained traction, and there are now several research labs in the U.S. that are producing a steady stream of findings.

Two recent articles stand out as potentially having the most relevance to the Wordle phenomenon. Florida State University’s Nicholas Gray and colleagues (2021) investigated the relative benefits of training to fraud detection and driving, two abilities important in the everyday lives of older adults. This research was intended to answer the question not of whether brain games improve just cognitive function, then, but actual skills, or what is known as “Instrumental Activities of Daily Living” (IADL). The intervention phase went on for one month, or 20 total hours of training.

For the brain training condition, Gray et al. used three games from the popular BrainHQ package. A second training group played Rise of Nations (a strategy game) for the same amount of time. Focusing specifically on the IADL’s of driving and fraud detection, the third group completed two online training modules. An active control condition played online puzzle games (Sudoku, Word Search, and a desktop crossword game). About 50 people participated in each condition; interestingly, 12 people dropped out of the Rise of Nations game, compared to only two in the puzzle condition.

The findings were, in a word, less than stellar, leading the authors to conclude that “We observed no meaningful or consistent transfer of training resulting from general or specific training interventions relative to an active control group” (p. 1).

This conclusion applied, however, to the one-year follow-up, during which time no attempt was made to give participants continued training. Further, the conclusion is tempered by the fact that two of the outcome tests did show positive effects of training, although these weren’t specific to the type of intervention.

As well-controlled as this study was, you might ask yourself whether a four-week training program that ends abruptly is indeed comparable to the type of daily interventions that can last for years in dedicated online video game players.

This possibility is supported by the findings of another training study conducted by McGill University’s Patricia Belchior and colleagues (2019). Participants completed 60 training sessions lasting one hour per session and continuing for three months.

Unlike the less intensive training study by Gray and his colleagues, Belchior et al.’s also had very different conclusions. The groups were smaller (20-25 per group), but in other ways, their composition was similar to that used by the FSU-led study. There also were dropouts, particularly in the game called “Crazy Taxi.”

However, their effort paid off. Three months after their training was completed, participants showed “durable improvements” on the skill tapped by the specific mode in which they were trained. Additionally, three months after training ended, participants began to show improvements in mood, a definite side benefit of the cognitive training.

Based on these demonstrated effects, Belchior and her collaborators concluded that: “the results replicate over a century of research across the life span, showing that most training effects are highly specific, and transfer only to outcome measures that overlap substantially with the trained skill” (p. 138).

The authors compared this effect to the training effect you might show in the gym. Exercising your biceps will improve your biceps but not impact your quads. Each video game can strengthen a different "memory muscle," and there's nothing wrong with that.

So, Is Wordle Worth It?

It’s hard to argue with a century of research, at least research showing specific transfer effects on cognitive functioning of intense, daily, and extended training. If you want your memory to improve, in other words, you need to work on your memory, not something else. If it's a strategy you're after, then you'll need to find a game-specific to this ability. Whatever you choose, though, you have to stick with it.

The effect of training, then, translates into method plus motivation. You could see from the data that the games weren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, another finding that emerged from the FSU-led study seems relevant in this regard. People in the training groups had their own expectations of what results the training might produce, and these expectations were specific to the type of training. Having expectations that what you’re doing is working can get you through those times when you’re frustrated or want to give up.

This last point about motivation brings up an important caveat. If you hate the game, should you force yourself to keep playing? Are you doing so badly, if you do soldier onward, that you’re starting to feel terrible about your cognitive abilities? What if you’re not able to brag about your correct solutions to your friends?

Given the rate of dropouts of participants from the intervention groups in both the Gray et al. and Belchior studies, it would seem that there does need to be a certain degree of match or fit between the person and the game. In a way, it’s sad that the dropouts did drop out, meaning that they could reap absolutely no benefits, either directly or indirectly, from a training they' didn't complete.

Rather than giving up on yourself, the McGill-led study should inspire you to keep going. Find the one you do like, and stick to that, even if it’s not at the top of the social media charts. Keep an open mind to experimenting with new games, but there’s no need to follow the latest fad or invest heavily in some new commercial product if something's working for you already.

To sum up, games are supposed to be–well, games. The research community will continue to explore their possible brain training benefits but until then, have fun.

References

Belchior, P., Yam, A., Thomas, K. R., Bavelier, D., Ball, K. K., Mann, W. C., & Marsiske, M. (2019). Computer and videogame interventions for older adults’ cognitive and everyday functioning. Games for Health, 8(2), 129–143. doi:10.1089/g4h.2017.0092

Gray, N., Yoon, J.-S., Charness, N., Boot, W. R., Roque, N. A., Andringa, R., Harrell, E. R., Lewis, K. G., & Vitale, T. (2021). Relative effectiveness of general versus specific cognitive training for aging adults. Psychology and Aging. doi: 10.1037/pag0000663.supp (Supplemental)

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