Brain Exercise Really Works

Whatever changes the brain, changes the brain's ability to remember.

Posted Sep 10, 2013

Most people now have been told that mental activity is good for the brain. I have even posted information that it can build “cognitive reserve” that can delay or reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, it would be no surprise if popularity increased for mentally stimulating games like crossword puzzles, Sudoko, bridge, dominoes, chess, and the like.

In addition to these traditional games, another form of mental stimulation is to learn mnemonic
techniques, such as creating associations with mental images, acrostics, acronyms, the method of loci, mental imaging of peg-words, and the like, which I explain in my books, Memory Power 101 and Better Grades, Less Effort. While these techniques are task specific, mastering them can produce benefits that last beyond the time when you are using these mnemonics. For example, when I was in high school, I used to give memory demonstrations using a well-known image-word peg system. Even when I quit doing that, my general capacity for remembering remained better than before because my brain had been trained to be more agile and imaginative in generating images that I could use in making memory associations. My mind was also probably more disciplined.

The scientific basis for such claims is solid. Numerous research reports confirm that even older people can improve their memory skills with instruction and practice.[1] Even with traditional memory training, research has shown that by teaching people multiple strategies, the training benefit can be seen immediately, can endure for up to five years, and even transfer to everyday learning tasks.

The scientific explanation is straightforward. When the brain is challenged to solve problems and enhance memory capability, the neurons have to grow new contact points among neurons. This process requires new protein synthesis, growth of neuron terminals, and boosting of neurotransmitter systems. In other words, mental challenge changes the brain physically. Through training, you can sculpt a more alert, focused, and smarter brain.

As a result of this understanding, a host of mental training options have become available. The hype often seems to sound like snake oil, but some training programs are documentably effective. For example, we know from published research that I have described before that working memory capacity can be extended by formal training and that IQ increases as a result.

A new emphasis seems to be emerging to create training platforms that are cost effective, self-administered, flexible, and easily distributed to wide segments of population. CD, audiotape, and web-based approaches can reduce the need for trainers who work one-on-one or with small groups. The web-based training seems the most feasible, except for the current crop of elderly, many of whom do not use the Internet.

Effective training need not specifically address memory. Non-specific mental stimulation can improve memory capability, because whatever affects the brain affects the brain’s ability to remember things. Especially promising are training programs that train people to be more attentive, to have more positive attitudes about their memory ability, reduce anxiety and stress, and require learners to apply memory techniques to everyday mental tasks.1 When benefits from memory training persist after the training, researchers assume it is because the trainees are still using the techniques they have learned. Method-of-loci and peg-word systems are extremely powerful, but it is hard to get people to create new habits of thinking and memorization. Even so, memory training produces other lasting effects that benefit memory irrespective of the explicit use of techniques. One of these effects is actual re-wiring of the brain, which intense learning is known to produce.

Many sites on the Web focus on teaching people about mental fitness in general, which as I just said, has collateral benefit on memory capability. One site I recommend, and have posted to, is Sharp Brains ( Among the better known Web training programs are Brainware Safari and Lumosity (I have no conflict of interest here). Using “brain fitness” as search words in Google or Bing will identify many other sites that I am not familiar with.

Recently, a new three-dimensional videogame system, “NeuroRacer” that reportedly works even for older adults has been developed at the University of California, San Francisco.[2] In this game, a user navigates a race car along a winding track and hits a button on a controller whenever a green circle appears, making the response as quickly as possible. This task forces concentration and trains the brain to switch operations rapidly and accurately.

In a recently published test of the NeuroRacer’s effects on older adults, people aged 60 to 85 were trained on the game for 12 hours, spread over a month. Without training, the researchers found a clear age-related decline in performance in the game. After training on the game, the seniors performed on the game better than untrained 20-year olds, and the benefit lasted at least six months.

Popular press reports and numerous blogs of this study have attributed the benefit to the value of multi-tasking. I contend that multi-tasking is harmful for memory and, moreover, that the benefit of NeuroRacer is not multi-tasking training as such but rather the training it provides for attentiveness and executive control.  It is perhaps not surprising that such good effects were seen in older folks. A typical problem in aging is a loss in ability to focus, and thus training that increases attentiveness would be likely to have conspicuously beneficial effects.

[1] Rebok, G. W., Carlson, M. c., and Langaum, J. B. S. (2007). Training and maintaining memory abilities in health older adults: traditional and novel approaches. J. Gerontology. 62B (Special Issue): 53-61.

[2] Anguera, J. A. et al. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature 501: 97-101.