Do Brain Training Games Actually Improve Cognitive Function?

Action video gaming may improve cognitive flexibility and brain plasticity.

Posted Oct 13, 2015

Manzoni/Labeled for Reuse
Source: Manzoni/Labeled for Reuse

Playing video games has become a commonplace part of daily life for people of all ages. In the past twenty years, advances in technology have led to a dramatic increase in the popularity of all types of entertaining video games and "brain games" designed to optimize cognitive function and improve mental fitness. Subsequently, there is growing interest about the impact that video gaming has on brain structure, cognitive function, and human behavior.

Two years ago, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post based on a 2013 study, “Playing Super Mario Induces Structural Brain Plasticity: Gray Matter Changes Resulting from Training with a Commercial Video Game,” conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine in Berlin.

This research looked at the benefits of action-oriented video games, not brain-training games. In an October 2013 Psychology Today post, "Video Gaming Can Increase Brain Size and Connectivity," I wrote about this study saying: 

A new study has found that video gaming can stimulate neurogenesis (growth of new neurons) and connectivity in the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation and strategic planning, as well as, fine motor skills. Brain volume was quantified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In comparison to a control group, the video gaming group showed increases of gray matter, which houses the cell bodies of nerve cells in the brain.

Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity improvements were observed in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum. These brain regions are involved in functions such as spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills of the hands. Gaming brings together the cerebral function of the cerebrum with the cerebellar muscle memory of the cerebellum which improves cognitive function and performance.

Since writing that post, there's been a huge backlash against video gaming in general, and the brain-game industry in particular. In the past year, neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have accused the brain-game industry of making false claims. 

However, not all video games are created equal. The latest research shows that action video games may benefit cognitive function and performance. In this blog post, I will review the validity of the case against the gaming industry and clarify the differences between various types of video games. 

Neuroscientists and Cognitive Psychologists Condemn the Brain-Game Industry

In October 2014, the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development released a joint statement claiming that most brain-game manufacturers don't have substantial scientific proof that playing their games actually improves cognitive functioning. More than seventy of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists signed the release titled, "A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry by the Scientific Community." Below is an excerpt from their statement:

The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based “brain games” alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease. To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life. Some intriguing isolated reports do inspire additional research, however.

In a balanced evaluation of brain games, we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the message that cognitive vigor in old age, to the extent that it can be influenced by the lives we live, reflects the long-term effects of a healthy and active lifestyle. 

When researchers follow people across their adult lives, they find that those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline in their golden years than their sedentary, cognitively and socially disengaged counterparts. 

Their conclusions echo the words of my mentor, René Dubos who published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, So Human an Animal: How We Are Shaped by Our Surroundings in 1969. After studying indigenous populations in remote locations, Dubos concluded that the secret to longevity was directly linked to social connectivity and physical activity.

Dubos believed that each human being was "unique, unprecedented, unrepeatable." At a time when the industrial age was merging with the information age, Dubos cautioned that each individual was in critical danger of losing his or her "humanness" based on the automation and mechanization of their environments. 

My mother worked for René Dubos as his personal secretary in the 1960s and typed the initial draft of So Human an Animal. I believe that the memes of Dubos' ideas got embedded into my psyche at an epigenetic level long before I was born. The research and writings of Dubos directly influenced my philosophy and created a foundation for The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss. I wonder what Dubos would have to say about our excessive screen time and video gaming in the 21st century if he were alive today? 

The Federal Trade Commission Is Taking on the Brain-Game Industry

Lifestage/Labeled for Reuse
Source: Lifestage/Labeled for Reuse

In January 2015, the Federal Trade Commission settled a claim against a brain-game manufacturer for preying on the desire of parents to improve their children's cognitive function and academic performance.

The FTC accused this brain-game manufacturer of loading its commercials with misleading claims that the company's software would improve the focus, attention and memory of children who played their games. According to the FTC complaint, the company didn't have evidence to support its claims that this game actually improved memory and attention span in children, including those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

In a recent press release, the FTC described their mission and the motivation behind this type of ruling against brain-game manufacturers,

The FTC is a member of the National Prevention Council, which provides coordination and leadership at the federal level regarding prevention, wellness, and health promotion practices. This case advances the National Prevention Council’s goal of increasing the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. These cases are part of the FTC’s ongoing efforts to protect consumers from misleading health advertising.

“This case is the most recent example of the FTC’s efforts to ensure that advertisements for cognitive products, especially those marketed for children, are true and supported by evidence,” Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jessica Rich said. “Many parents are interested in products that can improve their children’s focus, behavior, and grades, but companies must back up their brain training claims with reliable science.”

Action Video Games May Improve Cognitive Flexibility and Brain Function

Another recent review analyzed the potential cognitive effects of various types of video games with a primary focus on "brain games" compared to "action games." The researchers looked at specific content, dynamics, and mechanics of individual games and determined that the effects and/or benefits on the brain varies greatly between different types of video games. The researchers concluded that action video games ultimately outperform brain games in terms of improving cognitive function. 

The October 2015 study, “The Impacts of Video Games on Cognition (and How the Government Can Guide the Industry)” was published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. In a press release, the researchers clarify some of the potential confusion surrounding various types of video gaming: 

The term video games refers to thousands of quite disparate types of experiences, anything from simple computerized card games to richly detailed and realistic fantasy worlds, from a purely solitary activity to an activity including hundreds of others, etc.  

Modern video games have evolved into sophisticated experiences that instantiate many principles known by psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators to be fundamental to altering behavior, producing learning, and promoting brain plasticity. Video games, by their very nature, involve predominantly active forms of learning (i.e., making responses and receiving immediate informative feedback), which is typically more effective than passive learning.

In their review, C. Shawn Green of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Aaron R. Seitz of University of California, Riverside observed that action video games featuring fast moving targets that come in and out of view, include a lot of clutter, and require the user to make rapid, accurate decisions—have particularly positive cognitive impacts, especially when compared to brain games, which were designed solely to improve cerebral cognitive functions. 

More specifically, Green and Seitz identified that playing action video games is correlated with improving attention skills, brain processing, and cognitive functions—including low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities. "Many other types of games do not produce an equivalent impact on perception and cognition," the researchers commented. "Brain games typically embody few of the qualities of the commercial video games linked with cognitive improvement."

There is one important caveat, Green and Seitz point out that while action games in particular have not been linked to problems with sustaining attention, research has shown that someone's total amount of video game play can predict poorer attention in the classroom. Also, video games impact not only cognitive function, but many other aspects of behavior—including social functions. Green and Seitz reiterate that this impact can be either positive or negative depending on the content of the games.

Below is a fascinating video of C. Shawn Green and other experts in the field discussing the neuroscience and ethics of "neurogaming" at a 2013 conference:

Conclusion: Real-Life Experience Trumps Virtual Reality and Action Gaming

In closing, the team of seventy experts who wrote the 2014 "A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry by the Scientific Community" review concluded that researchers need to continue investigating specifically what daily behaviors improve brain structure, function, and cognitive abilities throughout our lifespan. They also urge the scientific community to continue isolating what types of video gaming might improve brain function and cognitive abilities, such as Green and Seitz are currently doing. The consensus letter concludes, 

Much more research needs to be done before we understand whether and what types of challenges and engagements benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life. In the absence of clear evidence, the recommendation of the group, based largely on correlational findings, is that individuals should lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them.

Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2015 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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