Mark Fenske, Ph.D.

Mark Fenske PhD

The Winner's Brain

It's Time to Stop Playing Games with Your Brain

Building a better brain is exciting but serious work.

Posted May 04, 2010

I love the idea that what we do with our brains-- how we engage and take care of them-- can lead to improvements in how they function. I'm clearly not alone in this love affair, given the rapid growth of puzzles and easy-to-use video games that promise to enhance cognitive functioning. A large study appearing this month in the prestigious journal Nature, however, may have left many brain gamers, well, scratching their heads. It suggests that such quests for optimizing brain power may all be in vain. Participants in the study completed at least 10 minutes of computerized brain training three times a week for six weeks. But while these individuals got better at the tasks they performed, they did not improve on other more general measures of cognitive abilities.

Why all the fuss about brain training?
The excitement about optimizing the brain comes from the fact that this amazing organ is critically involved in everything we experience and all that we do. Moreover, recent advances in neuroscience raise the possibility that we can exert some control in how successfully our neural circuits operate. No longer is the adult human brain viewed as ‘hard-wired' beyond adolescence. Instead, there is growing evidence that focused practice at specific tasks can lead to changes in the function and physical structure of the brain. Such adaptability is known as experience-dependent neuroplasticity.

Proponents of brain training point to key examples of individuals' brains being shaped by what they do. Years of experience memorizing city routes and landmarks by the drivers of London's elite Black taxi-cabs, for instance, is associated with size increases in regions of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in spatial navigation and memory. Those who regularly exercise control over attention and emotional response through meditation practice likewise show thickening of areas such as the insula (associated with emotions, self awareness, and social interactions) and prefrontal cortex (a critical area for the brain's 'executive' functions). And the corresponding reduction in stress experienced by those who learn to meditate is associated with structural changes in the emotionally-responsive amygdala.

The message here seems clear. What we choose to do with our brains can help to enhance the way we think, feel, and act.

So what about the recent study in Nature? Should we be wary of brain-training games? Are they just ineffective gimmicks in some money-making scheme? Perhaps. But we should certainly not let a healthy focus on ‘does it work' lead us to abandon our efforts at self-improvement. The truth is that we are just beginning to understand the various ways in which the brain can change over time, and how we can protect and fine-tune our precious neural and cognitive resources. Ultimately, when it comes to building a better brain, a few video games, a weekly crossword puzzle or occasional math problem probably won't do too much to fine-tune your neural networks. If you really want to make some changes, it's probably time to stop playing games.

Here are a few reasons why casual game playing may not be the best bet in one's bid to develop a more successful brain:

1 - Meaningful change takes time and effort.
London cabbies must complete years of training to gain the navigational expertise required for certification to drive the famous Black cabs. The part of the hippocampus found to be larger than average in these individuals also increased in size with time spent driving. In contrast, some of the participants in the Nature study invested as little as three hours in their brain games. They may not have invested enough time and effort to make measureable change. When it comes to a better brain, the effort you put in may be critically related to what you get back.

2 - The more immersive and engaging the activity, the better.
Animals raised in enriched environments, with enhanced novelty and complexity, also have enriched brains. The connections between their brain cells, for example, are stronger and greater in numbers than in animals raised in environments without the same level of sensory, cognitive, and social stimulation. Highly immersive environments and challenging activities also feature heavily in leading examples of neuroplasticity in humans, such as the brain changes associated with gaining expertise in juggling, speaking a second language, or playing a musical instrument. Games involving simple button presses and sparse visual displays may not be as effective in promoting neuroplastic change.

3 - There is more to the brain than just its ‘cognitive' functions.
Brain training video games often focus on memory, attention, and other examples of ‘cold' cognitive functions, while ignoring emotion, motivation, and other ‘hot' aspects of brain function. For many people, however, being able to hold eight digits in memory instead of six is not nearly as helpful as being able to control their anger or to not give up in despair when faced with initial failure. Enhancing creativity, social skills, and emotional balance likewise requires that we consider ways to address all of the brain's faculties. An occasional break from the computer is probably good too!

Now it's your turn: What kinds of activities do you do to keep your brain working at its best? Post some comments here or send me a tweet @thewinnersbrain. And for more science-based strategies for developing a more successful brain, be sure to check out the new book I wrote with my colleague Jeff Brown called The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success.

     Owen AM, et al. (2010) Putting brain training to the test. Nature, Apr 20. [Epub ahead of print]

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