Can Brain Games Really Work? New Peer-Reviewed Research Is Encouraging

The quest for a legit brain game continues. 

by James Dennin

In 2014, nearly 80 members of the scientific community penned an open letter to the public — and, more specifically, advertisers — begging for more circumspection in their quest to make brain games a thing (it was a lower-stakes time for massively co-signed scientific appeals). More specifically, the scientists were worried about the claims being made about a company called Lumosity, which raised nearly $70 million to explore the potential around brain games.

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In the scientists’ view, Lumosity and its peers were making specious claims about the potential of brain games to help offset ailments like Alzheimer’s. Even the premise needs more investigating, they said; think of the opportunity cost. If you want to devote 30 minutes to self-improvement, they write, do you really think a mundane mini-game can beat, like, going outside? Reading a book? Calling your mom? That call-to-action led to more studies, and also some different approaches. After all, the idea is just too alluring: Everyone’s gotta kill time, and people like games. Wouldn’t it be great if the games we use to kill said time yielded some other kind of benefit?

Brain games have garnered a great deal of criticism over the years, but that hasn't stopped researchers from trying to make them. 

Tumisu / Pixabay

Try This Tactic

As you may have been able to tell, I’m dubious about the notion of brain-hacking, but there are a few tactics where the research is pretty convincing. After all, the vast majority of people (98 percent) are absolute shit at multitasking. (Seriously, pigeons are better at it. Pigeons!) The remedy, interestingly, may be to resist the urge to multitask a bit less. You see, that urge to multitask may be your brain’s way of saying, “I’m bored with this, please do something else.” This may help explain why task-switching strategically (different from multitasking) promotes creativity, according to a Columbia Business School study. Scheduled downtime at work might be helpful. But another, lazier approach? When your brain is screeching at you that you need to check Twitter right now, you might be better off in the long run simply checking Twitter and scratching that itch. Once it’s had the break it craves, your brain may be more refreshed and ready to handle the task at hand.

The Return of the Brain Game?

The brain game is back, baby. It’s notable because it seemed for a while that we’d sort of put the matter to bed. The big problem, which comes up in lots of efforts to “gamify” constructive-but-boring activities like hiring or getting smarter is decontextualization. Even games where a tie-in seems obvious, for example playing a memory game because you keep forgetting people’s names at cocktail parties, can have this issue. It’s actually kinda hard to make playing a game a pathway to any particular skill other than being very good at that game (though that’s not to say gaming doesn’t have other psychological benefits, like, for example, helping to relieve some stress.)

Some researchers from Cambridge University in the UK think they’ve developed a brain game that’s on the right track. In the results of their new study, published this week, they lay out how they evaluated their new game, called Decoder, which they say can improve concentration. What makes their game so different? Barbara Sahakian, a cognitive neuroscientist in Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry who studies attention and attention deficits, tells Inverse that the Decoder game works because it addresses the right problem: Helping us find the flow required to complete high-level cognitive tasks.

“The way we work these days, we constantly get interrupted by technology, by our phones, and by emails coming in,” she says. “People get easily distracted, so it’s difficult to really get into the flow, to actually focus their attention for a long period of time. For these higher levels of cognitive function, you do really need to have good attention as part of the ability to do these tasks.”

So how does the game solve this problem? Sahakian says that it activates the same neural network in the brain as the one associated with attention because it does a few key things.

“It’s titrated in difficulty … so what happens is that as you’re doing well, it gets more and more challenging and difficult. If you struggle, the difficulty level comes down so it keeps motivation high. And you’re unlocking and capturing different sites, it’s kind of like a James Bond type thing — finding bad guys and dispersing them — so it’s motivating and it’s individualized.”

The effect of playing Decoder was strikingly strong, according to the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Sahakian actually compared the magnitude of the effect to the stimulants that helped get you through college, saying the improved performance was comparable to what you’d expect from someone who had taken a Ritalin or consumed a few hits of nicotine. The difference is that there’s no instant gratification factor. The group of Decoder players met for eight sessions over the course of a few months, each session lasting about an hour. It’s something you’ll have to make something of a habit of to see the benefits, she said.

Which, of course, brings us back to the decontextualization problem. You could do a lot with those eight hours. (Think of all the laundry! You could clean your curtains! Or, if you’re like me, go somewhere to buy and hang curtains! You deserve curtains!)

Still, despite the hype, there are a few reasons why it’s good to see that people haven’t entirely given up on the idea of making games that help your brain. For one, while the best way to spend 30 minutes helping your brain is probably still to get some exercise, not everyone can exercise, whether due to disability, time-constraints, or extreme laziness. Some of you might already exercise, too, and want to find even more ways to improve your focus. I also can’t help but think of the hours I spent watching Wishbone on PBS every night as a kid, and how it really did help reinforce the idea that books could be cool. Reading actual books may have been better, but to a six-year-old, a TV show about books is an easier sell. After all, Ben Franklin sketched out the perfect day in 1791, if you really wanna give perfectly optimized time a shot (good luck!).

But there’s also value in figuring out how to be a little more thoughtful with the time we waste. Brain games probably won’t make you smarter, but it’s very hard to see how mindlessly scrolling through Instagram while you wait in the check-out line is any better, a point the great brain game backlash of 2014 tends to miss.