Brain Training Exercises: The Science
The question is a simple one: do mental exercises help improve
cognitive abilities? The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple.
Research published in the journal Nature suggests that such brain
training workouts do not actually help.
The study followed 11,430 participants over the course of
six weeks, as they went through a training program online. They
were divided into three groups. The first did tasks that involved
reasoning, planning and problem-solving. The second had more
complex tasks, which involved memory, attention, math and visual-spatial
processing.The control group looked up answers to trivia questions
All participants were given cognitive-assessment tests before
and after the six-week regimen, and all showed the same slight
improvement. Study co-author Jessica Grahn says this was not
due to the training, but from what we might call the "practice
effect." When we do something we get better at it, and this
includes taking tests. In other words, because they had taken
the test once before the participants improved a bit just from
All participants improved more dramatically at the particular
exercises they were engaged in. Even the one looking up answers
to trivia questions became much more proficient at it. But this
did not seem to transfer over to a more general improvement in
cognitive abilities. The Nature paper concluded, "the widely
held belief that commercially available computerized brain-training
programs improve general cognitive function in the wider population
lacks empirical support."
Not all scientists agree with this conclusion. For example,
Torkel Klingberg, of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, criticizes
the "quality control" in the study because participants
were all at home rather than in a more controlled environment,
and because the actual amount of training was insufficient. Sessions
of ten minutes were used, with twenty-four completed during the
six weeks. For a general improvement in cognitive ability, Klingberg
says, "Ours and others' research suggests that 8 to 12 hours
of training on one specific test is needed..."
In his own research Klingberg has used brain scans to show
that the number of dopamine receptors increases in the brain
after brain training. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved
in many cognitive functions including learning.
In a Chinese study published in the journal BMC Medicine,
it was found that elderly adults (ages 65 to 75 years old) clearly
benefited from mental training exercises. Two different programs
were used (and there was a control group), and both seemed to
work. The participants who had the more varied training did best,
and improvements in some areas, like memory, were still evident
a year later.
The science isn't quite clear, but in the future it seems
likely that some mental exercises will be shown to have
a beneficial effect on brainpower, and not just for the elderly.
We will have to wait to see which ones are most effective, and
how much time must be devoted to them to get an effect. In the
meantime, there are some things you can do right now to boost
your cognitive power, and some of them have a lot of scientific
evidence for them already.
To start with all the research about physical exercise and
its effects on the brain show that it helps. Do aerobic exercises
three times weekly for at least twenty minutes and you'll have
better brain health due to an increase in circulation and oxygen-carrying
capacity. Basically a healthy body makes for a healthier brain.
But there is even better news about physical activity. It
has also been found to have a more immediate effect. Get ten
minutes of exercise right now and your brain activity will speed
up. Tests show faster and more accurate decision making ability
from a bit of exercise. So walk around the block twice when you
need a mental boost.
Other Brain Training Exercises
There has been quite a bit of research which suggests that
activities which involve hand-eye coordination cause new neurons
to grow in the brain. Whether this means a general brainpower
boost or just improvement in the specific activities practiced
is not clear, but it can't hurt to have the extra neurons up
there. Playing the piano, tennis and any sports that require
you to use your eyes in conjunction with your hands will have
Neurobics are another type of brain exercises that show some
promise for general cognitive improvement. There are two pages
on these here: Neurobics.
Beyond these rather minimal options there is another approach
you might want to consider. Since we generally want more brainpower
because we think it will help with certain activities, why not
just work on those activities? In other words, if you want brainpower
in order to get better test scores, practice taking tests. If
you want to play better chess, play more often. Even the research
that questions the more general benefits of brain training shows
that it definitely helps with the specific tasks that are part
of the exercises.