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New Studies Show Brain Games Fail the Test (Do This Instead)

If you’ve spent any time at all browsing the web during the past decade or so, you’ve probably seen the rise of so-called “brain games” from sites like Lumosity and LearningRx. Promising improved memory, faster recall, and sharper mental acuity, these sites have become vastly popular. Lumosity alone claims 50 million subscribers.1

And why not? The concept of a gym for the brain, where neural pathways can expand by pumping mental iron, is fascinating. The sites claim to turn users into brainiacs by remembering and matching shapes or rapidly completing word and number games. It’s $6.95/month for yearly subscribers. Improving your intelligence at the cost of a fraction of a single college credit is an understandably easy sell.

There’s just one problem: brain games don’t work.

Why It’s Time to Forget About Brain Games

The case against brain games, though becoming increasingly convincing, isn’t anything new. As early as 2010, an article2 in the journal Nature concluded that “scientific evidence to support [brain training’s] efficacy is lacking.” Even so, subscriptions to these websites continued to increase.

Daniel Simons,3 a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been a leader in researching the legitimacy of brain games. By thoroughly analyzing a number of studies on the subject, he has come to the conclusion that there is not a correlation between the narrow skills brain games require and improved overall mental function.

Dr. Simons’ findings are supported by a 2014 letter signed by over 70 scientists which concluded: “we object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.”

Recently, the argument over brain games spilled over from academia to the legal realm. With mounting evidence that many of the brain training websites made questionable or outright false claims in their advertising, the Federal Trade Commission took action. In January of this year, the FTC agreed to a $2 million settlement4 with Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity. Among their charges were that Lumosity used false advertising to prey on consumers’ fears of cognitive decline.

Ouch.

So what are the options for those of us looking to boost our IQs a few points? The answer is a whole lot simpler than a Sudoku.

A Sound Mind Is A Sound Body

There's an old latin phrase "Mens Sana in Corare Sano" which means “a sound mind is a sound body.” And according to the most recent research, Lumosity has nothing on the ancient Romans when it comes to sharpening the mind.

The benefits of exercise go far beyond shedding pounds and looking good at the beach. In fact, according to a study5 led by Charles Hillman,6 a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois, regular exercisers “displayed substantial improvements in executive function.” This included better ability to concentrate on a single task as well as toggle between multiple cognitive tasks.

One reason that exercise might improve brain function is due to the fact that it triggers the production of a protein called BDNF,7 or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Crucially, BDNF both helps the brain develop new cells, as well as grow existing brain cells. As we age, BDNF levels fall, so it’s especially important for older people to keep their BDNF pumping.

What’s more, “exercise” doesn’t necessarily mean lugging heavy weights around in a gym. For many older adults looking to keep their minds young, an activity as simple as walking can make a serious difference. One fascinating study8 of subjects 65 and older showed that walking 2-3 times a week for just 20 to 25 minutes improved both cardiovascular health and cognitive function.  Another9 found that even 11-15 minutes of walking a day has the potential to improve memory.

So get a move on! It turns out there might be no better way to exercise your brain than exercising your body.

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References:

1. Schatz, Robin D. "How To Get To 50 Million Users: 4 Tips From Lumosity". Inc.com.

2. Owen, Adrian M. et al. "Putting Brain Training To The Test". National Center for Biotechnology Information.

3. "Daniel J. Simons | Psychology | University Of Illinois". Psychology.illinois.edu.

4. "Lumosity To Pay $2 Million To Settle FTC Deceptive Advertising Charges For Its “Brain Training” Program | Federal Trade Commission". Ftc.gov.

5. Hillman, C. H. et al. "Effects Of The Fitkids Randomized Controlled Trial On Executive Control And Brain Function". National Center for Biotechnology Information.

6. "Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory - Department Of Kinesiology And Community Health - University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign". Labs.kch.illinois.edu.

7. Binder, Devin K., and Helen E. Scharfman. "Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor". National Center for Biotechnology Information.

8. Vidoni, Eric D. et al. "Dose-Response Of Aerobic Exercise On Cognition: A Community-Based, Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial". PLOS.

9. Curtis, Wayne. "Walking For A Better Brain". The Atlantic.

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