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Train Your Brain With Video Games

Improve your memory, cognition and problem-solving skills while having fun

By Janet Maragioglio | May 11, 2012

When you think of "gamers," do you picture rapt adolescents hunched over handheld devices in dorm rooms that smell faintly of dirty socks? If so, it’s time to refresh your image. Some 72 percent of American households play computer and video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association — and 29 percent of the players are over 50.

These grown-up gamers are in on a secret: Playing games on a computer or smartphone offers more than just fun; it can also boost brain power.

The Best Brain Games Are a Challenge

Patricia V. (she requested that her last name be withheld) is a 62-year-old psychoanalyst in Cambridge, Mass., who enjoys the rigorous mental workout she gets playing games of strategy and speed on her iPhone and iPad. Among the many she plays, her favorites include the popular Angry Birds and Alchemy.

In Alchemy, players start out with the four basic elements (earth, wind, fire, water) then combine them to form new ones (for example, earth + wind = dust + water = mud). The more elements a player creates, the harder it is to predict combinations and the more entertaining they become (fire + pig = bacon). “Mentally stimulating games make me feel like I am young enough to do things I didn’t think I could still do,” Patricia says.

Increasing difficulty is a key to harnessing the power of games to improve thinking and memory, notes Alvaro Fernandez, founder and chief executive of the independent market research firm SharpBrains. He encourages people who want to stay mentally fit to look for games that are challenging and get progressively harder the more they are played.

Video Games as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

Contrary to earlier thinking that held that brains stop growing as we age, the relatively new area of brain science called neuroplasticity has proven that a steady diet of mental challenges triggers the brain's ability to learn and change over a lifetime. Research shows that when adults of any age learn or memorize something new, their brains reorganize and form new connections. This can help you preserve — and even expand — your mental abilities well into old age, and evidence is piling up that video games can play a role in making those fresh pathways inside your brain.

But just as working your biceps alone won't produce a stronger, healthier body, simply playing video games won't necessarily make you smarter. Strategy games work best when played in the context of a brain-boosting lifestyle that includes exercise, good nutrition, social interaction and stress management, Fernandez says.

Almost any game that requires you to concentrate, strategize and use memory and finesse is ultimately good for your brain. But some companies have literally made it their business to deliver games that, based on neuroscientific research, are more like mental boot camp than playtime. Here are some prime examples.

Top Brain Game Companies 

1. Lumosity, whose tagline is “Your brain, just brighter,” is the brainchild (so to speak) of the neuroscience research and development company Lumos Labs, which builds software to improve brain performance. Lumosity’s scientific advisory board is filled with experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology who have conducted independent research on how the games affect brain function.

The company offers a free, one-week trial so you can test their games before you subscribe. You start by going to the site and answering simple questions to help you build your own set of objectives within the areas of memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving. From there, Lumosity creates a customized training program based on your goals. It's easy to navigate the site, and each game offers large graphics, easy-to-find buttons and clear instructions on how to play. Additionally, all games increase in difficulty as they are played and offer assessments to help players gauge their progress.

Find it: www.lumosity.com
Platforms: Any computer, phone or tablet (website or downloadable app)
Cost: $14.95 a month or $80 for a full year (includes all software updates)

2. Posit Science also employs a staff with impressive academic credentials. It was co-founded by Michael Merzenich, a pioneering neuroplasticity researcher who has published more than 150 articles in peer-reviewed journals. The company's scientific advisory board includes 30 experts in the fields of neuroscience, learning, perception, vision, hearing and virtual reality. Posit Science claims that even people in their late 40s will be surprised by the improvements in their hearing, visual processing and memory after playing the games.

Posit Science sells three software bundles: 

  • Brain Fitness offers six computer-based games that focus on different areas of sound processing, like distinguishing between similar sounds and remembering details of what you just heard.
  • InSight sharpens visual focus, thinking and reaction time with five games, including a fun-filled Road Tour, which takes you down a virtual Route 66, and Bird Safari, which trains your eye to follow birds in flight, even those lurking in the corner of your eye.
  • DriveSharp echoes the InSight program with similar visual exercises aimed at helping people become safer drivers and includes a driving risk assessment.
Find it: www.positscience.com or wherever computer software is sold
Platforms: Windows (2000 or later) or Macintosh computers
Cost: Brain Fitness or InSight, $200; Drive Sharp, $90; all three, $345

Dakim, aimed at adults over 60, was created by marketing and advertising whiz Dan Michel (Taco Bell, Visa, General Mills) as a way to help his father combat Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Center on Aging, heads the company's 10-member scientific advisory board, which also includes specialists in neurology, psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Dakim offers more than 100 different brain exercises, like Four Unrelated Words, which challenges you to remember words after time has passed, and News Flash, which tells you to listen to a story then asks questions about it.

The program self-adjusts to the users' level for each cognitive area, including long- and short-term memory, critical thinking, visual and spatial orientation, computation and language. Dakim calls its software offerings "brain trainers" rather than games, but the appealing visuals, fast-paced, challenging tasks and daily motivational scorecard make it fun and engaging to play.

Find it: www.dakim.com
Platforms: Windows (XP or later) or Macintosh (OSX 10.5 or later)
Cost: $250, including one year of software updates

How to Evaluate Brain Games

In their book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, Alvaro Fernandez and Elkhonon Goldberg offer consumers seven suggestions for evaluating computer-based brain-training programs:
  1. Is the program backed by scientists, ideally neuropsychologists, and a scientific advisory board?
  2. Does the program tell me what part of my brain or which cognitive skill I am exercising?
  3. Is there guidance as to how often I should play it, and for how long?
  4. Do the exercises vary and teach me something new?
  5. Does the program challenge and motivate me, or would it quickly become too easy?
  6. Does the program fit my personal goals?
  7. Does the program fit my lifestyle and schedule?
Janet Maragioglio lives in Charleston, S.C., and when she's not at the beach writes about how people use technology to improve their lives and health.