Why Braintraining Games are Silly

I occasionally get emails asking about various ways to improve cognitive performance: supplements, brain-wave audio CDs, drugs or therapies. Usually I refuse to comment on them because I don’t know the research, but I’m generally skeptical.

However, there is one category of brain-enhancing products I will comment on: braintraining exercises. These are games or puzzles with the sole purpose of improving cognitive function. They’re also one of the silliest ideas I’ve ever heard of.

Why Train Your Brain with the Fake Stuff?

First off, I’m going to ignore the entire issue of whether brain training exercises actually improve cognitive performance. Although I’ve seen some reports that they can improve working memory, I also have doubts about how generally it can transfer to new situations.

But let’s ignore this fact for a moment and focus on an even better reason to ignore these products: the world is full of interesting, challenging and useful mental problems—why devote your precious time to solving fake ones?

Why not use that time instead to learn Chinese, physics, computer programming, history, economics, calculus or millions of other engaging skills. Many of these have similar cognitive stresses that the brain games supposedly induce, plus the problem of transfer goes away since these subjects are actually useful.

If the reason for the game instead of exercising your mind by learning something real is that learning real things is boring, that’s fine. But, in that case, why not just admit you want a mentally stimulating game and pick a game for a game’s sake. For the masochists, you can download and try here a version of Scrabble that plays against a nearly perfect computer opponent.

The Gym for Your Mind is the Real World

An analogy I’ve seen is that braintraining games are useful in the same way a gym is useful for building muscle. Although you could train your body just through physical activity, that is often harder to achieve in our modern, sedentary habits.

This analogy breaks down, however, because, if anything, the mental aspects of our modern lives have become more demanding, not less. While it’s possible we’re may be less physically active than our ancestors (although there’s some controversy surrounding this as well), the opportunities for mental engagement have never been higher—both in our entertainment and our self-improvement.

Why pick a brain game when you can train your mind to do something useful and interesting instead?

  • adbge

    First off, I’m going to ignore the entire issue of whether brain training exercises actually improve cognitive performance.

    Gwern has a couple of posts on these, one meta-analysis measuring the effect of dual-n-back, probably the most promising brain training game, where he writes:

    To those whose time is limited: you may wish to stop reading here. If you seek to improve your life, and want the greatest ‘bang for the buck’, you are well-advised to look elsewhere.

    I tend to agree — if you want to do brain training, why not some recreational mathematics?

    There are also good reasons to be skeptical about brain training (and IQ enhancement generally):

    Arthur Jensen noted the failure of interventions in the 1960s, and the failure remains complete now, half a century later: if you are a bright healthy young man or woman gifted with an IQ in the 130s, there is nothing you can do to increase your underlying intelligence by a standard deviation.

  • Braden Talbot

    I think those games were quite idiotic, too. If you want to train our brain, take a math class, or learn OOP. It’s useful and actually trains your brain.

  • sebastian

    I think many prefer brain-training games over real world training due to fear.

    Tackling a real world problem/skill is frightening. It opens the door for failure and embarrassment. People could laugh, and one could feel bad.

    It’s easier to suck at a silly game, than to suck in real world. Even if it means to miss out tons of growth potential.

    I see one legit reason for using games: to become comfortable with challenging ones brain and then move on to the real world.

  • Umm Yahya

    One point. I notice that math and programming frequently cited as ways for brain training and prioritised as examples over other activities, which I caution against. I find that this occurs most often with those who already find both enjoyable (including myself). Yes, both present mental challenges, but from personal experience, the activities that work out your brain the most and develop you the most are those outside your cognitive comfort zone. For example, I know my brain gets more of a workout cooking for my family without a recipe under time constraints with limited ingredients than solving a math puzzle. Physical activity also trains your brain, as anyone who has worked with children or is familiar with sensory integration therapy can tell you.

    I bring this point up because, as a teacher, the belief that “the math and computer people are smart” or “only knowing math and computers can make you smarter” really hinders a lot of children and adults in cognitive development. So saying, “do math, train your brain” (especially said by those who are comfortable doing it) seems very counterproductive. Rather, I would encourage anyone to do what your brain really finds difficult, not just enjoyably challenging. That could be math, or it could be reading poetry.

  • Eric-Wubbo

    Of course, one should admit that the ‘real world’ is also not necessarily a good training school – most people reach a plateau in skill after a few years on a job or at a hobby.

    This does not detract from your comments on brain training games, I would however add that one should also in the real world take care to hone one’s skills (of one wants to, of course), for improvement of skills and ‘training of the brain’ mere ‘immersion’ in the real world is likely not sufficient, or at least not sufficient to reach high levels of a skill.

    So the real world is not necessarily a gym for your mind, unless you consider people in a gym who sit on a bench all day also be ‘in the gym’.

  • Lloyd S

    Maybe games can serve up brain challenges in a more palatable way than self-given challenges; or, at least they may be easier. Of course, Scott is a self-challenging whiz, but almost all of us aren’t as disciplined in our lives as he is. I would guess that many of us have dreamed about how we would learn a new language on our own, learn how to build something on our own, etc., but haven’t figured out how to overcome the discipline challenges that it would take to do that. Well, I guess that is what Scott is trying to show us, isn’t it?

  • Harrison

    I’m glad you made a post addressing this!! Seriously if I here 1 more commercial about how luminosity was developed by NEUROSCIENTISTS using the SCIENCE of BRAIN PLASTICITY (always said with drawn out sense of wonder to emphasize it’s great power and mystery) I am going to punch my Pandora Station. As an actual neuroscientist, I exercise my brain doing math proofs. Hate to break it to you, but scoring above 1000 on math bubble blaster is not going to raise your IQ.

  • Voni

    Something I’ve wondered about…
    thanks for verbalizing some of my questions…

  • Roman

    1: where is the border between “real world” & “silly game”? I mean, when I have chess (or baduk) app, installed on my smartphone/laptop – which one is this? And what about the case, when I solve chess problems with the help of this app?
    2: if we make a parallel between brain training & martial arts: why don’t we start from “real fighting”, and do some silly, boring etc. exercises, sometimes a lot of time? At least, some reasons: we can measure progress, we can concentrate in training on some specific (sometime “primitive”) skills…
    3: another analogy with physical training: there are “gym workout” & “ghetto workout”. If I prefere one of them, will I estimate another one as a “silly”? Of course, not.
    So, as to me, braintraining games (as a way of using “gamefication” approach), not bad at all. Maybe, you just don’t find “yours” one yet 🙂

  • lemon

    Kenichi Ohmae said once : “how can you improve your IQ without learning only by taking the memory training ?” I think this is similar to your opinion .

  • Scott Young

    Eric,

    Agreed that the real world doesn’t have the same smooth difficulty scaling as an artificial environment. But there’s always more challenging things to be learned to stay sharp, I don’t think the slight loss of efficiency there is compensating for the learning of unrealistic things.

    Roman,

    1. Games are for fun and stimulation. Braintraining is, presumably, about becoming more intelligent. If you really enjoy the braintraining game, I don’t take issue with it, but if you’re doing it because you believe it is essential to stay smart, I take issue with that.

    2. That isn’t a good analogy. Martial arts is, at least ostensibly, about practicing a usable skill. A better analogy would be to practicing obscure hand motions that aren’t at all related to fighting but are supposed to increase your “hand” skill, which would later translate to punches and chops.

    3. Going to the gym is a better analogy, but it’s not a new technology. Most people recognize that playing sports or being more physically active in real situations is equally good (or better) for staying in shape, which I don’t think can be said for the kind of hype braingames have been getting. (Gym attendance is also largely for physical appearance, which doesn’t extend to braintraining games)

    -Scott

  • Kieran

    I think the main takeaway from the failure of brain training games is that we really first have to stop using IQ as a measurement of general intelligence. Throughout my psychology degree, we learned about and discussed research on General Intelligence (GI) which was a combination of multiple different types of intelligence. If I remember correctly, a better way to test general intelligence (not improve it) was Raven’s Matrices. These can be as fun as little games on your phone, much more challenging but only measure, not improve intelligence (since you only get better at taking the test).

    I can’t remember off the top of my head what research has been done (and has looked successful) to identify how to improve scores on Raven’s however. Interesting area anyway.

  • G. Sarcone

    OK, so don’t listen a song, don’t read a novel, don’t go to a movie, don’t visit an art gallery because they all are imaginary or fictional activities.
    Human beings to become smarter need also pure recreational or “silly” activities, not only activities tight to real life. Please read my blog: http://goo.gl/8ntpPd
    You say “The Gym for Your Mind is the Real World”, but how can you know how the real world is? Our experience of the world is forever equivocal. The sheen of a pearl, our partner’s voice, the silky smooth touch of a rose, the scent of an apple, all the things that we perceive and feel are just shadows of reality, a stream of nerve impulses woven by the brain into a mesmerising net. If these nerve impulses are not truly a reflection of reality then, how do you know anything for sure? In fact,
    unluckily, the only things that we cannot doubt are our emotions. One cannot doubt that one is happy, sad, in love, or in grief, when such states apply. The only other thing we cannot doubt is… to doubt! So, listening music, playing a game or solving a brain teaser is a kind of pleasant activities that produce “emotion”, the only true thing that gives value to our life.

  • Dave

    Chess is the gym I use to exercise my brain!

  • Philippe

    As far as I know there is no consensus on whether brain training works or not, and all brain training is not equal, so I think people really should stop thinking they are so smart for figuring the whole thing out. My personal bet is that you’ll all eventually find out that at least some of the brain training exercises out there really provide benefits. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing it. I suggest you check out BrainHQ, I put some serious effort into it and I feel it’s paid off.

  • kaitlin

    The brain training games are good people with certain problems, such as learning disabilities, and ADHD. They work on helping people focus on attention, memory, and mental math. If you don’t have a learning disability, memory problem, ADHD, or struggle with mental math, then I would skip it. However, if you do have these, brain training will help you out.

  • Sandy

    Scott, I am your great fan and improved a lot from your website. I agree with Kaitlin. Brain games like puzzles and strategy games do help children with learning disablities – ADHD, Autism, Aspergers and so on. Those children have weak executive functions like planning, weak working memory and so on whereas normal people take those executive functions for granted as they dont have any such deficiency. Only the ones which have weak executive functions (who cannot clearly discriminate time dimension) know the fruitfulness of such games. For more information on how such games help those kids, please refer to the website: http://learningworksforkids.com/

  • Sandy

    Scott, I am your great fan and improved a lot from your website. I agree with Kaitlin. Brain games like puzzles and strategy games do help children with learning disablities – ADHD, Autism, Aspergers and so on. Those children have weak executive functions like planning, weak working memory and so on whereas normal people take those executive functions for granted as they dont have any such deficiency. Only the ones which have weak executive functions (who cannot clearly discriminate time dimension) know the fruitfulness of such games. For more information on how such games help those kids, please refer to the website: http://learningworksforkids.co

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