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?