“Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day!” claims the fifteen-year old Nintendo brain-training app, also known as Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training. The app consists of mini-games supposedly designed to stimulate various parts of the brain and help combat normal aging effects on the brain. The latest version was released early 2020 in Europe and Australia. While the longevity of the game itself is a testament to its success, there’s one big problem: brain-training games don’t work.
Consumers spend almost $2 billion a year on brain-training apps such as Lumosity (more than 100 million users worldwide), Elevate, Peak, and CogniFit. All these apps make similar bold claims: they will help you increase your mental fitness, slow down age-related cognitive decline, improve your memory. Some even went so far as claiming they could prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
But the science doesn’t stack up. A large study with over 11,000 participants published in Nature found that participants improved on the tasks in which they were trained, but there was no evident cognitive improvement outside of the training tasks. In other words, playing brain-training games makes you better at brain-training games—but nothing else. It doesn’t prevent people from spending a fortune on addons and special games inside these apps.
In 2014, a group of 69 neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists signed an open letter stating that there is no scientific evidence that playing brain games improves cognitive abilities.
“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. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”
In 2015, the FTC sued companies selling brain-training programmes for deceptive advertising—specifically for suggesting their products were effective to treat or slow the onset of brain-related disorders. Luminosity in particular was fined $50 million, later reduced to $2 millions.
Yet, as we mentioned, Nintendo just launched the latest version of their popular brain-training app. Because the idea of becoming more mentally fit is appealing—the lack of scientific evidence and the FTC lawsuit did not prevent the brain-training industry to thrive. Now that you know these don’t work, what can you do instead?
Five alternatives to brain-training games
I apologise in advance, but the most efficient way to take care of your brain is very boring. You basically need to make healthy choices and stay active, both mentally and physically. Here is a list of five evidence-based strategies you can use to actually train your brain.
- Get enough sleep. While the exact biological purpose of sleep is still not well understood, research suggests that sleep plays a “housekeeping” role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake. The build up of these toxins may be involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
- Eat the right foods. You probably have heard the expression “brain food”—one that comes up often is fatty fish, which is full of omega-3 fatty acids. Harvard Medical School put a helpful list of such foods together.
- Exercise. Not only exercising is good for your mental health, but regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus—the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Next time you want to open a brain-training app, go for a run instead.
- Don’t drink too much alcohol. Most people are aware of the damaging effects alcohol can have on the brain, causing impairments in memory, brain-disorders, nerve damage, and of course damage to the rest of your body such as liver disease. Cutting the booze will be much better for your brain than playing brain-training games.
- Learn a new skill. Long-term learning—say, music, arts, playing chess—creates new neural activity patterns in the brain, research shows. It’s much harder than playing a quick game on your phone or your Nintendo Switch, but maybe that’s why it works.
I warned you—you could have probably guessed most of these. But even when your intuition tells you something works, it’s always good to check the science behind it. Our intuitions are often wrong. In the particular case of brain-training games, we think that repeating these tasks supposedly designed in collaboration with neuroscientists will help us take better care of your brain. Turn out, all of the brain-training that work are actually free.