Go into any bookstore and you’re sure to see them: entire shelves full of brain teasers, puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, etc. These books are loaded with all sorts of mental exercises and brain games that supposedly will improve your brain fitness and function simply by playing them.
You can find thousands of these sorts of brain boosters online as well, many of them for free. You’ll also find an assortment of commercially available products online from companies who specialize in what they call “scientifically designed” brain games.
The big question, however, is whether engaging in any of these mental exercises can actually improve your brain fitness. And if so, how do you decide which ones are better than others?
Neuroplasticity—The Basis for Brain Change
Over the last 20 years, scientists have discovered that our brain can
- Grow new connections
- Grow new neurons
- Rewire itself
The ability of our brain to do all this is what neuroscientists call neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons to forge new connections—essentially rewiring the brain.
Anytime you learn a new skill or take on a new challenge, your brain responds by forging new connections. The more you use those connections, the stronger they become, and the less likely they will atrophy as you age. Conversely, the less you use them, the weaker they become over time.
The good news about brain plasticity is that it’s made available to us at any age. It’s now been shown to be a myth that our brain cannot change or renew itself as we grow older, or that our brain function must decline with age.
Cognitive Reserve—It’s Not Just About Finding Your Car Keys
One of the reasons people play brain games is the hope that it will improve their ability to remember things, like the name of someone they just met, or where they left their car keys. Other goals might be to become faster at math computation and problem-solving, or to perform better on tests at school. Since the more you use existing brain connections the stronger they become, regularly practicing mental tasks such as arithmetic or memory games will strengthen existing neural connections and aid in their survival.
Cognitive reserve is a term used to define the amount of neurons and connections between them—and the more you have, the better. Studies have demonstrated that those with more cognitive reserve exhibit less mental decline with age and can even avoid many of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Effective Brain Games Should Contain These Primary Characteristics:
The best brain games and mental exercises are those that will both strengthen your existing brain connections as well as help you develop new ones—thereby helping you perform better today as well as increasing your cognitive reserve, thus helping you maintain your cognitive abilities over time.
According to Alvaro Fernandez, CEO of SharpBrains, a leading cognitive fitness market-research firm, there are three primary characteristics that must be present in any brain game for it to be of strong benefit:
These three characteristics depend greatly on who you are and what you do. There is no one-size-fits-all brain game. A mental exercise such as a crossword puzzle might be something new and challenging (thus stimulating new brain-cell growth) for one person, but not for another.
The same can be said about a video game, a free brain game or a commercial brain game. In addition, a particular mental exercise or brain game, over time, will lose its benefit when it loses its novelty or is no longer challenging. When evaluating any mental exercise or brain game, the above three characteristics should be used as guidelines.
There are two additional characteristics that are important when considering any brain game or mental exercise. These are:
- Fun and enjoyment
A good brain game should provide you with enjoyment, because if a mental exercise is fun, you’re more likely to stick with it. Just like a physical fitness program, you need to stay with it in order to reap lasting benefits. Likewise, if it is boring and feels like a chore, you’ll discontinue it.
So what about cost? Free brain games abound on the Internet. Are they any good? Are commercial brain games any better for you than free ones?
Again, the three primary characteristics must be present. It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a free crossword puzzle or an expensive “scientifically designed” brain game. Novelty, variety and challenge are the true keys to evaluating any brain game’s effectiveness.