TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The “brain teasers” industry has grown to be a billion-dollar field, with companies reaping in cash while touting the supposed cerebral benefits of comprehensive games and puzzles. A new study, however, finds those claims of improved mental fitness are the actual teasers all along, with the activities providing little, if any, upside.
“Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way,” says Wally Boot, an expert on age-related cognitive decline and an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University, in a school press release.
Boot and his team of researchers at the university recruited 60 adults at least 65 years old to either play a brain-training video game with the alluring name of “Mind Frontiers,” or perform crossword and number puzzles.
It was their hope to examine whether brain games, for their much touted abilities, were able to enhance working, short-term memory. Some companies claim their brain teasers can aid in fending off cognitive decline or even dementia.
The games employed in the study presented a bevy of information to participants, testing whether they improved working memory, and consequently, improved abilities in other cognitive areas, such as reasoning, long-term memory, and processing speed.
Many games that purportedly enhance cognitive ability claim that the skills they teach end up having practical benefits, such as having people memorize long sets of digits.
For those hoping that this will apply to them, “these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer,” warns lead researcher Neil Charness.
“The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are?” Charness explains. “And the answer is probably no.”
Considering how many brain games charge $15 or more a month for memberships— and much more for long-term or lifetime access— the FSU researchers hope that people will see that the jury is no longer out. The industry is succeeding, though, because so many people — especially seniors — are eager to find ways to prevent cognitive decline.
“People have real concerns about loss of cognition and loss of memory as they age, so they do all kinds of things to try to stave off cognitive decline,” Charness says.
This does beg the question: if brain games don’t help significantly, what does?
Perhaps counterintuitively, physical activity has been shown to promote structural change and improvement in brain function. Charness predicts that “exer-gaming,” in which exercise fuses with brain games, will take off in the coming years.
“I wouldn’t come away from our article totally discouraged,” Charness concludes. “It’s another piece of the puzzle that we’re all trying to assemble. It’s discouraging in the sense that we can’t find far transfer and that seems to be a fairly consistent finding in research. But if your real goal is to improve cognitive function and brain games are not helping, then maybe you are better off getting aerobic exercise rather than sitting in front of the computer playing these games.”
The study’s findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.