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Do brain games really boost brainpower?

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A recent column by New York Times blogger Nick Bilton discusses the addictive quality of video games and how we might use them to make our minds stronger, faster and healthier.
According to Bilton’s piece, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco are using neuroimaging techniques to peer into gamers’ heads, collecting data to help make video games that “change as you play, getting easier or harder, depending on your performance”. The goal is eventually to develop games that rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function.
But with all the buzz about brain games – such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and even brain training websites – it begs the question: Can brain games be beneficial to brain health?
As a cognitive neuroscientist, this is a question I get asked a lot. And the answer is yes and no.
While the games are fun and engaging, there is insufficient scientific evidence to suggest brain training as it exists now can significantly improve an individual’s higher-order cognitive ability.
What we do know is that brain games improve the specific function that is being trained. So, for example, if you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you might get really good at crossword puzzles. The same goes for Sudoku, and any other similar games. But the affects do not spill over to other untrained areas and do not elevate critical frontal lobe brain functions such as decision-making, planning and judgment – functions that allow us to carry out our daily lives. And just like physical workouts, when you stop doing the exercises, your brain loses the immediate gains. If you like brain games there is no harm in doing them, but chances are you are better off giving your brain some downtime and gearing up for deeper level thinking. I recommend taking practical steps to build and maintain robust brain health. The first simple step is to stop habits that work against healthy frontal lobe function. For example, eliminate multitasking. Research shows that our brain can only do one thing at a time well. So when we constantly shift attention from one activity to another, or entertain every interruption from a smart phone beep or email alert, we are making it harder for our brains to do their job. 

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Aaj Kal