We’ve all heard of apps and online courses that can help to improve our memory and cognition, but until now, there’s been no group to review these programs to show which ones work – and which ones don’t.
That’s why a group of Australian scientists undertook a systematic review of what studies have been published of commercially available brain training programs in an attempt to give consumers and doctors credible information on which brain training programs are actually scientifically proved to work–if any. Unfortunately, of the 18 different computerized brain training programs marketed to healthy older adults that were studied, 11 had no peer reviewed published evidence of their efficacy and of the seven that did, only two of those had multiple studies –BrainHQ and Cognifit.
That study, along with other similar ones, shows that most brain training only make you better at the exercises themselves, and don’t carry those gains over to your real-world concentration, productivity, or mental acuity.
Why do they work then?
Because both are based on brain training that is focused on improving processing speed–the speed and accuracy with which the brain processes information. Dr. Henry Mahncke, the CEO of Posit Science which makes BrainHQ, says this type of training focuses on the visual system: “You see an image in the center of your vision–for example, either a car or a truck–and at the same time, you see another image way off in your peripheral vision. The images are only on the screen for a brief period of time–well under a second. You then have to say whether you saw the car or the truck in the center of your vision, and then you have to show where you saw the image in your peripheral vision. This challenges the speed and the accuracy of your visual system. And as you get faster and more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral vision task gets more demanding–pushing your brain further.”
In short, this process – called neuroplasticity (“neuro” = brain, and “plastic” = the ability to undergo structural changes) – forms new neuropathways in your brain which you can then call on in real life so for example, you can hear what someone says in a noisy restaurant, see what’s happening on the edge of your peripheral vision or remember all the digits of a phone number.
So what if you don’t want to give one of these scientifically-backed programs a go?
Mahncke does offer a few tips to encourage your brain to make these changes in your daily life:
- Learn a new skill – and don’t stick the same old hobby: “If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for 10 years, pick something new – and really different – and work at it 2-3 hours per week, even though it will be hard. My mom started harpsichord lessons – and practiced a lot! It was great for her brain: the speed and accuracy of listening and finger movements are a good form of brain exercise.”
- Travel – even if it’s just around your own neighbourhood: “Find a new way to the grocery store, or the long way to your favourite park. Focus on noticing new landmarks, different sounds (and smells?) and putting together and more detailed mental map of your own neighbourhood. As soon as a route gets familiar, find a new one. This engages your brain’s hippocampus – the seat of learning and memory.”
- Be active and maintain healthy blood pressure in middle age: “It’s going to be harder to maintain a sharp brain if your body is diverting its energy to fighting other elements in your body, like high blood pressure. So, avoid consuming too much salt and get out there for a walk or a run.”
Give it a go!