Cognitive Daily

“Brain fitness” is all the rage lately — the idea that by “exercising” your brain, you can keep your mental ability at high levels even as you age. The good news is that there’s more science to back up this fad than in other recent gimmicks such as the Mozart Effect. The bad news is that “training your brain” takes a bit more work than popping a CD in the car stereo — and the science to back it up is far from conclusive.

Undaunted, the Wall Street Journal had a panel of reviewers test six “brain fitness” products. Some of them even sound like they might be rather fun. The article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall, but I’ll include some excerpts below.

Brain Age: Our testers, two of their husbands and a couple of teenage kids loved using this set of games on the go. The sudoku game — a math puzzle — was addictive. Our panel liked having their speed measured on a scale that runs from “walking” to “rocket-ship.”

Sudoku? I’m supposed to shell out twenty bucks (plus $120 for the Nintendo DS) for a game I can play free online on about a kajillion web sites?

Brain Builder: The way the site quantifies those results wasn’t intuitive, says Ms. Mettler, author of a self-care health guide. “Being rated ‘L3/8322’ in focus doesn’t say much to me.” Even though recalling numbers in order might be a useful way to assess memory, our users found it tedious. They rated BrainBuilder the least fun among the products sampled. One likened it to eating cooked spinach as a child.

While this one seems a little better on the science end of things, sounds like the application is lacking.

Brain Fitness Program 2.0: A study published in a peer-reviewed journal last year found that the program improved memory by 10 years on average. The subjects — 62 participants ages 60 to 87 — improved their performance on program-related tasks as well as their overall memory skills, as measured with a standardized battery of neuropsychological tests. They still showed those gains three months after completing the program.

This sounds more promising. What’s more, the WSJ reviewers actually liked this product. But at $395, it ain’t cheap.

There are other free ways which may be just as effective. We’ve linked previously to an article about the beneficial effects of reading Shakespeare. “Brain fitness” may be as simple as keeping your brain active through reading, conversing with friends, and engaging in interesting hobbies like playing music, painting, and — dare I say it? — perhaps even blogging!

The WSJ article also links to a video which claims to be an interview with two experts about the science behind “brain fitness” regimes. I couldn’t get it to work on Mac Firefox, and it crashed Safari. It’s also not clear whether the video requires a WSJ subscription, but in case it works for you, here’s the link.

Comments

  1. #1 Mecha
    February 8, 2007

    As a slight defense of Brain Age, Sudoku is more a ‘side note’ than the bulk of the program (but you’re right, that part’s essentially a Sudoku book.) However, the bulk of the program is… a lot of stuff many people are familiar with, and some that they aren’t. I think of it as more an ‘ever-changing math workbook with a few other things’, and there could be worse things, especially for kids. (There’s a fairly significant website for the game at brainage.com.)

    Now, whether that’s worth 140 bucks to a normal person? Ha ha, that’s a real question. If someone already has the system or plays more than Brain Age, though, then it’s a whole different economic kettle of fish. (I got my copy of Brain Age for free, as part of getting the system. Go figure.) And the _science_ behind it… well. The doctor associated with it is Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, who seems more pop culture icon than highly reviewed scientist, but I’m not well equipped to try to do background research on them here.

    -Mecha

  2. #2 John
    February 8, 2007

    Brain Age has many more games than just sudoko. There are some speed-math, -reading, -recognition games, memorization games, drawing games, etc.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    February 8, 2007

    Sorry; I have this thing about Sudoku. It was fun at first, but once I figured out the “system” for doing it, it became quite boring for me. I now prefer Kakuro, which is much more challenging. If anyone can figure out last Friday’s Washington Post puzzle, (no using “novice mode”!) they’re a heck of a lot smarter than me.

  4. #4 Jason
    February 8, 2007

    I borrowed Brain Age from a friend and I have to say it’s oddly addicting. There’s a zen-like (or flow state, whichever you prefer) aspect to doing your multiplication tables. A few of the practices I find genuinely fun (low to high, triangle math, and the people one). Of course, I’m a giant nerd so my preferences are probably different than the average person.

  5. #5 Katherine
    February 8, 2007

    Sudoku is not a math game. I hate how people think that just because there are numbers, it’s math. Any symbols would do; you don’t need to manipulate them arithmetically.

  6. #6 Lin
    February 8, 2007

    I am repeating the Posit Science 40 hr. program for the second time and plan on using it as part of my regular ongoing fitness workout program. I believe Posit has the best science behind it due to their peer reviewed articles/testing and a deep scientific team, many of who are not associated with Posit. I was so enthused the first time around that I became a Provider. I do think the interest will increase dramatically as this topic is showing up in the everyday press and for the Boomers (re: the WSJ video) they will consider brain fitness to be essential to their healthy living lifestyle. I think all of these programs will see new versions, and for the serious ones, will be a result of new science and discoveries in this field.

  7. #7 Coin
    February 8, 2007

    Brain Age is a video game. Like, for fun. It’s based on some kind of pop science book of the kind you describe, but few or no claims are made within the game about any kind of benefit to playing the game, aside from claiming that the individual puzzles “activate” different portions of your brain.

    I’m kind of baffled by the concentration in the article and your writeup on Sudoku. The Sudoku thing is literally a side-item to the game– it’s a completely separate mode from the normal game, and the Sudoku minigame was actually not included in the original Japanese release, it was just something they tacked on for the American version to entice more people to buy it. Trying to compare this to the free sudoku websites is even more baffling, considering that the point of something like the Nintendo DS is that you can put it in your pocket. I can’t run websites from the backseat of a car.

    Meanwhile, I don’t know if you’ve priced video games lately, but $20 for a video game is really cheap.

  8. #8 michael
    February 8, 2007

    I like the Lumos Labs cognitive exercises. Their site is brand new so it wasn’t reviewed in this article, but because it’s still in beta you can play for free at http://www.lumoslabs.com/. It’s got good scientific backing, but I think the games are more fun than the others I’ve tried.

  9. #9 Moti Hodis
    February 8, 2007

    I believe the WSJ mentioned 3 more products in that article. The one that got a lot of good grades from the reviwers was MindFit made by an Israeli outfit called Cognifit and available in the US from Vigorous Mind (www.vigorousmind.com) as well as SharpBrains.

  10. #10 Dan
    February 9, 2007

    I’d have to second (third? fourth?) the opinion that you’re drawing conclusions about Brain Age based on exceedingly incomplete information.

    Whether or not the tasks it does present the user actually enhance brain function, I’m not qualified to say – here’s the list of them, however: (List is taken from a website, parenthetical descriptions are my attempts to describe the actual activity)
    Nearly all tests are timed.
    * Word Memory (Presents a list of around 40 words, gives two minutes to study them, then counts how many you can remember)
    * Stroop Test (The words “Red”, “Blue”, “Yellow”, and “Black” appear on screen in random colors, the user has to speak aloud the color the word is in)
    * Speed Counting (Count out loud from 1 to 120…)
    * Connect Maze (Dots on screen are numbered and lettered, the user needs to trace a path between dots in order (A-1-B-2-C-3…)
    * Number Cruncher (Numbers appear on the screen. The user is asked to count the numbers that fit a specific criteria (ie. are blue, are spinning, are the number 6…)
    * Calculations x20 (20 basic arithmetic problems)
    * Calculations x100 (100 of same)
    * Reading Aloud (Read an excerpted passage aloud)
    * Low to High (A pattern of numbers briefly flashes on the screen. The user needs to quickly memorize and recall the order of the numbers after they disappear)
    * Syllable Count (Sentences appear – the user must count the syllables)
    * Head Count (A house appears on screen. A number of people are drawn quickly entering and leaving the house. At the end of the sequence, the user is asked how many people are in the house)
    * Triangle Math
    * Time Lapse
    * Voice Calculation

    (I haven’t done the last three)

    Whether or not these activities actually contribute to “brain health”, I have no idea – but this is an actual description of what Brain Age is – something that “sudoko” is not.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    February 9, 2007

    Dan —

    I didn’t mean to imply that Sudoku was the only game offered in “Brain Age.” I figured people would read the article if they wanted to know more. The basic point is that these are very simple games, and absent scientific evidence, there’s no way to say whether these games are any better than, say, reading a book.

    “Brain Fitness” does appear to have some scientific backing, and I made that clear in the post.

  12. #12 Dan
    February 9, 2007

    Sorry, since the article is pay-to-view, I couldn’t be aware of how much detail it went into. From your summary, I wasn’t sure if you’d been left with the impression that the game was essentially Sudoku-on-a-cartridge (The short excerpt only mentions sudoku, amidst a somewhat ambiguous “set of games”, and the sudoku was the only aspect mentioned in the commentary).

    I’m under no illusions that Brain Age is really built on concrete scientific evidence (It’s supposedly built on the theories of a Japanese scientist (or researcher – or something, but I’m not really aware of anything further than that) – I just wanted to make sure that what the game actually consisted of was accurately depicted.

  13. #13 Michael
    May 4, 2009

    I have been working in the brain fitness space since 2001 and we have come along way. There has been significant scientific studies over the last 5 years that illustrate how we can maintain and develop our cognitive skills through our lifespan. Our company has started to launch pilots that provide more efficacy to our software. I truly believe the next 5 years will see a lot of positive developments in this area.

    Michael
    http://www.fitbrains.com

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