The arrival of the baby boom generation at the threshold of old age coincides with a technology boom that marries the appeal of computer and video games to updated views on the brain’s neuroplasticity– its capacity to rewire itself even in adulthood. This union has spawned mind game businesses in which clients exercise their brains with computerized games, quizzes and tests. Lumosity and other cognitive training companies (see a sampling below) claim success in improving clients’ mental flexibility, speed, focus, concentration and memory. Well over 60 million subscribers hope their brains benefit from mental workouts in virtual gyms. Is their money well spent?
What is neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the dynamic process of physical change in and between brain cells that occurs in response to experience. When an infant is born, there is ample space between the cells in the outer layer of his brain, where higher functions like seeing, thinking, speaking, planning and remembering will develop. By the time he is two years old, this space between brain cells is tangled with nerve fibers connecting them to each other and to new cells which have migrated in from deeper areas. These changes continue in response to experience and are accompanied by pruning away of some of the initial connections to maximize efficiency and conserve energy.
For years the dogma taught in medical school was that neural circuitry was complete by the early twenties, a concept that was hard to understand because learning is possible at all ages and learning must have some kind of physical basis. But new evidence gradually emerged to prove that the brain continues to rewire itself throughout life. Neuroplasticity persists. The developers of the tools used by the companies like Lumosity seized upon this concept and added to it a wealth of data obtained from cognitive testing by psychologists and neuroscientists about how people think, remember, organize, plan and act. The brain games they devised for mental workouts in virtual gyms call upon these functions in hope of strengthening the brain circuits they use.
Use the circuits or lose them
Unused brain circuits lose connections just like unused muscle loses size. Hard learned algebra disappears once there are no more tests to call it into use. But there are apparently some traces of initial learning left, because relearning is easier than first time learning. Rusty skills can be brushed up with less effort than their first development required. Brushing up a skill presumably involves a physical process within the networks of nerve cells called upon for the task. It is this process that the virtual brain gyms seek to stimulate and apparently succeed in doing according to at least some measures of improvement.
Virtual mental gyms vs. real life mental exercise
The mental skills exercised by cognitive training programs include memory, attention, mental speed and flexibility, mathematical skills and visual-spatial processing. There is no doubt that exercising these brain functions is beneficial and that, with enough time spent and effort expended, the exercise improves the ability to do the tasks involved. The question is whether or not the improvement in these tasks carries over into real-life reasoning, planning and problem solving abilities. Here the data are murky indeed. It appears that the positive effects of exercising in mental gyms, if measurable, are confined to the types of tasks involved in the exercise and are not sustained for long after the practice ends. Lifetime habits of mental activity have much more persistent influence as people age.
Most people know elderly individuals who have maintained robust minds. They are usually curious about life, resilient, adaptable and habitual seekers of information. These traits inform all of their interactions and activities. They spend their lives in mental gyms of their own construction and prefer active use of their minds over passive entertainment. Very often, they have also remained physically active long into older years.
The brain training programs popular today aim to provide a similar pattern of mental activity in an entertaining way, but the challenges are intermittent and short. If the participant has been on a lifelong course of high mental engagement with the world, and if he happens to enjoy the games and tests he is involved in and is committed to them, his test results after participation are likely to be better than those of someone who has been less active mentally in the past and who does not particularly enjoy the program.
Does mental exercise prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
Does an active, flexible and resilient mind resist Alzheimer’s disease? Since we do not know the cause of this devastating disorder, it is hard to speculate about what might make a brain resistant to the pathology that characterizes the disease – the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that scar the brain. But it has long been known that the degree of mental deterioration in life in does not necessarily reflect the amount of scarring seen in the brain at autopsy of the patient with Alzheimer’s disease. Of two people with virtually identical diseased brains at autopsy, the one who had higher levels of mental activity over life – more reading, writing, educational achievement- will have suffered fewer and less severe disease symptoms. But even if this observation is coincidental and mental exercise has nothing to do with protection against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, an actively lived life of the brain has its own rewards beyond preservation of health. And it does not require a virtual gym.
Though mind games don’t necessarily improve mental functions in daily life, there are no negative effects from engaging in brain training, except, perhaps, on the budget and on time better spent in physical and social activity. Regular modest aerobic activity like walking (preferably outdoors), resistance training such as weight lifting and Pilates exercises, adequate sleep and a supportive and enjoyable social network have all been correlated with better mental functioning in old age. For no fees there are always books, board games, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, hobbies, crafts, conversations and devotion to others’ needs.
A Sampling of Reputable Brain Training Programs
Rosetta Stone Fit Brains www.fitbrains.com
Brain Fitness by MindSparke www.mindsparke.com
Brain Gymmer http://www.braingymmer.com