Can games for the brain make you smarter?
The answer to that isn’t so simple. Being smart requires a lot of different cognitive skills. For some, being smart requires a large memory storage. For others, it requires critical thinking skills or concentration. In general, building up these skills can help you solve problems and keep your brain nice and healthy for many years to come.
But do brain games really work? Which are the best games for your brain? And what can you do outside of brain games to improve cognitive abilities? We will answer all of these very important questions.
Which Brain Games Are Best?
Some of the best games for your brain are games you are already very familiar with:
- Crossword puzzles
- Lumosity (Brain Game App)
- Peak (Brain Game App)
- Elevate (Brain Game App)
- Happy Neuron (Brain Game App)
- Brain Age Concentration Testing (Brain Game App)
Check out some of the research on these classic “brain games.” If you’re looking for something new, there are also plenty of apps to explore with more games and challenges to improve cognitive function.
Sudoku is a classic brain game. This puzzle, originally created in Japan, contains a 9 x 9 grid and nine 3 x 3 subgrids. Each row, column, and subgrid must include numbers 1 through 9 without any repeats. While some Sudoku grids start with most of the numbers filled in, harder versions only contain one or two numbers per subgrid.
This game became very popular throughout the world in the early 2000s. Big Sudoku books, websites dedicated to Sudoku, and even live Sudoku TV followed. Studies also looked at how Sudoku impacted the brain. Skills like short-term memory and concentration are required to play Sudoku, and there is some evidence that Sudoku improved these skills. One study involving 19,000 people over the age of 50 found a correlation between playing games like Sudoku and brain functioning.
That 19,000-person study also found a correlation between brain functioning and crossword puzzles. Although they are primarily found in daily newspapers and magazines, crosswords can be found on apps and in books, too! Searching for the right word in each set of boxes requires a different set of language and reading comprehension skills. Keep up with the slang and search around your long-term memory to complete even the most difficult crossword!
Queen to e6, pawn to b3. Chess can be an extremely frustrating game of knights, rooks, and bishops, but it can also be extremely beneficial for the brain. A study back in the 1980s showed that when students had regular access to chess and played often, they showed significant improvements in memory storage and verbal skills. Reading skills, concentration, and creative thinking also improve if you play the game regularly. So go ahead, make that first move!
Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and chess are all “puzzles” in their own rite, but a good old-fashioned visual puzzle can also help the brain. Puzzles activate both sides of the brain, giving all areas a good “workout.” Working on your favorite puzzle can also reduce stress. This may not seem like a mind-sharpening skill, but reducing stress can actually have significant impacts on mental health and the ability to retain memories. Plus, the rush of dopamine you get from putting in those last few pieces can also alter your mood and reduce stress. Sit down, grab an 1,000-piece puzzle, and just relax!
Brain Game Apps
If you want to enjoy all of this on the go, just open your phone! There are plenty of apps that offer crossword puzzles, playing chess against a computer, or Sudoku. But you can also find brain game apps that aim to improve memory or sharpen your cognitive skills.
You may have seen some of these apps advertised online or on TV. Here are some of the most popular:
- Happy Neuron
- Brain Age Concentration Testing
Each of these apps have their own special features. While some test your current skills, others simply offer unique games to build specific skills.
Why Brain Games Are Good For Your Health
A sharp mind and skillful brain are also important for preventing cognitive decline. Over six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease - and that number is projected to double by 2050. No one wants to see themselves or a loved one affected by this terrible disease. So in recent years, more focus has been given to “brain games” and practices that will improve memory, as well as general cognitive functioning.
Do Brain Games Work?
As research regarding neuroscience evolves, we have been learning more and more about what it takes to keep the mind healthy and the brain functioning well into your golden years.
There has been some controversy surrounding brain game apps in recent years. In 2016, Lumosity was required to pay a $2 million settlement and adjust the claims it made about the app. Before 2016, Lumosity claimed that the app could improve performance on everyday tasks, protect users from conditions like Alzheimer’s, and reduce the cognitive symptoms and side effects related to a wide range of conditions, including ADHD and stroke. While Lumosity claimed that they had scientific studies and testimonials to back up these claims, the FTC said that their evidence wasn’t enough. Lumosity is still an app that you can use to play brain games, but don’t expect it to prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia entirely. Although they do not have the research presently to prove these claims, who’s to say that those studies couldn’t be conducted in the future?
Brain Game Apps vs Other Brain Games
It is also important to note that apps like Lumosity are different from games like chess. Chess can be a social game. A single game of chess may last longer than the short games that apps like Lumosity offers. And while the makers of chess do not claim that playing the game can reduce symptoms of PTSD or ADHD, more studies have been conducted on chess. The results of these studies almost overwhelmingly show that regularly playing this game, similar to Sudoku or crossword puzzles, can help to strengthen certain skills and improve overall brain health.
In general, brain games can help to test your cognitive skills and create new neural pathways in the brain. As more information comes out about concepts like neuroplasticity, researchers are learning more and more about how to strengthen our skills and even heal after brain damage. But regardless of how many skills you can improve with brain games, sitting in the dark on your phone playing Sudoku for 24 hours a day is not going to make you the smartest person in the world. When you consider your brain health, consider your physical health, too. Poor sleeping habits or habitual alcohol consumption can be just as dangerous for the brain as brain games are beneficial.
Other Ways to Improve Cognitive Skills
Games aren’t the only way to build up cognitive reserve or keep your brain working hard. If you’re sick of Sudoku or want to explore other options, get creative! Try any of the following activities:
Learn a New Language
It’s never too late to take up Spanish, French, or Japanese! Learning a new language offers so many benefits for the brain. Studies show that people who speak two or more languages have better memory, better critical thinking skills, and can multitask better than people who only speak one language. It is certainly harder to learn a new language as you get older, but this practice can help you keep your mind sharp. Plus, after you’ve picked up a new language, you can treat yourself to a nice vacation and show off your skills.
Play a Musical Instrument
You might have heard that playing a musical instrument is the best thing that you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s or dementia. These claims aren’t far from the truth! Playing a musical instrument has many benefits for the brain - some would even say that this skill is better for your brain than playing brain games. Think about it. Playing a musical instrument requires you to “learn a new language,” (aka reading music,) use your hands and/or respiratory system, and continuously adjust how you are playing based on the music that you are reading or the sounds you are hearing. Playing a musical instrument can keep your mind sharp for years on end. Studies show that even just a few minutes of playing music can send blood flow to the brain, help recovery from stroke, and strengthen executive function. Do you need any more reasons to grab your guitar and jam?
Exercising may not seem like the most obvious choice of mental stimulation, but it can help keep the mind sharp and the body healthy. Mental and physical health are tightly connected, and a healthy body makes way for a healthy brain and mind. Studies show that 150 minutes of exercise a week increases blood flow to the brain where memories are stored. If you can make a habit out of exercising for 30 minutes, five days a week, you’re well on your way to a sharper mind (and a better physique.)
What’s even better than exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week? Doing this in addition to playing brain games. Exercise alone isn’t going to give you critical-thinking skills. Doing a crossword alone isn’t going to keep your mind and body healthy. Having a well-rounded set of practices for strengthening your cognitive skills - including playing an instrument, reading, playing games, and socializing with others - will offer the best results and keep you healthy for longer. Just like strengthening any other skill, sharpening the mind requires consistent practice and trying many different things.