Brain Games: What Improves Memory, Intelligence and Cognition?

A December 15th article in The Atlantic written by Venkat Srinivasan and called The Myth of the Brain Game discussed the current popularity of puzzles that are touted to increase mental acuity and possibly even reduce the chance of dementia and Alzheimer’s. I had seen these puzzles on the AARP site while researching ways to help my elderly father stave off declining mental capacity. On that site, each game or puzzle was accompanied by an illustration of the part of the brain that would be improved by that specific exercise.

Srinivasan reported:

In October, Stanford University’s Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin asked a group of more than 70 neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, and academics to share their views on these games. “There is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” the group wrote in a consensus report.

Research in 2012 on the use of games to increase memory and metal capacity “showed that while the participants improved their scores in the brain-training exercises, they showed no gains in the general cognitive ability tests compared to the control groups.”

When I checked some of the research done in the last decade (the games began to gain popularity in the early 21st century) I inferred that memory training techniques may produce short-term, specific training effects that don’t improve brain function in a broader sense. The brain is trained through repetition to get better at the actual game being played, but not at other tasks that aren’t very similar.

I asked neurologist Gary Kaplan (M.D., Ph.D. Hofstra University School of Medicine faculty) to comment on the article. He wrote:

“‘Cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.’ This is the most important point. The data suggests, as the article implies, that most of our learning is not easily generalizable, nor does it improve our IQ. In addition, dementia has equal incidence among the well-educated and those with minimal education, though those with a strong educational background are likely to remain functional longer.

The take-home point is to decrease your risk of dementia and increase your chance of healthy aging by keeping your brain as healthy as possible. This means keeping the blood vessels that supply the brain in good shape – no smoking, no excessive alcohol, regular aerobic exercise, maintaining a normal blood pressure, normal blood sugar and cholesterol, enjoying a diet rich in anti-oxidants, and avoiding depression.

It is easy to see how the Transcendental Meditation program helps fulfill these goals naturally. It has a strong effect on normalizing blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and reducing life-damaging habits, while increasing our sense of fulfillment. In fact, it has been associated with measures indicating a younger biological age as we continue to age chronologically.”

The TM practice would also be a good choice for those women who would like a sustained improvement in IQ, creativity, Field Independence (a common test of mental health), academic achievement (including grade point average) working memory and emotional stability. TM is the only meditation technique shown by published research to increase brain integration, which is quickly sustained during daily activity to levels found in very successful people, such as top managers, world class athletes, and professional musicians.

As Dr. Kaplan says, “Learning TM is a ‘no-brainer’ for all of us who so value our brains.”

About the Author

Janet Hoffman is the executive director of TM for Women Professionals, a division of TM for Women in the USA

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