Can Playing A Game Make You Smarter?

07/21/2016 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Image source: PhotoDune

From crosswords to Sudoku puzzles, there's no shortage of brain games designed to help keep our minds sharp. While these games can't turn you into Albert Einstein, evidence suggests they can help sharpen your thinking. For example, practicing crossword puzzles every day for a year will train your brain to recall words more quickly and solve these puzzles faster, reports Psychology Today. Unfortunately, research also shows that once you stop practicing crosswords each day, your brain may lose any of the skills it gained. Like exercise, if you stop working out the brain, gains can be lost.

But what if brain-training games could have a longer lasting impact on our cognitive skills, helping to prevent job burnout or even keeping seniors mentally sharp? Researchers are also developing games that will rewire our brains and improve memory and cognitive function. NeuroNation, for example, is a brain training system developed with the help of researchers from FU Berlin.

How to Sharpen Cognitive Skills and Improve Memory

General intelligence spans different cognitive abilities including verbal, spatial reasoning, abstract logic, and memory. Adult intelligence is influenced by the connections our brain forms and how actively we use these connections. Sure, you may have been a whiz at physics in high school, but if you never use a single physics equation for the next 20 years, these connections will fade away. It's the same feeling you get when you visit Mexico on vacation and try to dig up your high school Spanish. Trying to communicate in a foreign language is already tricky, and can feel downright impossible if you haven't practiced in years! It's not that you're becoming less intelligent; it's simply that your brain is focused on a different type of thinking.

Brain Games like NeuroNation are designed to help you engage a variety of cognitive skills that might not otherwise be activated every day. As adults, most of us fall into a set pattern of strengthening the same skills at our jobs each day. This means certain types of thinking get stronger while others fall by the wayside. According to the research team at FU Berlin, the key to successful brain training is a custom approach to training a large spectrum of cognitive areas.

"Studies show that training will only be effective if it is personalized to adapt to your individual performance. This means that as you get better at the exercises, the training becomes more difficult," says NeuroNation. The key is to keep users challenged without overwhelming them.

The free language app Duolingo follows a similar approach. Duolingo slowly builds up to more challenging vocabulary and grammatical structures, while continuing to engage users in their previous lessons. On average, it takes Duolingo users approximately 34 hours to learn the equivalent of one college semester of a language, which are fewer hours than Rosetta Stone or an actual college semester. Like NeuroNation, the language app uses interactive lessons and a reward structure to keep users engaged.

How Multitasking Hurts Cognitive Performance

Research shows our brains are cut out to do only one thing well at any given time. Our daily lives, however, are geared for multitasking. During a typical work day, we juggle emails, to-do lists, social media feeds, and multiple assignments all at once. No wonder our brains are exhausted! When we constantly have to shift attention from one activity to another, we are fatiguing and overloading the brain. In fact, excess multi-tasking leads to a buildup of the stress hormone cortisol in the memory center of the brain. No wonder we can sometimes feel like we're in a brain fog after a big week at work!

Rather than hopping from screen to screen, put aside time each day to take a technology break. Whether you meditate, go for a run, or just spend time in stillness outside, this break time is just as important as your "brain training" time. Why? Your brain needs an "off" time, just like your body. If you were training for a marathon, for example, running every day for weeks on end would ultimately do more harm than good. You need to include rest days in a training program to allow your muscles to recover. The same goes for the brain. While brain games are great for cultivating specific cognitive skills, at the end of the day your brain needs time away from all those email alerts and blinking screens. When we disconnect, we come back recharged and refreshed to create and innovate.

Bottom line:

Wish you could remember more or sharpen your cognitive skills? When regularly used over time, brain training games like Neuronation may be able to help. But remember that a sharper brain requires more than just brain training. It needs a break away from multi-tasking, too!