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Nintendo Brain Age/ Training vs. Crossword Puzzles

Nintendo brain-trainer ‘no better than pencil and paper’ (The Times):
“The survey of ten-year-old children found no evidence to support claims in Nintendo’s advertising campaign, featuring Nicole Kidman, that users can test and rejuvenate their grey cells. The Nintendo DS is a technological jewel. As a game it’s fine, said Alain Lieury, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Rennes, Brittany, who conducted the survey. But it is charlatanism to claim that it is a scientific test.

Comments: as we have said before, Nintendo Brain Age and Brain Training should be seen as what they are: a game. And the construct of one’s having a  “brain age” makes no sense.

Having said that, the researcher quoted then offers, out of the blue, a highly inaccurate statement:

“The study tested Nintendo’s claims on 67 ten-year-olds. “That’s the age where you have the best chance of improvement,” Professor Lieury said. “If it doesn’t work on children, it won’t work on adults.”

That assertion (that something won’t “work” on adults because it won’t “work” on kids) makes even less sense than having a “brain age”. The Cognitive Reserve research shows the need for lifelong mental stimulation – and the reality is that kids are more exposed to novelty and challenge all the time, whereas older adults may not be. Further, that claim (something that doesn’t “work” on kids won’t “work” on adults) has already been tested and proven wrong:

In a couple of recent trials, discussed here, the same strategy game (Rise of Nations, a complex challenge for executive functions), played for the same number of hours (23)  showed quite impressive (untrained) cognitive benefits in people over 60 – and no benefits in people in their 20s.

How can this be? Well, we often say that our brains need novelty, variety and challenge – and it should be obvious that those ingredients depend on who we are/ what we do. A crossword may well be new and challenging for a kid, but not for an older adult who has done a million already. A videogame can provide good challenge to an older adult – and probably not to the kid who already spends 5 hours a day playing them.

Further, it is not Nintendo that offers a science-based cognitive training product. A variety of computerized products have been shown to work on enhancing cognitive abilities for specific groups of people and for specific purposes (there is no magic cure or general solution) – something that crossword puzzles never have.

A few months back I interviewed Martin Buschkuehl, after his team published a study showing how computerized working memory training can enhance fluid intelligence. A question I asked was How are computerized programs like the one you used fundamentally different from, say, simply doing many crossword puzzles?

His answer:

“In terms of why our program worked, I could say that the program has some inherent properties that are at least in this combination unique to our training approach. Our program is:
– Fully adaptive in real-time: The person using the program is truly pushed to his or her peak level all the time, thereby “stretching” the targeted ability.
– Complex: We present a very complex task, mixing different forms of stimuli (auditory, visual) under time pressure.
– Designed for Transferability: The tasks can be designed in a way that do not allow for the development of task-specific “strategies” to beat the game. One needs to truly expand capacity, and this helps ensure the transfer of to non-trained tasks.”

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3 Responses

  1. Astrid Lee says:

    I can see validity of the arguments of both parties.

    To put an average elderly person in front of a computer (regardless of the software used) would increase alertness as the average elderly person simply doesn’t use computers that often

  2. Lorraine Donovan says:

    To put brain ages on anyone is somewhat risky. I can certainly answer orally much faster than I can type or click a mouse etc. Does this test by brain or by physical skills with technology?

  3. Gary Dashney says:

    Good reply to the study on the Brain Age game. For goodness sakes, studies have shown that things as simple as learning to juggle or surf the web can build measurable grey matter (new brain connections). And as you pointed out, this leads to increased cognitive reserve, not necessarily improved math or memory scores. The key, as you also pointed out, is variety and mental challenge..

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