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.”


  1. Astrid Lee on January 27, 2009 at 9:59

    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 on January 30, 2009 at 7:26

    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 on January 31, 2009 at 3:48

    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..

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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