You might have heard that puzzles like crosswords and sudoku stimulate the brain and help ward off cognitive decline. But brain games—or cognitive training, as we neuroscientists like to call it—do more than make you slightly sharper as you age. Cognitive training has the potential to target multiple aspects of your cognitive power and improve them in a matter of months, boosting memory, concentration, comprehension, problem solving, creativity, and even intelligence. If that weren’t enough incentive, brain games can also help treat cognitive damage (which we discovered during our clinical trial with NFL players) and slow the brain’s aging process.
I grew up in a household of brain games, even though I didn’t know it at the time. My mother played lots of solitaire and gin rummy, and she made us the go-to house in the neighborhood for weekly bridge games. Our cabinet was also full of board games like Trivial Pursuit, checkers, and backgammon, along with word games like Mad Libs (my favorite) and three-dimensional combination puzzles like Rubik’s cubes.
Our cognitive training didn’t stop with traditional games, though. My mother was an avid artist and spent her free time drawing, painting, sculpting, and weaving, often inviting me to join her or encouraging me to take classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She just loved creating, and whether that was through art or baking, I learned alongside her. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I stood next to her in the kitchen, measuring ingredients, following family recipes, and watching her estimate cooking times and fine-tune cooking methods.
Through my father, I was introduced to a myriad of musical instruments, everything from the classical guitar and harmonica to the piano, flute, tambourine, banjo, and the child’s classic, the recorder. I tried to learn from sheet music and the different ways to play each instrument, also tinkering with how to tune and clean each one.
This is all to say I was constantly surrounded by pursuits that challenged my cognitive capacity, introduced me to new skills, and made me think in different ways—and that is exactly what cognitive training is all about. It doesn’t have to take the form of a traditional “game” to help stimulate the growth of new brain cells, strengthen neural pathways, and sharpen your mind in the moment and for years to come.
The research behind cognitive training is equally impressive. One recent study, for example, found that adults who play ten hours of video games total over a period of time lengthen their cognitive reserve—the brain’s ability to function despite some damage—by as much as three years.1 Other studies show playing brain games for just a handful of weeks can affect cognitive function up to a decade later.2
One of cognitive training’s most intriguing benefits is its potential to increase IQ.3 While the research is still evolving, some studies suggest the more brain games you play, the smarter you make your mind.
Brain games also spur neurogenesis, creating new brain cells as we age.4 Doing activities that challenge the brain also increase neuronal connectivity, stimulating new pathways that help us think more efficiently and effectively.5 And as you likely know, brain games can help stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.6
I saw firsthand what brain games can do for cognitive function while I was running a clinical trial with NFL players at the Amen Clinics. As part of the brain rehabilitation component of the trial, we gave the players a thirty-minute basic neurocognitive assessment that included twenty-nine brain-training games, which were individualized to the cognitive areas they needed to improve. The players could then play the games at home using a computer program, which we encouraged them to do on a daily basis.
The games appealed to their competitive nature, and many excelled at the training. Knowing we would assess their performance at the six-month mark, they were motivated and committed to playing at home and improving their skills. That dedication proved extremely effective, with a majority of the players improving their cognitive function and proficiency to some degree, and nearly half of the players demonstrating an increase of up to 50 percent or more.
Four Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Brain Games
Chances are you’re already doing some cognitive training on a regular basis. But because the brain constantly needs to be challenged in new ways to stay sharp and healthy, you’ll want to mix up your cognitive workouts. Here’s how to master cognitive training to biohack your brain:
- EMBRACE THE NEW. If you do the same thing every day, your brain gets bored. If you do crossword puzzles daily, for example, your brain grows accustomed to the challenge and will eventually no longer be stimulated to grow. Similarly, if you’ve played the violin for years, learning the viola won’t be as beneficial to your brain as if you tried to pick up the trombone. Try new things to keep your mind challenged, young, and healthy.
- RETHINK IDLE TIME. Waiting for a plane to take off, a train to show up, or a daily commute to be over can be mind-numbing. Turn it around by transforming boredom into brain power with cognitive training on the go. If you’re at the airport, pick up a napkin and try writing with your nondominant hand. If you’re waiting in your car to pick up a child or spouse, download and play a brain-training app (BrainHQ is my favorite). If you’re driving, challenge yourself to remember as many items in a single category (e.g., types of dogs, flowers, famous artists, etc.) as possible in one minute.
- SWITCH IT UP. Even if it’s new to you, playing only computerized brain games or doing only crossword puzzles won’t boost your cognitive function as much as engaging in multiple activities. Experts compare it to exercise: If you lift weights with only your arms, your legs won’t get strong and you won’t boost your cardiovascular system.
- BE CURIOUS. Make a conscientious effort to tap your inner curiosity and learn more about our wonderful world. Educate for the sake of pure joy and the love of knowledge, as well as for your cognitive power and health.
Excerpted from the book BIOHACK YOUR BRAIN: How to Boost Cognitive Health, Performance & Power by Kristen Willeumier with Sarah Toland. Copyright © 2020 by Willeumier Enterprises, LLC. From William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
- Wolinsky FD, Vander Weg MW, Howren MB, Jones MP, Dotson MM. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults. PLoS One. 2013;8(5):e61624.
- Tennstedt SL, Unverzagt FW. The ACTIVE Study: Study Overview and Major Findings. J Aging Health. 2013;25(8 Suppl):3S–20S.
- Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, Perrig WJ. Improving Fluid Intelligence with Training on Working Memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 2008;105(19):6829–33.
- Nguyen T. 10 Proven Ways to Grow Your Brain: Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity. Huffington Post. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/10-proven-ways-to-grow-yob_10374730. Published 2016.
- Ballesteros S, Voelcker-Rehage C, Bherer L. Editorial: Cognitive and Brain Plasticity Induced by Physical Exercise, Cognitive Training, Video Games, and Combined Interventions. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:169.
- WebMD. Brain Exercises and Dementia. https://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/guide/preventing-dementia- brain-exercises#1. Published 2018.