Summer is the time we like to get away, to give ourselves and even our brains a rest. But is that a good idea for optimal brain health? Michael M. Merzenich, a professor emeritus neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, member of WAM’s Advisory Board, renowned author, and creator of the online brain-training system Brain HQ, reveals the best type of fun and games that also promote brain health in both women and men.

Q. Is there a direct correlation between game-playing and brain health?

Improving at and ‘mastering’ almost any new skill or game can be expected to drive positive changes in your brain. At the same time, games that most people think should be beneficial for their brain (e.g., crossword puzzles, Sudoku) actually have limited benefits, because they are not challenging you to think and react quickly. (In scientific studies evaluating the efficacy of our brain training exercises, we often deploy these types of games as ‘control activities,’ comparing the benefits of our scientifically-based brain exercises with the benefits of seriously playing these alternative games—because we know that they don’t do much good for you or your brain. At the same time, they can be fun, and knowing that they’re not particularly good exercise for my brain doesn’t stop ME from doing the New York Times crossword puzzle almost every day!)                            

Q. What types of games, then, are good for brain strengthening?

Progressive, speed-challenging action games are the most beneficial. In the physical world, if you take a game like ping-pong or pickleball or tennis seriously—that is, work hard to improve at it over time—you will drive positive changes in your brain that will impact your brain health. Specific computer games that challenge your brain to operate more accurately at progressively higher speeds provide the best exercise value. Brain exercises like those at BrainHQ provide a substantially better and more efficient way to get your daily ‘brain work’ in than can be achieved with action video games.

These games:

  1. drive changes in your brain that relate very directly to its health and operational powers with optimized efficiency,
  2. The training is designed to generate long-enduring improvements in the physical information processing machinery of your brain that has general value for almost anything you do in that neurological domain, and
  3. The exercises are constructed to document how your elemental neurological faculties are improving and elaborating over time, as you work at them.
Q. Would you put reading in this beneficial category?

As you sustain and grow your brain power through brain health-related exercises, you should not forget the value of continuing to gather information about your world. That includes through reading—and through getting out of your house out into the wider world. Your powers of understanding and thought and invention and expression are limited, of course, by the information that you have loaded into (remember) your neurological encyclopedia. You want that information—and the understanding and wisdom that can only come from it—to continue to grow across your life. So don’t neglect your reading!

Q. Is there a difference between playing games like Words With Friends and playing video games with regards to constructive brain health? I.e., is doing an activity with another person more valuable than by yourself?

Your social and emotional brain also needs regular exercise. While you can improve your perceptual and cognitive abilities—and very significantly positively impact your brain health—in privacy, you also need to continue to nurture and grow your social cognition and emotion control abilities. Playing games with others in a social setting is one positive and spirited way to achieve that. Games with friends that challenge your fast-reasoning abilities and are full of surprises and fun are especially valuable for sustaining the brain processes that control your brightness and alertness—and the social by-play is good for you as well. Your brain is asking you to spend a little time every day improving your perceptual, cognitive, reasoning, and executive control abilities. You can accomplish that, all on your own. At the same time, your brain also begging you to keep its social and emotional connection alive and healthy. That is best achieved with real people in front of you, in the real world.

Q. We often receive advice to take a break, go on vacation, etc. How healthy is it for our brains to do nothing but be away, and how would you suggest we do this in a productive yet fun way?

Our brains slowly deteriorate, physically and functionally, in an adult life dominated by stereotypy. In our childhood, we were continually learning, and thereby continually advancing our neurology. Now, at 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 years of age, almost everything that happens in our life is predictable, expected, not terribly challenging. If this describes your life, your brain is, alas, being slowly bored to death. It seeks a life dominated by continuous new learning, and by a rich supply of daily surprises. The easiest place to find those new challenges and surprises is to get out of your comfort zone into that wonderful world out there that is chock full of the unexpected. Some people love to take as much of their problem-free and challenge-free world out with them, on a cruise ship, at a resort or just lazing on that beach, where absolutely everything is again set up to be unchallenging and predictable. Your brain is not too happy about that. For the brain, surprises engage that machinery that controls your liveliness and your savoir-faire. Surprises are food for your brain. And I’ve noticed from a long history of travel across the planet that the most memorable holidays have been those in which the challenges and the surprises were the greatest.

Q. What about young people? Do they need to take the same kind of mental breaks as adults?

Brain health should be managed, and we should all guide ourselves on a path of neurological self-improvement across the span of our lives—just as we should for our bodies. We’ve all been given the great gift of a continuously ‘plastic brain,’ capable of growing its functional abilities and capacities every day of our life on Earth.

We’re just damn fools if we don’t take advantage of this gift!

Q. How should I integrate these insights to improve MY brain health, and to increase MY brainpower?

First, take a few minutes every day to directly exercise your brain. It responds to exercise in the right form, just as your body does. The brain gym at BrainHQ is one good place where you can find efficient and scientifically-proven brain exercises.

Above all, adopt a life strategy of continuous new learning: Expanding and strengthening your repertoire and mastery of skills and abilities, reading to gain new information, living an attentive life that drinks in new information from your world, working hard to be a better and kinder and more understanding human individual…… Living your life to the better advantage of your brain and its health is something that I hope you take seriously, from this day forward, on the path to a better and safer and happier you.

For other great brain-training exercises, try Maria.brainhq.comLumosity or Fit Brains.