As my regulars will know I like to keep abreast of movements in the brain training game market. I’ve reviewed Nintendo DS’s titles from the Dr Kawashima, Lumosity and even some that weren’t specifically designed to improve cognitive functions, yet arguably do. Christmas before last I subscribed my parents up to Lumosity on the iPad. 24 months later my dad still plays on a regular basis. He’s up to 99.9% for his age group in every category bar 1 (where he is up to 99.7%!). This year I’ll be subscribing them to PEAK instead, because having regularly used it on my phone to kill time whilst in transit (or on the throne) for the best part of a year I genuinely think the (relatively) new kid on the block wipes the floor with Lumosity.
All the major players tend to include a core set of “classic” brain training games that are clearly inspired by neurological tests that have been around for many decades e.g. Go/NoGo, Stroop, N-back etc. Unlike their rivals who seem to be happy with the basic versions, PEAK seems to continually evolve each game by adding a twist or making each game a little bit tougher.
Take for instance working memory training – the only games for which there is any half decent published data in the peer-reviewed science literature supporting claims that it can actually improve cognition (and even that evidence is hotly contested!). The spatial working memory training games like PERILOUS PATH (memorise the position of the mines whilst they’re briefly displayed and then trace a path around them from random start to finish points), MEMORY SWEEP (remember and reproduce the position of illuminated blocks in larger and larger grids) and BOUNCE (guess the finishing point of a laser beam sent bouncing across angled mirrors distributed across the grid after a brief glimpse of where they are) have all been done before, but these are all great versions.
PEAK also takes simple versions of classic brain games and takes steps to improve them. For example, RUSH BACK involves simply answering whether each presented image is the same or different as the previous one. A 1-back task like this hardly challenges working memory because you can use iconic memory (the visual impression left in the mind’s eye for a few tens of milliseconds after any object disappears from view). They quite rightly class this as a test of “focus”, because if you lose concentration then it is easy to accidentally push the wrong button. Particularly when you’re trying to go as fast as possible to maximise points. Yet over the months they’ve introduced RUSH BACK PLUS – which is a 2-back task and two other aesthetically appealing variations on this game:
TUNNEL TRANCE – progresses from the 1-back task to the 2-back (same as the image before last?) to the 3-back (same as the one before the one before last) – this really has the potential to genuinely help people hold more information in mind when they are performing a real life task. It probably goes up to 4-back and beyond… if so, I simply haven’t performed well enough at the 3-back task to get promoted to the next level.
PARTIAL MATCH – the task is to rapidly decide whether the image is identical to the last image, completely different, or partially the same (i.e. same colour but different shape or same shape but different colour). This I have never seen anywhere before. I appreciate that PEAK are putting in the effort to innovate and that it took me a surprisingly long time to get the hang of. I’m always mindful that the harder something is to get the hang of, i.e. the more a brain finds it to be a challenge, the more resources are likely to be invested in reinforcing the relevant neural pathways in an effort to adapt the brain to improve that particular mental function. Speaking of which another game that was introduced very recently definitely deserves a special mention… HAPPY RIVER
A common symptom of depression is the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts or emotions. An effective but simply remedy is to develop the habit of dwelling instead on the positive whilst disregarding the negative. Bear this in mind as you read on because I’m convinced that HAPPY RIVER can only be a power for good, which suggests that PEAK really are keeping an eye on the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience to find inspiration for their new game pipeline.
HAPPY RIVER involves reuniting a baby elephant with its mother. They are on opposite side of the banks of a river that have several rows of words streaming across it either from left to right or right to left. Each of the individual words acts as a raft. By tapping the screen the baby elephant hops forward. Your timing has to be accurate or else you’ll fall into the gaps between each word raft. You also have to be strategic because only those words with positive emotional overtones provide safe passage. Step onto a negative word and you’ll be tipped over into the rapids. So to successfully reunite the baby elephant with its mother you have to focus on the positive and avoid the negative – hence PEAK have created a game that could well encourage a habit that could ever so slightly nudge players towards a more positive outlook and greater mental health.
FLIGHT PATH challenges many different cognitive capacities. You start with a bird’s eye view of some lush green fields at the middle of which are 4 landing spots for airships that fly into view from top, bottom, left or right of screen. Each airship has a different letter and moves at a different velocity. Your task is to plot the movement of each airship so that they line up on the ground in an order that spells a 4-letter word. The airspace can get pretty crowded so half the challenge is to do what all air traffic control professionals do so well – stop the aircraft from smashing into each other and showering the sky with debris. For this game you need to think strategically, flexibly, linguistically, constantly updating the flight paths for a steadily increasing number of craft whilst simultaneously keeping your eye on an icon in the top right corner to win extra points. Although there is no published data yet to prove it, my hunch is that having to divide your attention across so many competing concerns and continually re-evaluate your priorities, will tune up brain pathways that would surely come in useful for any high pressured professional.
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In the Smart Drugs chapter of the book I wrote with Adrian Webster “Sort Your Brain Out” we argued that of the various nootropics available in this day and age it makes sense to give preference to substances that have been around for eons rather than the new kids on the block. This really is the only way you can enjoy the benefits without having to worry about the potential unknown long term problems and side effects.
The brain benefits of regular coffee drinking were described, but due to space limitations we were only able to discuss a few other substances. This month’s blog highlights some of the many published studies that have indicated a wide variety of health benefits associated with regularly imbibing green tea – something that people have indeed been doing for hundreds of years.
Green & Black
Camellia sinensis is the name of the plant that gives us white, yellow, green, black and oolong teas. Black tea has more than twice the amount of caffeine as green tea, whilst green tea has more polyphenols (the very antioxidant substances that mop up all those dangerous free radicals). The difference in concentrations of these substances can be accounted for by the fact that black tea requires fermentation before preparation – which increases the caffeine content and decreases the polyphenol content – whilst green tea is prepared from unfermented leaves.
All The Tea In China
Green Tea has been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for thousands of years where it has been exploited for it’s stimulant, diuretic and astringent properties; not to mention improving heart health, flatulence and body temperature regulation. The stimulant effects are thanks to the alkaloids contained within the tea leaf including caffeine, theobromine and theophylline. As green tea contains about half the caffeine of black tea and MUCH less than a cup of coffee, dosing yourself with green tea throughout the day is much less likely to disrupt your sleep come bedtime than the other options.
Typing “green tea” into an internet search engine yields a huge number of websites dedicated to promoting the ubiquitous benefits of regular green tea ingestion to improve the effectiveness of exercise, improving weight loss and even helping to manage diabetes. Of course its always difficult to know which sources you can and can’t trust. Hard data is required to establish whether green tea really does help to ameliorate symptoms of the various complaints for which it has been traditionally recommended.
Is Green Tea Really Good For You?
Yes! When individual research studies are published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal they can provide evidence to support or reject any particular scientific hypothesis, but a single study cannot “prove” or “disprove” any given theory. Meta-analyses are much more powerful in this regard because they look at many different studies all investigating similar hypotheses. If, despite being conducted on a completely different group of subjects, often in a completely different location and undertaken by a different group of researchers, they all point towards the same conclusion this provides for a much more powerful argument to support, or refute, any given claim when the consensus points to a benefit. Just looking at the meta-analysis data it has been confirmed that green tea is effective at lowering blood pressure, reducing risk of several different cancers and improving cardiovascular/metabolic health, to name but a few.
Any Brain Benefits of Green Tea?
Drinking green tea has long been associated with relaxation and, indeed, scientific investigation has now backed this up. Epigallocatechine-3-gallate, the most active of the tea polyphenols (known collectively as “catechins”) is found in much higher quantities in green tea than other teas and is known to inhibit an enzyme that converts cortisone to cortisol. Cortisol is a so-called stress hormone and cortisone the inactive form. By preventing the enzyme in question – 11 beta-hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 1 – from doing its job, the active ingredient of green tea is able to reduce levels of the stress hormone. (In case you were wondering, the other 5 catechins are: catechin, gallaogatechin, epicatechin, epigallocatechin and epicatechin gallate).
Can Green Tea Can Improve Cognition?
Yes! Anecdotal accounts of the brain benefits of regular tea drinking in the elderly inspired research to establish whether green tea really could improve cognition. Over the last ten years huge amounts of data have been generated on this topic. The more green tea a person consumes, the lower prevalence of cognitive impairment (Full article available for free). Early research trying to ascertain the mechanism by which such benefits are realised demonstrated that spatial cognition was improved in rats that drank water infused with polyphenols from green tea (full article available for free).
In the last few years experiments dosing healthy, younger humans with green tea versus placebo have demonstrated an increase in functional connectivity between frontal and parietal brain areas during a working memory task (Full article available for free). Bearing in mind that improvements in working memory can translate into better fluid intelligence and therefore a higher score in the IQ test – swapping green tea into your daily hot drink regime might make sense for your brain’s sake as well as your body’s.
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I reviewed the first Brain Training title on the Nintendo DS a couple of years ago and, to be perfectly honest, the sequel “MORE Brain Training” a.k.a. “Brain Age 2” is not a great deal different. Dr Kawashima’s floating head is still there in its chunky pixelated glory; guiding, encouraging and chiding you throughout. Even the constant repetition that X, Y or Z game is “great for giving your prefrontal cortex a good work” out is also ever-present. I had hoped he’d get a bit more specific about which task was working out which part of the prefrontal cortex in this sequel. Especially given that, if the crinkly outer surface of the brain was increased to the size of planet earth, the prefrontal cortex would cover an area the size of North and South America put together (at least!). Still there are a few new games, many of which bear a striking resemblance to the old ones, some are plain dull, but others really quite novel / clever. Overall I would say it is a bit tougher on the old synapses than the predecessor; which is a good thing…
You may be aware of fierce debate going on about the effectiveness of these games when it comes to positively influencing cognitive abilities that have:
- a long term impact
- that goes beyond improved performance on the specific games being played to other cognitive functions useful in daily life
I would argue that, purely in terms of short-term arousal (Steady! In your brain.. not your pants), it is really quite effective. Based on personal experience I have found that 10-15 minutes spent taxing various mental abilities with the higher levels of any of these games is a more effective way of getting going in the morning than a slug of strong coffee. So even if the evidence does not mount up to support the claims of Lumosity, Cognifit and Torkel Klingberg regarding long term cognitive benefits for everyday people that might help them in their daily life, I think it would be pretty hard to refute the claim that challenging your brain to solve a few puzzles first thing in the morning can really help you hit the ground running each and every day.
Anyway, I digress (again). What I like about Brain Age 2 is that it is really hard; punishingly hard at times. In one game you have to keep track of a stickman’s position in a running race as other runners are overtaken / overtake you. In another your task is to keep track of blocks that pile up on each other as they fall behind a screen recalling the height of one particular column. Both are good solid working memory training games (and thus have the best potential to boost IQ; read this book for full explanation) and have a nice progression to them in that they start easy on the earlier levels, build the difficulty gradually, but soon end up challenging even the sharpest of brains.
Other new games are not so challenging. “Days and Dates” and “Correct Change” are clearly built with the aim of developing cognitive skills that have an obvious practical application in everyday life. I suspect these might have been included to address criticisms leveled at the brain training market by suggesting that the games only help people get better at the specific task being tackled. Either way, figuring out what the day was 4 days after 2 days ago, or figuring out the correct coins to give as change if a £/€/$1.40 bill was paid with a ten pound/euro/dollar note, are a pretty dull ways to pass the time, if you ask me.
“Missing symbols” – adding the appropriate plus, minus, multiplication or division sign to make the sum work – verges on the dull, but the speed element keeps it challenging. You can always go faster. “Memory addition” takes mental arithmetic to the next level by having to perform a calculation but then keep one of the numbers in mind to use it in the next sum. I must admit to hissing the to-be-remembered number under my breath (recruiting the “phonological loop” aspect of working memory) so as not to get confused with the correct answer for the current sum. “Word Scramble” is cute. Solving an anagram where the letters are not just shuffled but are presented in a ring that slowly rotates. Surprisingly tough, particularly with the longer letter strings!
Anyone who has read my review of Beat City will know I am a fan of games that involve making music. So it will come as no surprise that I think “Masterpiece Recital” is brilliant. A little bit pointless for people that actually play the piano, but great for the rest of us. You have to hit the right note on a piano keyboard as the musical score scrolls past. And you don’t have to be able to read music as it labels both the keyboard and the music notation with the appropriate letter (see left). The reason I found it so satisfying is because in the later levels the tunes are really beautiful pieces of classical music (and I’m no classical music buff, that’s for sure) plus the accompanying backing music makes even the most amateurish efforts sound pretty good; even if you’re a bit late hitting the notes. You get marked down for this at the end, but whilst you’re in the game it very enjoyable to feel like you are actually creating such pretty music.
“Word Blend” is a good idea, but poorly executed. It’s loosely based on the dichotic listening test (usually different information is presented to each ear) – straight out of the psychology textbooks – whereby 2 or 3 voices simultaneously say a single word and your job is to recognize the words and write them down. Personally I just found this game irritating. Despite having the option of hearing them repeat it five times or so (but you only score points for words identified without hitting the repeat button) it can sometimes be quite impossible (for me at least) to hear one voice over the other. I suspect it is the fault of the game rather than the player because there was no improvement. So I’m either acoustically challenged, or this particular game is a bit crap.
The game I liked the most, despite upon first encountering it that it was a bit remedial, is a game that seemed to be inspired by exercises developed to help people overcome learning disabilities. “Determine The Time” is reminiscent of an cognitive development technique invented by Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (whose book: “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” is as amazing as it is inspirational). She developed this simple clock reading task, first to help overcome her own difficulties learning relationships between symbols (like the relationship between the big hand and little hand of a clock) and then started to roll it out as an entry level exercise for kids and adults with learning disabilities (making a dazzling impact on improving their cognitive abilities).
It quite literally involves reading the time of a clock, but the twist in this particular game is that the clockface is rotated. This requires you to do a “mental rotation task” – imagining in your mind’s eye what the clock would look like if it was the right way up – so that you can give the right answer. Such spatial rotation tasks stimulate the parietal cortex (finally something that benefits a brain area other than the prefrontal cortex!!) and, presumably, improvements in these mental rotation tasks will enable the parietal cortex to manipulate all sorts of other information in space.
Incidentally, Einstein’s brain had a larger-than-normal parietal cortex and, given that this lobe is also critically involved in mathematical abilities, it is thought to account (in part at least) for his tremendous contributions to physics. As well as rotating the clock in the harder levels Dr K becomes particularly devious by mirror reflecting the images as well. So your parietal cortex has to perform two sequential transformations reflecting it back and then rotating it the right way up again. It is a very simple idea, but genuinely, in my opinion, a tremendous work out for the parietal cortex.
I am aware that so far the brain games I’ve reviewed are all on the Nintendo DS. I am also conscious that it may seem that I am in some way biased in favour of the Nintendo DS. Both are perfectly reasonable observations. For the record the true reasons that, so far, I have only reviewed titles on the Nintendo DS are quite simply that a) I happen to own one, b) positive outcomes from brain training is only possible if you play it regularly and intensively and c) the smartphone I happen to own is not optimized for gameplay.
Convenience Lends Itself To Regular Training:
For brain training to have even the slightest chance to yield genuine benefits it must be undertaken regularly, intensely and for long periods of time. In my opinion convenience is therefore a prerequisite of any good brain training game, thus I favour options that enable people to fill dead time in their daily routine with gameplay wherever they happen to be. I am aware that there are many home computer-based brain training games but as I personally feel that when I’m at my computer I should be working, not playing games – I suspect others feel the same way. This is why I haven’t reviewed the various online brain training offerings, instead focusing on those that enable you to brain train on the move. Not only is the Nintendo DS extremely portable and therefore convenient, I also happen to own one, so it is currently my device of choice for gameplay on the move (the only time I personally get the chance to get stuck in).
Why No Smartphone Based Brain Training Reviews?:
I’ve been using a Blackberry for the last few years purely for the slideout keyboard which enables me to type without looking at the buttons. Once I’ve got over my distaste for touchscreen smartphone technology (I’m nearly there) I’ll start reviewing iOS / Android brain games. In light of this avowed intent I would be grateful if anybody out there would suggest any games marketed as Brain Training so I can give them the once over (rather than leaving a comment please drop me an email by clicking here instead).
If your instinctive response was that: “brain training is good for absolutely nothing” – then you might not yet be privvy to all the relevant data. Scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of brain training is slowly but surely growing, , as far as I can tell. Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has been at the forefront of research into computer-based brain training focused on increasing the capacity of working memory for over a decade. He and his team have identified a positive correlation between working memory improvements and IQ score. In other words the better your working memory – that is, the ability to hold several pieces of information in mind for long enough to complete a mental operation – the more “intelligent” you become. Well, to be fair, that’s not quite the whole story. IQ approximates to what we commonly think of as intelligence – but it is blind to a host of cognitive abilities that are very useful for the individual and highly valued in human society; like creativity, social skills, kinesthetic abilities and so on. So a better way to describe it is that improving working memory leads to benefits in a variety of other cognitive abilities collectively known as fluid intelligence, which is vital for (amongst other things) solving problems. Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is: enhancing these mental abilities leads to benefits at school, work and play.
The last of these is the most pertinent to this particular brain post. There are lots of computer games out there which, often completely by accident, tend to improve cognitive functions that are relevant and useful in everyday life. Parents who bemoan the hundreds of hours a year “wasted” by their children playing shoot ‘em up games may be cheered by the news that such games can actually improve visual perception . They are right to be concerned, by the way. Too much time spent locked into game mode displaces much of the time that could be spent cultivating soft skills. These broadly undervalued yet completely invaluable set of social skills can only be honed properly through regular, intensive, face-to-face communication. They make many aspects of personal and professional life that take place in the real, as opposed to virtual, world function so much more smoothly that society would be well advised to place a greater emphasis on the importance of ensuring they are cultivated at all costs. However, allotting a finite period of time each day to game play can be extremely good for your brain – so long as you play the right sort of games.
MEMNEON is a good example. Even Stephen Fry – the God-of-Twitter himself – tweeted that MEMNEON was driving him “delightfully dotty.” High praise indeed! The brain behind Memneon, Steve Turnbull, may feel that for me to suggest it is Simon for the 21st century would be selling it short. I would disagree. Simon was the original brain training device and as such was decades ahead of the game. And as with all things people will inevitably take a concept and move it on to the next level. Memneon has done exactly that – it’s like Simon on a high dose of amphetamines. Much tougher on the old working memory circuits. And of course it is by regularly challenging the brain’s cognitive capacities – for several minutes, daily, for weeks on end that eventually your brain reinforces connectivity between the relevant areas and abilities improve. 49 different possible locations for each consecutive disc illumination is sooo much harder to retain in working memory, before reproducing the patter, than just the 4 quadrants of Simon.
Now that the great potential for brain training is out of the bag all sorts of digital developers are falling over each other in their scramble to capitalise on the growing interest; first catalysed by Nintendo with their launch of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Age on the Nintendo DS. Uptake may have mellowed in the handheld digital console market since 2001 but PC-based subscription services that offer a suite of cognitive training games (like Lumosity) have very much taken over the reins.
The BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory show made a big fuss of a Nature paper indicating that brain training was ineffective for the under 65’s. To make this newsworthy they, perhaps not surprisingly, felt the need to put some attention-grabbing spin on their non-findings by using the headline: “Brain Training Doesn’t Work” and I’ve written elsewhere about why I think it is too early to make such a bold statement. Finding no evidence to support a hypothesis is one thing. In this case I think that they hypothesis in question is: “computer-based brain training can improve cognitive abilities in a manner helpful and relevant to everyday life.” Disproving a hypothesis is quite another matter.
Science is all about the balance of evidence. A good rule of thumb is that you should not believe anything reported in a single scientific paper until many other experiments have been done, ideally by other unconnected independent research groups, whose findings tally with the original. There is a lot of evidence out there that brain training does work in older people, but not so much – at the moment – that it pays dividens for younger people. But it’s early days. So I think people should take sensationalist headlines with a pinch of salt and wait to see which way the balance of evidence tips.
The jury might be out on which aspects of brain training do and don’t work, but I think it is fair to say that there is every reason to believe that it has great potential to do you good and very little potential to do ill – so why not give it a go. 20 million subscribers who perceive some kind of benefit can’t all be wrong, surely?! Well they could be – but in the meantime the placebo effect is at least making them feel sharper, focused, able, etc….
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