What is the difference between brain training and brain games?

We are often asked, “What is the difference between brain training and brain games? You may often see advertisements for “brain games” or “brain training” and wonder what they are all about. Are these things worth your time and money? And do they actually improve the brain?

There is a big difference between brain games and brain training. Brain games are something that you do for fun, and is like going out to play. Examples of brain games are things like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, quizzes, and word problems.  To learn more about research on crosswords, click here. Brain training, on the other hand, is more like going to the gym. It’s a system of exercising the brain to improve aspects of cognition like memory, attention, focus, and brain speed. Posit Science’s BrainHQ exercises are a good example of brain training.

Sadly, not all brain training is created equally. Many people use the term “brain training” to try and sell people programs that have not been proven to work and that have no benefits for the brain. This is a very unfortunate means of tricking people into buying ineffectual products and wasting their time, as these unproven programs have no positive effects on mental health or memory.

With that in mind, you will want to use a critical eye when evaluating brain training programs. This will help you separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, so you can identify the brain training programs that are truly effective. A clinically proven brain training program can have the power to change the brain and improve your memory. If that is your goal, here are some important questions to ask:

Is the brain training program backed up by clinical proof?
Many companies make scientific claims like “based on neuroscience” or “proven to work.” But if you dig deeper, there is no real scientific evidence to back these claims up. Scientific studies should be independent, repeatable, peer-reviewed, and presented officially in scientific journals. When you scratch the surface, you will find that very few effective brain training programs offer much in the way of this type of scientific evidence.

Does the scientific evidence show “generalization” of brain benefits?
Some brain training programs may be supported by clinical proof, but it’s important to look closely at exactly what the exercises are proven to do. Are they merely proven to improve your performance on a narrow type of task, or are they proven to “generalize” into other aspects of real life and create improvements in the brain and memory beyond the exercise? This is another important distinction to make.

Were the brain training exercises designed and evaluated by scientists?
All too often, you can find programs advertised as “brain training” that have no scientists involved in the company! How is it possible for a non-scientist to develop and test effective neuroscience-based brain training programs? The simple answer is that it is not advisable to trust any program that is not designed and tested by actual scientists. It’s also important to look at the number of scientists involved in the company. Are there merely one or two scientists performing advisory roles? Again, common sense would say that it’s simply not realistic to expect benefits from a program that doesn’t have deep, daily, consistent involvement from a number of staff scientists and critical advisors.

Has the scientific evidence been validated by experts outside the company?
This is another key aspect for evaluating a brain training program. If the scientific evidence is all produced in-house, that may indicate a problem. If the research findings haven’t been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, that indicates that the scientific community at large may feel the research is flawed or unvalidated. Look closely at where the science is coming from and who is supporting and validating it to give yourself more insight into the evidentiary claims.

If you keep all of these things in mind when evaluating brain training programs, you will have a better chance at finding a program that can improve your brain.