Do Computer Games Improve Your Memory, IQ or Mental Health? Sorting out the Science

08/11/2015

Over the past few years, many computer based products and board type games have emerged which are designed to improve memory, raise your intelligence level, or help improve a mental health condition.  In spite its skeptics, the “brain fitness” game industry is expected to grow from its current $1 billion to $6 billion in the next five years.

What Does Science Say About “Brain Fitness” Games?:  To date, there is almost no rigorously controlled scientific research that supports the idea that playing a computer game on a regular basis halts memory decline, increases intelligence, or improves mental health.  Recently, scientists have asked that research studies using the same methodology as that used for new medications be applied to computer based “brain games”, to systematically study whether they have important benefits.  Until those studies, which often take a number of years, are completed, scientists really do not know whether these games have real and lasting benefit.

Is taking a computer memory test useful?  There may be some utility to taking a computer based memory test, if you work with your doctor or a mental health professional.  First, if you have a high risk for certain brain disorders, like dementia, getting what is called a baseline measurement of your mental functioning can help health professionals better identify whether or not there has been a change in your memory or problem solving ability over time.
Second, well developed memory or mental tests can compare an individual’s performance with what are termed normative data, or what is considered ‘average.’  Again, the primary benefit to health providers is that well developed tests allow them to track changes over time.
 
Practice Effects and the Generalizability Problem:  People who use brain improvement programs may see their performance improve over a few weeks.  From a scientific perspective, the improvement may not mean that you are improving your overall memory, thinking ability or intelligence.  One problem is what psychologist’s call “practice effects.”  Quite simply, practice effects mean that you may improve on a computerized task, or any task, after you practice it a few times.  Sleep and time away from a task appear to contribute to practice effects and learning in general, so you are often better at a task when you come back to it after a good night’s sleep, then when you left it the day before.  Thus, while you may get better at a particular task or game, it doesn’t mean that you have gotten better at everything.

Second, “brain games” may not generalize beyond the specific skills required in that game.  The challenge with improving intelligence, problem solving, or memory, is that it often does not generalize to all situations.  Psychologists think of intelligence as an ability which carries across multiple situations.  There is no research that yet suggests that getting better at one kind of brain challenge means that you get better at all types of mental challenges.

Should You Buy Brain Improvement Games or Programs?  Brain improvement games or programs may be enjoyable, may help you occupy your time in a personally meaningful way, and may create a personal sense of challenge.  Engaging in enjoyable and meaningful tasks, of any kind, is typically good for our mental health.  So, from that perspective, they make sense.
Any type of mental health or memory problem that you think might be improved with a ‘brain game’ should probably be done in conjunction with your doctor or a mental health professional.  While there does not appear to be any evidence that these types of games cause any harm, the business of tracking potential change in mental function over time is best done with professional guidance.

There are certain strategies that can help people improve their memory, including those with mild memory loss.  Learning to take ‘mental snapshots’ or using mnemonic strategies (associate well learned word or image with something new you want to remember) can help improve memory in all of us.
 
For More Information:
American Psychological Association Help Topicshttp://www.apa.org/topics/learning/enhance-memory.aspx
National Institute on Aging: https://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/publication/understanding-memory-loss/introduction