Do Brain Games Make You Sharper?

After suffering a brain aneurysm, author Maria Ross believes that Lumosity’s Word Bubbles game jumpstarted her quick-thinking abilities.


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Studies about brain games are still inconclusive, but many users report benefits.

Game image from Lumosity.com

One day in 2008, after weeks of persistent headaches, Pacifica resident Maria Ross collapsed unconscious in her bathroom. Her husband rushed her to the hospital, where they found out that what her physician had diagnosed as high blood pressure was actually a brain aneurysm. After six weeks in the hospital and months of physical and speech therapy, Ross still had problems with her short-term memory.

“I had problems remembering, and I also had issues with vocabulary recall,” said Ross, now 42, a consultant and author. “One of my doctors said I had a little hitch in my giddy-up.”

Normally outspoken and gregarious, Ross was becoming withdrawn, afraid to speak out at parties and gatherings for fear that she would be stumped by some common word on the tip of her tongue. Friends noticed that she was holding back and becoming very quiet.

Knowing that Ross was a game-show junkie and a crossword fanatic, Ross’ at-home therapist recommended that she try Lumosity, an online purveyor of brain-teaser games designed to boost intelligence, to help sharpen her cognitive skills.

As a writer, Ross loved playing Word Bubbles, Lumosity’s word game that shows a letter and asks the player to think of as many words that began with that letter as possible within a time limit.

“It restarted my quick thinking,” Ross said. “It made me use parts of my brain that had gotten cobwebbed, and I was able to get back the old quickness and alertness that I had before the accident. After doing these games, I got faster and became my extroverted self again.”

Such so-called brain games have become a multimillion-dollar industry. San Francisco-based Lumosity is the giant of the brain game field, with 50 million subscribers in 180 countries. Companies like Cogmed, Happy Neuron, and Posit Science also offer users the chance to exercise their memories and reasoning skills with brain-tickling games.

The audience for such games is growing: Older adults are often the most concerned about exercising their brains to avoid deterioration, but increasingly younger people are also using brain games. Nearly 70 percent of Lumosity users, for example, are adults under 40.

But while some users swear they’ve seen positive results from brain games, scientists haven’t yet reached a consensus about how effective games can be.

A 2013 University of California, San Francisco study showed that older adults developed better short-term memory and long-term focus after playing a driving game, and the improvements carried over to other memory and attention tasks. Last year, researchers at the National Academy of Sciences found that fast-paced video games can lead to improved perception, attention, and cognition, and that more experienced gamers showed improved pattern recognition. Just this year, the National Institutes of Health financed a study that found cognitive training in healthy older brains led to gains in reasoning and speed that lasted as long as 10 years.

But other studies have yielded less encouraging results. The Stanford University Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development have expressed strong doubts that software-based brain games “improved general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.” And a 2013 study from the University of Norway suggested that brain game players would eventually get better at playing the game—but the increase in skill didn’t transfer over to other areas in life.

Most scientists are skeptical of the idea that brain training has broad benefits across the spectrum, and few brain game companies make that claim. For instance, training your memory won’t make you a better mathematician or give you results in unrelated intelligence areas. But a memory game might make you better at recalling where you left your car keys.

Lumosity is careful not to claim that its games can single-handedly boost intelligence. “We see Lumosity as being one component of a healthy, cognitively active lifestyle alongside other cognitively challenging activities such as reading or physical exercise,” said Lumosity representative Erica Perng. “It’s important to look at what combinations of activities work best for you and your lifestyle.”

Ross’ recovery came about from a lot of speech, physical, and occupational therapy, but she also credits Lumosity’s games with helping get her brain in gear.

“I liken it to oiling a rusty joint,” Ross said. “The door will open faster. I feel like I saw results.” More people are turning brain-teasing challenges as cerebral tune-ups.

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