How does the brain training actually work

Brain Training: What Brain Exercise Really Does

The so-called "brain jogging" business is booming. Companies are always coming up with new exercises, online courses or computer games. Millions of people try to get mentally fit with brain teasers. But can that work? The line between seriousness and charlatanism is difficult to make out

For example, brain training for beginners works like this: Three dots appear on a computer screen. A line appears and connects the first with the second point, kinks and connects the second with the third point. The line disappears after a few seconds. The task now is to trace the path of the line from memory - to do this, the points must be clicked in the correct order with the computer mouse. With three points this is possible without any problems. But at the latest when seven or eight points appear, things get tricky. The lines criss-cross across the screen; the time to memorize the resulting structure is short. When the tangle of lines disappears, you may still remember the first three or four connections - but the rest can no longer be awakened. This exercise, called "Boy Scout", is part of a brain training program that is offered on a website. It is supposed to increase “memory” and “spatial awareness”, as it is called there. Further training tasks consist of finding the right change for an amount of money, solving simple tasks in the basic arithmetic operations, completing series of numbers, comparing patterns, forming a word out of a bunch of letters or assigning color names to each other - without getting confused, that the font color and the meaning of the words usually do not match.

Brain exercises should be fun - and strengthen the thinking organ like a muscle

The task sequences are designed in such a way that the demand increases continuously, and gradually you can also reach higher levels. In arithmetic problems, for example, the numbers are larger and eventually replaced by symbols - so you also have to remember which symbol stands for which number. In the other exercises, the patterns become more complicated and the words you are looking for longer. Boredom should never arise, the brain teaser should be fun. The computer games are not only intended to pass the time - if you believe the provider, they are supposed to work wonders: One website says that they improve the player's thinking speed, concentration, logical thinking and other mental abilities. Overall, daily training can increase “brain performance” by up to 40 percent. This, so asserts the online company, which wants to earn money with a paid “premium offer”, has also been shown in studies by renowned scientists. Exercises for the brain are often recommended, especially for older people: Those who strengthen the thinking organ like a muscle can stop or at least delay the natural decline in mental abilities in old age. Individual memory training in particular helps to stay mentally fit for a long time and to cope better with everyday life. Some providers claim that even the risk of dementia such as Alzheimer's can be reduced through targeted cognitive training.

Brain jogging - a billion dollar business

So it's no wonder that the exercise business is booming. According to market researchers, the turnover of digital brain jogging offers worldwide increased more than sixfold between 2005 and 2013 - from 210 million to 1.3 billion dollars. The manufacturers therefore make good money from the training programs. And they always come up with new offers. There are now online courses and CD-ROMs as well as apps and applications for game consoles. Most of the products work in a similar way to the training program to which the game “Boy Scout” belongs: Different mental abilities are to be strengthened through certain tasks, the level of difficulty adapts automatically to the learning progress. Individual providers also lure customers with the prospect of sharpening their own perception. Accordingly, some exercises are about recognizing certain objects on the screen as quickly as possible or differentiating between tones. And even if you don't feel like doing electronic brain training, you can help the paralyzing mind on the jumps - the classic way with paper and pencil. Books and exercise books offer logic puzzles, puzzles and search games, with which, for example, concentration, memory or spatial thinking are to be improved.

But are the advertising promises of the brain training providers justified? Can general mental abilities such as memory or inferential thinking actually be strengthened in a targeted manner through playful tasks with or without a computer - just like building muscles through strength training? Is the money invested in apps, software or puzzle books just as sensibly? One thing is certain: contrary to what has long been thought, the brain's ability to develop remains intact even in old age. It is true that the intellectual performance of every person diminishes over the years. The brain substance generally shrinks when you get older, the transmission of signals between the nerve cells is noticeably slower, and the whole organ of thought is poorly supplied with blood. Of course, these processes also include those regions that are important for learning, memory or other complex intellectual tasks - for example the prefrontal cortex, which belongs to the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, or the hippocampus in the temporal lobe. The result: Many elderly people find it harder to memorize data and facts, no longer grasp connections as quickly and have greater difficulty storing new knowledge. But even if the brain's overall performance declines, brain researchers have discovered that it remains adaptable and malleable (plastic) for a lifetime. In this way, new nerve cells can sprout even in old age, new connections can form between neurons or even some areas can become larger again. This was demonstrated particularly impressively by brain researcher Eleanor Maguire from University College London in a 2011 study. The neuroscientist, who has been studying human memory for years, examined 79 prospective taxi drivers (many of them over 40). Among other things, she asked the test subjects at the beginning and at the end of their taxi training, which lasted at least three years, to do a brain scan using magnetic resonance imaging, which makes the size and structure of the individual brain areas visible.

Above all, she recorded the respective dimensions of the hippocampus - the region that is largely responsible for episodic memory, in which experienced situations and experiences are stored, but also for large-scale orientation. It turned out that those candidates who had passed all the final exams had significantly enlarged brain matter in the back of the hippocampus - those who dropped out of training or failed the exams, however, did not. This enabled the researcher to convincingly demonstrate that learning - in this case finding your way through London's maze of streets - leads to a structural reorganization of the brain.

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An active cognitive lifestyle can prevent dementia

Thanks to this neural plasticity, even older people can still acquire complex skills, such as learning a new language or a musical instrument (even if one never attains the same level of perfection as someone who started doing it as a child). Studies have also shown: Anyone who has been mentally active for decades in training, work and leisure, who also maintains an intensive social life and remains physically active, seems to enjoy a certain protection against mental decline. Researchers speak of an “active cognitive lifestyle” that can be characterized by simple activities such as listening to the radio, puzzling or visiting museums and possibly even reducing the risk of developing dementia.

The scientists suspect that through lifelong intellectual challenges one can build up a kind of “cognitive reserve” in the brain, a kind of neural cushion. A brain with more and more complex nerve connections can apparently remain functional even if certain failures gradually occur due to aging processes. But to what extent targeted brain teasers are a suitable method to stop or even reverse the mental decline is currently largely unclear.

In recent years, researchers have presented numerous studies in which they check the effectiveness of brain jogging and in some cases also come to positive results. However, their informative value is almost consistently not particularly high. Because a number of studies have simply measured what is already obvious: that the test subjects, provided they practice often enough, can improve the skill with which they master certain tasks.

Anyone who only trusts in brain jogging misses opportunities

Nobody denies that you can improve your performance in games like “Boy Scout” noticeably after a short training session. Instead of just remembering connections between four or five points, after a few runs it is usually possible to trace structures made up of six or seven lines, and those who practice for a long time can often achieve even more. This progress is based on a relatively simple learning process - after a while you see through the structure of the exercise, you know where to focus your attention, develop special strategies to memorize the lines on the screen. However, the question arises as to whether the overall memory performance has increased as a result of the training success.

Anyone who achieves very good performance in a memory game, possibly also doing well in similarly structured exercises, does not automatically remember faces, shopping lists or secret numbers better in everyday life. The scientific proof that individual skills that are acquired through practicing certain brain teasers, for example, can strengthen a general cognitive ability such as memory or reasoning has so far only been partially successful.

After all, many researchers agree that for the training of such skills, especially those tasks are suitable that permanently challenge the mind and in as many different ways as possible. Computer exercises, which always require the development of new strategies, therefore offer greater opportunities to promote the efficiency of the thinking organ than, for example, puzzle formats such as Sudoku, which can be solved largely automatically after a while. However, studies to be taken seriously show that even for small successes you have to practice for a long time.

In an experiment by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, more than 200 test subjects of different ages (half young adults and half over 65 years of age) completed around 100 one-hour training sessions on the computer, the effect of which on certain cognitive performance was measured using standardized tests . Among other things, training was provided with exercises on perception speed, which deal with how quickly a person recognizes shapes or symbols. For example, the participants had to recognize on the screen within milliseconds whether a number is even or odd, a shape symmetrical or asymmetrical.

Another area included tasks that addressed episodic memory, such as the ability to remember sequences of events. For this purpose, the participants should reproduce 36 terms that were shown to them one after the other for a short time as completely as possible and in the same order. In addition, exercises were trained on working memory, which is responsible for the fact that we can combine different information in the mind. One was to determine, for a sequence of points that briefly appear in alternating positions on the screen, whether the current point has appeared in the same position as the three steps before.

Before and after the training phase, in which the participants completed an exercise program on an average of 100 days, the subjects' general cognitive abilities were measured. When comparing the results, the scientists noticed noticeable improvements. In the test persons older than 65, however, the positive effect was significantly less than in the young test persons: An improvement was only detectable in the working memory. And it lasted less long if the exercises weren't followed up. In addition, the effects were only sufficient to compensate for an age-related mental decline of around five years - mental rejuvenation of 20 years, as some brain jogging providers promise, therefore appears completely unrealistic.

Science vs. Brain Training

Indeed, the promises made by the brain jogging industry seem to have been exaggerated. Nobody who takes the time to do a few exercises on the computer every day can expect to increase their IQ, automatically go through life more attentively, more alertly or even rejuvenate the brain as such. With just a few specific training tasks, no one can permanently increase their entire mental strength or even completely prevent age-related mental losses. In October 2014, a group of more than 70 renowned cognitive and neuroscientists from all over the world issued a statement in which they clearly distance themselves from the exuberant promises of brain jogging providers. The statements with which they advertise their products are often exaggerated, sometimes even misleading and highly questionable, according to the experts. Claims that brain training prevents or even combats Alzheimer's dementia are completely out of thin air.

But unlike some useless vitamin preparations, brain teasers can at least do little harm. On the contrary: Many people simply enjoy them, and regardless of how great the effects on mental fitness really are, this aspect should not be underestimated. Because in brain jogging, it may not be the tasks alone that affect the mental state of the players. who
experiences that he can improve with a certain exercise, perhaps feels motivated and gains new self-confidence. This experience alone can lead to older people in particular feeling better able to cope with certain everyday tasks after training.

For some, this can trigger a self-reinforcing development: Those who have more confidence in themselves become more active in other ways and undertake new activities more frequently. He may have the courage to take on a new, challenging hobby. However, those who trust one-sidedly in brain jogging may miss out on much better other opportunities to stimulate their thinking organ even in old age and to use the lifelong plasticity of the neural networks. Because every hour that a person spends alone at home doing exercises on the computer, he could also use it for social contacts, for learning a language or simply for a walk - and so, according to the researchers, do a lot more to maintain his cognitive abilities . True strength training for the mind offered no computer task, no puzzle book. It's just real life out there.