Is brain training really necessary? (Yes, if you’re over 30!)

Recently, I’ve been doing a bit of a reading challenge with a friend. There were several books we both wanted to read, so we decided to read them alongside each other. But the idea didn’t quite go to plan. While my friend devoured each book like a locust, I found myself lagging a little behind. Her secret (aside from not having the distraction of two young children) is brain training, she claims. In her own words, 20 minutes of brain training a day over the past few months has significantly boosted her reading speed, among other things.

Brain training is very in vogue at the moment, particularly for the 30+ age group. Websites and apps claiming to increase concentration, memory and brain processing speed are becoming big business. Scientific proof for their effectiveness is inconclusive, but clearly there are many adults out there who are worried about mental deterioration and want to do something about it.

As the theory goes, there are six specific brain functions that need to be developed: attention, brain speed, memory, people skills, intelligence and navigation. As we get older, brain plasticity, which is the brain’s natural ability to remodel itself throughout life, can be affected by a variety of external factors such as environment, injury, lifestyle and disease. The idea behind many brain-training games is to harness that change across the six categories of your brain and redirect it to improve your “neuroplasticity”.

According to US-based neurologist and neuropathologist Patricio Reyes, founder of BrainHQ, when we’re in our 30s, six core trends begin to affect brain function. Over time, these have noticeable impacts on our memory, thinking and focus. They include:

  1. Brightness – Our brain begins to show signs of getting tired, and we don’t seem as sharp in the mornings.
  2. Speed – Our brain doesn’t work as quickly as it used to. While the speed of information coming in from the senses doesn’t change, our ability to process it slows down.
  3. Accuracy – The brain’s pathways get fuzzier and even distorted. As a result we begin to miss important details.
  4. Recognition – Our understanding and interpretation of situations begins to deteriorate as we get older.
  5. Clarity – Our ability to cancel out background noise weakens as we get older. This is partly due to a loss in our ability to really concentrate.
  6. Recording – Our brain slowly loses its ability to record new information. Learning and remembering becomes harder as we get older.

The scientific proof behind brain training and its effectiveness is inconclusive. While some studies have suggested that regular brain training can boost IQ, other studies have found no marked increase in IQ, stating that people simply get better at playing the games through repetition and familiarity and that these improvements are not transferable to other functional and cognitive skills. But regardless of proof (or lack thereof), there are a huge number of people who buy into brain training.

There are a variety of brain-training websites and apps out there, and if you are interested in giving it a go, here are some of the popular ones:

  • Lumosity is one of the best known with more than 60 million members across the globe. It combines cognitive-science techniques from the Human Cognition Project with a gamified approach to provide users with brain-training mini-games.
  • CogniFit begins with a scientific assessment of a user’s cognitive abilities. After measuring their cognition, it then automatically creates a personalised training programme. The selected tasks and the level of difficulty within those tasks are then dynamically changed based on the user’s needs.
  • Fit Brains offers balanced cognitive stimulation across six major brain areas: focus, memory, speed, logic, visual and language. The system automatically adapts to each user to offer personalised training at appropriate levels for each area of the brain.
  • Eidetic focuses on memory. It uses a technique called “spaced repetition” to help users memorise anything from important phone numbers to interesting words or facts. Eidetic is currently only available on iOS.
  • BrainHQ targets under-functioning or disabled brain systems. Its exercises dynamically adapt to a user’s individual performance, so they’re always working at the right level.

Are you a fan of brain training? If so, do you believe it makes a difference? We’d love to hear some personal anecdotes.

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