Keen to boost your brain? Play chess or read Plato

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Brain training is nothing new. In fact, there is a tradition of mental exercise that goes all the way back to ancient Greece.


Socrates believed that writing weakened the mind. He saw writing as a sort of mental cheat in much the same way that your parents will tell you that they always kept friends’ and relatives’ phone numbers in their heads. They will say that they were mentally sharper than “young people today” and that the world has been going to the dogs ever since the mobile phone was invented. Socrates would probably have had a downer on mobiles too.


Use it or lose it

In the 21st century, brain training has become big business. Fears over Alzheimer’s and dementia and an aging population have made it a multibillion-dollar industry. Revenues are expected to top $6 billion by the turn of the decade under the assumption that you can rewire an aging brain. But it is, when it boils down to it, an industry founded on the simple belief that when it comes to your mental prowess you either use it or lose it.

The idea is that our minds can be beefed up by regular workouts, and that without this sort of exercise they are liable to wither away to nothing. Needless to say, this is an oversimplification, and, even in this simplified treatment, it is a view that is widely challenged.

The debates around brain training are ongoing. On the pro-training side are neuro scientists and, perhaps not surprisingly, the brain training industry. Their claims to increase participants’ scores in measurable tests are made repeatedly in the public domain - not least in their marketing literature. Clearly, they have a vested interest in the discussion, but that in itself should not invalidate their claims. It simply means that they have to be viewed with the sort of detachment that is at the heart of any truly scientific undertaking. Plato might have something to say on this sort of engagement, but that is another matter.

At the mainstream end of the scale there is some evidence that all brain training does is make participants more skilled at dealing with brain-training style puzzles. Their improvement is not in their mental capacity as such. Instead, what their improved scores simply reflect the way they have learned how such games operate. It’s pretty much the same as someone new to poker getting better at playing the game because they’ve started to figure out how it works.

Getting better at weighing the odds of a particular hand of cards will shape how good you are at poker, but calculating how many triangles you are looking at in a visual exercise is in no way connected with how you might negotiate your next pay rise. The crux of the issue is the utility of the skills that brain training brings. Whereas poker makes social as well as cognitive demands on a player - reading “tells” and assessing other people’s intentions - brain training exercises lack this multi-dimensional aspect. When it comes to the real world, the emotional intelligence required to interact successfully, while weighing the odds or seeing the bigger picture, count for a lot more than simply being able to do the math.


Individuality matters

Of course, we are all different. Different personalities will play different games in a different way. Some poker players are more conservative than others, for example. Others are more extravagant. There are even assessment software packages which will predict what type of a player you may be. And it is on the basis of that sort of individual element that generic claims for brain training are bound to get into difficulty. In the most basic terms, we are not all wired in the same way.

This individual focus is brought most sharply into view in therapeutic applications of games and technologies that we might ordinarily see as a more recreational form of brain training. April’s NeuroGaming Conference and ESCoNS summit in San Francisco was brimming with game developers and neuroscientists at the cutting edge of both games technology and medical application. But the technologies on show tended to be highly specific in their applications. Simply boosting brain power was not on the agenda.

For most of us brain training is a pretty casual business. No one has (yet) attributed victory in a political election or success in a commercial venture to their dramatically improved mental power thanks to a brain training program. Those old Charles Atlas muscle-building ads for body builders simply don’t have an equivalent when it comes to brain trainers - and there’s probably a reason for that.

Admittedly, when it comes to mapping the brain function of people with damaged or impaired neural pathways, the combination of a controlled environment and a targeted set of tests and exercises can be tremendously beneficial. There is genuine benefit to be gained from building the sort of neural pathways that games can foster. So there is value in brain training, just maybe not the same value as we tend to get sold.

As for the wider debate about the value of brain training to the rest of us… well that debate is still on-going. Philosophers, games players and even bodybuilders will have their opinions on that. But the chances are that the argument will still be raging in a few hundred years’ time. Let’s just hope there’s someone there to write it down when they do finally get to the answer. In the meantime, the best way to get the most out of your gray matter might be to simply play some poker… or read some Plato.

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