As a sure sign that cognitive improvement games have gone mainstream, Nicole Kidman has been announced as the new face of Nintendo’s latest ‘brain training’ title.
The idea that mental training will actually help boost your mental skills is relatively new.
It was traditionally thought that the mind and brain just start losing their edge after young adulthood and your best hope was to learn to use your remaining resources more effectively as you age.
However, studies started to appear in the late 1990s suggesting that practicing certain tasks could act as a sort of ‘mental workout’, actually improving mental abilities directly in people with disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.
Most people weren’t fully convinced of the benefits in healthy older people until a key study was published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association that showed modest but reliable improvements, even after five years.
The effects were typically small (often too small to be picked up without standard tests), but interestingly, the training also had a knock-on effect on the participants’ ability to look after themselves effectively on a day-to-day basis.
It seems that cognitive training may have a stronger effect in people with mental impairments. A recent review of 17 studies found a positive effect on mental abilities, everyday activities and mood in people with Alzheimer’s.
However, as far as I know, no controlled trials have ever been published on any off-the-shelf ‘brain training’ game, including Nintendo’s. You’d guess from the medical literature that they might have a similar effect, but it’s yet to be shown for sure.