The latest fitness trend is games for your brain.
To quote Mick Jagger from “Mothers Little Helper,” “What a drag it is getting old.” Well, it doesn’t have to be, at least when it comes to your brain, according to a group of pioneering neuroscience companies working in the developing field of “mind games” designed to make your brain think faster, sharper, clearer, better.
Most of the popular brain fitness programs are served up as apps, which seem to split the skull’s grey matter into two different camps - memory (Eidetic, Brain Fitness Pro, Brain Trainer Special) and anxiety reduction (ReliefLink, Positive Activity Jackpot, Happify). Lumosity offers up three games that address a cornucopia of brain training for memory, attention, problem solving, processing speed, and flexible thinking improvements. Lumosity tracks your progress, and compares it with others who also play the games. After all, competition makes the world go round, right?
Personal Zen has you follow animated characters who are calm and friendly because you are NOT calm and friendly, and desperately need to calm your crazy ass brain down. PZ trains you to lower your anxiety and focus on the bright side of life, versus the dark side of the moon.
The effectiveness of all these games is still very much up for debate in the neuroscience community. “Almost all the marketing claims made by all the companies go beyond the data,” Murali Doraiswamy, M.D. and Director of the neurocognitive disorders program at Duke Institute for Brain Sciences told The New York Times. “We need large national studies before you can conclude that it’s ready for prime time.”
There is one thing about the brain game industry that’s not debatable – it’s now big business, estimated to top $1.3 billion in sales this year alone. As the American elderly population continues to grow, thanks to the expanding number of Baby Boomers entering retirement, this nascent industry will only get bigger and bigger.
Given the fact that I live in a very stressful environment – New York City- I signed up with the mind game Happify to become, well, less stressful and happier. After Happify asked me a slew of questions – am I married, do I have kids, what’s my job situation, and how do I feel about myself – Happify put me, and my Happify community that supports me, on a “track” to “reduce stress and resistance, improve your mindset and feel better about your life.” First, Happify encouraged me to give gratitude for things in my life by having me fill in, daily, well, what I’m grateful for. Another section, called “Uplift” featured balloons soaring into the air and I was asked to click positive words such as “joy” “hug” and “bliss” versus negative ones – “prickly,” “sad” and “clash.” The idea, I think, was to for me rewire my thought process to always be more positive. Another section that I visited is called “Serenity Scene” which offered up various depictions of calming water – soft ocean waves, waterfalls, and mists – to calm me down. Here’s the crazy thing. The floating balloons and soothing water scenes actually worked because they were able to take my mind off my worries and made me present “in the moment” of peaceful, calming environments.
Here’s the bottom line question on everyone’s mind - do mind games really work and make our brains better, or are they just another form of snake oil science? The scientific jury, unfortunately, is still out. Where one study shows improvement in memory or cognitive skills, a follow up study can’t reproduce the results. “I’m not convinced there is a huge difference between buying a $300 subscription to a gaming company versus you yourself doing challenging things on your own, like attending a lecture or learning an instrument,” Doraiswamy said in an interview with Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times. “Each person has to personalize for themselves what they find fun and challenging and what they can stick with.”
The final answer, it appears, may well lie with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), which is now reviewing several mind games for FDA approval. So stay tuned, and in the mean time, try to avoid getting too down on yourself for getting old.