This brain exercise developed by real scientists actually works
You have probably seen advertisements (like that) on TV for brain games that promise to make you more precise, focused, and help preserve your cognition as you age. Although clever ads lead you to believe otherwise, none of these are proven effective according to an in-depth study published last year in the journal Psychological science in the public interest.
But now Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that an exercise, used to test a subject’s working memory, can actually improve brain power. And how do we know this? The results were published in the ridiculously trustworthy Cognitive improvement journal. It is important to note that using this exercise does not increase IQ, but it does Is improves working memory, which can help one excel at many work and school related tasks.
Working memory is part of short-term memory. We use it often when we are faced with new information that we need to start using immediately. It is believed to be associated with their numeracy and literacy skills.
Improved working memory can increase productivity at work or school. Credit: Getty Images.
“People say cognitive training works or doesn’t work. We’ve shown that the type of training you do matters,” said lead author Dr. Kara J. Blacker. “This task seems to show the most consistent results and the biggest impact on performance and should be the one we focus on if we are to improve cognition through training.” It’s the first exercise shown to improve cognition.
While other methods have failed, Dr Blacker and his colleagues have assumed that the idea of brain training per se is not fundamentally wrong. The fault lies in the actual exercises used in such programs. Dr Blacker and his colleagues decided to look at two of the most common exercises used in brain studies to test working memory.
They recruited 136 young adults and subjected them to a battery of tests, to obtain a baseline of their working memory, cognitive abilities and intelligence. They also read their brain activity with an EEG machine, as a preliminary measurement as well as at the conclusion of the study.
The two exercises tested are called “double n-back” and “complex span”. In the double n-back, a player sees a series of blue squares on a gray background. These appear in one of the eighth locations on the screen. Each time a square appears, the game says a letter. A participant must remember which letter he heard one, two or more steps back. In other words, they have to remember the sequence as it is built. The game becomes more and more difficult over time.
In a complex period, players must remember a sequence of red squares. These are projected onto a four by four grid. Distraction occurs intermittently between the squares. But participants don’t have to continually come back to things they have in mind, as they do with double n-back.
Cortical areas of the brain. Credit: OpenStax College – Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions website. Wikipedia Commons.
Participants began by playing one of the three games in the lab. The first cohort played double backs, the second at complex intervals, and a third at a neutral game, as they served as a control group. Then the volunteers were sent home with their particular game for training. 30 days later, they returned.
Those in the dual n-back group showed a 30% improvement in working memory. This is almost double what the complex span group had. Double n-back participants also showed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for executive function and higher learning.
Study co-author Dr Susan Courtney said: “The results suggest that this particular task changes something in the brain. She added, “There’s something about the sequencing and updating that really taps into the things that only the prefrontal cortex can do, the real world problem-solving tasks.”
The next step the researchers will take will be to understand exactly how double n-back improves working memory. They will also look at how to make the game marketable, possibly even clinically useful. “We can’t just jump on a video game and expect it to cure all of our cognitive issues,” Courtney said. “We need more targeted interventions.
To try it out for yourself, take a look at this: