Myth Busting Brain Training: What the Latest Brain Research Tells Us

drawing of brain

In an era where the aging population seeks to maintain cognitive sharpness, the allure of brain training has never been more potent. Many embark on these digital quests hoping to stave off cognitive decline, yet skepticism abounds. Can these games truly fortify our mental faculties, or are they merely digital snake oil? This intrigue brings us to the forefront of cognitive neuroscience, where the pioneering research of Dr. Ryuta Kawashima – one of the most renowned Neuroscientists in Japan who supervises Nintendo’s Brain Training Game Franchise – at Tohoku University, shines a light on the veracity of brain training efficacy.

The Hope and Hype of Brain Training

Across the globe, individuals turn to brain training games buoyed by the promise of enhanced memory, quicker reasoning, and sharper attention. This isn’t merely wishful thinking; it’s a pursuit grounded in the belief that our brains, regardless of age, can be molded, strengthened, and even rejuvenated through targeted exercises. The market for such apps is burgeoning, fueled by an aging population eager to keep their cognitive faculties in peak condition.

A Critical Perspective

Yet, for every testimonial touting the benefits of brain training, there’s a voice of skepticism. Critics argue that while these games may improve performance on specific tasks, this mastery seldom translates to overall cognitive improvement in daily life. Such criticism is not unfounded; numerous studies have questioned the generalizability of these gains, suggesting that while users may get better at the games themselves, the benefits don’t necessarily extend beyond the screen.

Distinguishing Meaningful Brain Training

Enter Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, whose research endeavors to delineate meaningful brain training from mere entertainment. According to Dr. Kawashima, not all brain trainings are created equal. His research identifies the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex’s activity as a critical marker for meaningful brain training. This area of the brain, associated with executive functions such as problem-solving, planning, and impulse control, becomes particularly engaged during challenging cognitive tasks.

“The key is increased blood flow in the prefrontal cortex, indicating that the brain is being adequately challenged and stimulated,” says Dr. Kawashima. This neural activation signifies that the game is sufficiently challenging, pushing the brain to adapt and strengthen. However, it’s this very challenge that can render meaningful brain training games less immediately gratifying than their less-demanding counterparts. They require effort, concentration, and, at times, can evoke the same frustration one might experience while studying for a difficult exam.

What Works and What Doesn’t

The variability in brain training efficacy can also be attributed to individual differences. What improves cognition in one person may not have the same effect in another, underscoring the personalized nature of meaningful brain training. This notion is pivotal for retirees and their families seeking cognitive enrichment through these digital platforms. The key, as Dr. Kawashima’s research suggests, lies in selecting games that stimulate the prefrontal cortex, thereby offering a genuine cognitive workout rather than mere entertainment.

Practical Advice for Selecting Brain Training Games

For those navigating the vast sea of brain training options, the advice is clear: seek out games designed to challenge higher brain functions. These tasks might involve executive function, problem-solving, or memory exercises that require active engagement and adaptation. While these games might not be as immediately enjoyable as they’re simpler counterparts, their potential to foster genuine cognitive improvement is much greater. 

Conclusion: Embracing Challenge for Cognitive Growth

As we age, the quest to maintain cognitive vitality becomes increasingly paramount. Dr. Ryuta Kawashima’s research offers a beacon of hope, distinguishing between the fleeting satisfaction of easy wins and the deeper, more enduring benefits of genuine cognitive challenge. For retirees and their families seeking to navigate the promises and pitfalls of brain training, the message is clear: embrace the games that push you, that make you think, and, yes, even those that frustrate you. In the challenge lies the path to cognitive enhancement, a journey not just of the mind but of the brain’s remarkable capacity to grow, adapt, and thrive.

In summary, as we consider brain training’s potential to enhance our cognitive landscape, let us be guided not by the allure of quick fixes but by the science that illuminates the path to true mental fitness. Dr. Kawashima’s research is a testament to the power of targeted, challenging cognitive exercise to not just entertain, but to fundamentally enhance our cognitive capabilities.


Brain Sciences | Free Full-Text | Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex Activity during a Brain Training Game Predicts Cognitive Improvements after Four Weeks’ Brain Training Game Intervention: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial (

Cognitive Health and Older Adults | National Institute on Aging (

A Large-Scale, Cross-Sectional Investigation Into the Efficacy of Brain Training – PMC (

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