Brain games may help improve willpower and even help with addiction. A study conducted at Maastricht University in the Netherlands set out to see if brain training could help enhance the memory of a group of people researchers called “problem drinkers” and boost their willpower to abstain from alcohol. The drinkers were divided into two groups—one doing 25 challenging sessions of working memory training and the other a control group. “Problem drinkers in the active condition group increased their working memory, which was not the case in the control group,” says study co-author Reinout Wiers, Ph.D., a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Amsterdam, who specializes in the assessment and modification of cognitive processes in addiction. The brain training group also drank less than usual for over a month after the study was over.
“In those problem drinkers where drinking was driven to some extent by automatically triggered appetitive processes, training their brains helped,” adds Wiers—meaning that these drinkers had strong, automatic positive associations with alcohol that increased their “appetite” for a drink. “In problem drinkers where this was not the case, drinking was not affected by training the brain.”
Though it’s not entirely clear, experts have theories as to how this type of brain training can help something as strong (or easily weakened) as willpower. “The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive function—the brain processes involved in planning, impulse control, willpower and abstract thinking,” explains Ballard. “Scientists theorize that brain training games that improve executive control can help reduce automatic impulses and thus improve willpower.”
Better Problem Solving
Want to boost your ability to find creative ways to solve problems? Training your brain can help. A University of Michigan study looked at something called “dual n-back” tasks. “This is when an exercise presents users with a series of visual and auditory stimuli and then challenges them to identify whether these match the ones that were presented a certain number of trials previously,” explains Ballard.
The research revealed that study participants were better able to solve new problems creatively and improved their memory after this training than before. In fact, researchers say they saw improvements in as little as four hours of playing.
Take It With a Grain of Salt
Despite these promising studies, more research needs to be done—and some experts remain skeptical about the power of brain games. “In general, people get better at the tasks that they practice,” says Jessica Grahn, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain and Mind Institute at The University of Western Ontario in Canada, whose peer-reviewed study on the subject appeared in Nature. “In our study, we found that in six weeks of training, people got better at the specific tasks that they practiced, but this did not transfer to other tasks. This was true even for participants who practiced hours and hours each week. We only required a small amount of practice, but participants were allowed to practice as much as they wanted, so some did a lot.”
That said, it can’t hurt to train your brain, especially if you’re having a blast along the way. “Overall, people who enjoy these kinds of games will derive benefits,” says Gyurak. “Just the fun factor alone is an undeniable aspect, so if you enjoy these games you can play them regardless and you may reap these other benefits, too.”
Though study authors couldn’t share which games they used and some aren’t commercially available, here are some sites that offer exercises aimed to train your brain.
Although there’s no prescription for how much play equals progress, go ahead and play the games you like, follow the rules and have fun. Who knows? You might boost your brain power along the way, too.
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