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Thu, 30 Mar 2017

Do brain training puzzles work?

In the last few years, there have been a couple of notable shifts in the puzzling world.

The first, of course, was the launch of sudoku in 2004 and the massive interest in sudoku in particular and puzzles in general that was caused as a result of that phenomenon. It is well documented that for the first year or two certain sudoku titles that were released sold in massive quantities, and newspapers couldn't add sudoku to their pages fast enough.

The second, lesser, shift has been in the way that the word 'brain training' is now associated with many puzzles, and a variety of claims of differing strength that surround these products from quite strong claims to weak claims.

An example of a weak claim would be that undertaking a certain puzzle or set of puzzles helps to keep your mind active and might help improve your skills. A much stronger claim would be a definitive statement that if you do brain training game x, then there will be a categorical improvement in - let's say - your performance in a test that examines your ability to perform a wide range of different problems; in other words more brain training = more brain power.

So which sort of claims are true - the weak, the strong, all, none?

There have been several surveys and a reasonable amount of research done into brain training puzzles and the general task of doing a puzzle repeatedly for a short period of time each day for a month or more, and then seeing whether this increases performance or not.

The BBC did a fairly large study of this kind and concluded that there was no boost in brain power:

If that is true, then it seems that the strong claim about keeping your mind fit and healthy and increasing your cognitive abilities in general is at best unproven.

But this does not mean the games should be dismissed entirely. What is known, and this is how much learning works, is that practice improves your performance. So if you do a lot of mental arithmetic puzzles, then you will get better at mental arithmetic, and so on.

In this way by doing several different types of puzzles, you can develop your skills in those areas, and improving your maths or spatial awareness for instance have many practical benefits. And when you think about it, this is probably what makes sense anyway: it is not an intuitive piece of logic to associate practicing maths with becoming a linguistic genius or solving quick crosswords with a gradual transformation into a razor-sharp logician anyway.

The bottom line is that puzzles are first and foremost a fun activity that can be a cheap, relaxing and satisfying hobby. It is enjoyable to tackle a puzzle and solve it, and it is enjoyable and satisfying to see your ability and the speed at which you can solve a class of puzzle improve over time.

If you are doing puzzles and having fun, then really that should be all that matters. And over time you will improve your ability at that particular puzzle. You may learn new things too: solving crosswords can be a great way to expand your vocabulary, and learn useful general knowledge facts too (for instance when you need to look up a reference to a play or historical figure in a general knowledge crossword), and solving mini-liguistic problems as when cracking a cryptic clue.

In summary, the jury is out as to whether there will be knock on cognitive benefits to other areas of brain function and performance too, but this should not distract from your enjoyment of puzzles!
Date written: 23 Nov 2010

Category: brain training

Keywords: brain training

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