Playing games with your mind

Video game companies claim they can sharpen the minds and increase the memories of gamers

Aleta Gruenwald and gaming store 4 Colour 8 Bit owner Nicholas Chan play Big Brain Academy.
Aleta Gruenwald and gaming store 4 Colour 8 Bit owner Nicholas Chan play Big Brain Academy.

Parents have spent decades telling their kids that TV and video games will fry their brains. But recently, companies such as Nintendo are trying to turn the “bad for your brain” stereotype around.

Nintendo’s “Brain Age” and “Brain Age 2” video games, released in the past two years, are changing the face of video games. Rather than frying your brain, these new games claim to make it stronger.

“Brain Age” has been advertised on Nintendo’s website as a tool for training the brain and testing the memory with simple games of numbers, matching and memory recall.

The games require players to solve math problems, recite piano songs and play challenging versions of familiar games such as rock, paper, scissors and concentration.

At the end, the game assesses the age of the player’s brain so that each time, the player is working towards a more youthful mental age.

Michelle Chu, CompSci ’10, said she starting playing these games when she tried a friend’s game and thought it was interesting.

“It does make you use your brain more than other games,” she said.

Chu said the game challenged her mental math skills by getting her to do mathematical problems in her head, but she couldn’t see it having much effect on her memory.

“It doesn’t really help as much in remembering long term,” she said.

Chu said the number the game attributes to your mental capactiy definitely provides an incentive to play and improve your brain age, but she can’t see it reflecting an actual improvement in her mental abilities.

“The skills that they test in the game are sort of simple so it wouldn’t improve my performance in class or anything.”

Nancy Huynh, Comm ’08, has played the game “Big Brain Academy” but didn’t have any realistic expectations to improve her mind.

“It was definitely for fun. I really enjoy playing mini games on a console,” she said. “I wasn’t really trying to get any smarter.”

Huynh said she eventually beat the game, but in the end, all she had had really accomplished was killing several hours in front of the game.

“It tells you how heavy your brain is,” she said. “The way they showed your results was in five different aspects. I had maxed them all out.”

While younger generations have been trying out video games to keep their minds sharp, many less technical versions of memory and brain training exercises have been in retirement homes for years.

Denise Babcock, program manager at Briargate Retirement Living Centre in Kingston, said memory games are certainly a part of the seniors’ exercises.

“We use things like memorizing words and word associations,” she said.

“Reciting nursery rhymes helps the memory.” Keeping the mind fresh is all about stimulation for the brain’s thought processes, Babcock said.

“I think any type of stimulation is important to keep the mind active.”

Babcock said technology itself can often be a barrier to the exercises when it comes to video game versions of memory games.

“A lot of time when you’re using new technology when working with older people you have to teach them how to use the machine itself and then do the actual brain game,” she said.

But several retirement homes have been making some of the latest technologies in gaming available to their seniors.

Kingsdale Chateau in Kingston, for one, has introduced Wii bowling and golfing to its retired residents to keep both their bodies and minds active.

Psychology professor Brian Butler said video games may not be the best way to train the mind and improve memory.

“The biggest problem with these games that are meant to exercise your mind is that they only exercise the ideas involved in those games,” he said.

Butler said memory is made up of millions of ideas that are all interconnected.

“What you have are idea units. It’s as if memory consists of different chunks and their connections,” he said.

With all these random pieces of information and links between them, Butler said the memory is “remarkably like the Internet.”

The connections, or links, are how we remember, Butler said.

“Ideas are connected in a very haphazard way and this actually becomes very powerful.”

Butler said we have millions of units of memory but one idea is never too far from another memory.

“Four or five connections will connect most of the ideas in your memory,” he said. “It means ideas are really accessible.”

People lose their memory when those connections begin to come undone, Butler said.

“The games will only be useful if they start reinforcing the connections that are already there.”

Butler said video games, like any other activity that gets you thinking, are still useful.

“The more you think about things and are making connections, the more it gets you thinking about other things,” he said.

So playing video games can remind people of other things in their lives to indirectly reinforce memory. There are better ways for people to fully engage and exercise their minds, though, Butler said.

“You need something to more broadly exercise the mind—and that’s reading,” he said.

Butler said reading and understanding the material is also the best way for students to help keep their minds and memories sharp for tests.

“You read the book, pay attention to the lectures and try to understand everything. As soon as you understand things, you know how they’re connected,” he said.

Butler’s not sure if video games really help strengthen our minds outside of the games themselves, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play them.

“I don’t think they’ll help student’s memories, but they also won’t do anything bad.”

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