Are Brain Training Games A Valid Way To Become Better At Your Job?

Game-oriented brain training is a growing area, but does it help build leaders? The experts weigh in.

Can video games make you better at your job?

It may seem like a hopeful adolescent idea, but researchers are finding that quality time with games could help build some important skills.

A 2013 Duke University study found that people who regularly play video games capture more information for quick decision-making. At Queen Mary University of London and University College London, researchers did a small 2013 study finding that video games involving strategy can help improve strategic thinking. And plenty of companies are cropping up claiming to be able to help us use a variety of games and puzzles to improve memory and attention.

While all of these qualities are important to leadership, can games help you become a better leader? Despite a great deal of activity in this area, the answer isn’t clear.

“I think we have enough evidence to suggest that there are a number of subset skills associated with leadership that can be enhanced through some sort of neuro-enhanced training,” says Chris Berka, co-founder of Advanced Brain Monitoring, Inc., a Carlsbad, California, company that develops physiological monitoring devices, including brain monitoring devices.

The Creativity Link

Berka points to virtual reality training programs used by the U.S. Army and Navy to prepare members for missions. But when it comes to applying that training to leaders, she thinks some things are still best done in a classroom setting or with face-to-face interaction. She thinks creativity, on the other hand, can be greatly enhanced by virtual reality training.

“The whole idea of virtual reality is you can do anything. You can fly. The Navy is using it very creatively to train radar operations where you have a lot of complex physics and math [using 3-D graphics],” she says.

Isolating the Right Skills

Tanya Mitchell, vice-president of LearningRX says the answer starts with isolating the skill sets that are lacking and then identifying the best training options to suit them. Her company and its franchisees use in-person training exercises to improve cognitive skill.

She says “good brain training is a lot like good sports training,” meaning that it’s very intense, perhaps having people do four or five things at once in a very short time. For example, a student might be shown a design briefly, then given pieces and have to recreate it while counting to the beat of a metronome.

She says her company works with many people who are falling behind in the workplace because they can’t perform as well as others. Improving cognitive issues can often give people greater confidence, which can cultivate greater leadership ability.

LearningRX brain training is designed to get them back in mental shape, testing areas like processing, logic and reasoning, and memory and choosing training exercises that target those areas, Mitchell says. The company reports that it takes roughly 90 hours of training to see changes in the brain and, in its 2011 data, reported an average gain of 13 IQ points in subjects age 19 to 55 after their brain training program.

Movement Is Important

Dr. Jon Lieff, a neuropsychiatrist who has spent more than three decades exploring the mind and how it functions is skeptical about how well games work in brain training. There are factors that affect neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and alter itself, which is a component in learning new things.

For example, a March 2014 study from the University of Chicago found that children who were taught to use hand gestures and pointing while solving mathematical equations learned the underlying principals better than those who were taught other ways.

A French study published in the September 2013 edition of Behavioral and Brain Functions found that high jumpers who added movement to their visualization had 10% more success than those who visualized without motion, he says.

These studies may indicate that when movement and other factors are added to visualization and learning they increase the complexity of the neural circuits and can have a great impact through increased neuroplasticity.

But, the reality is that no one has been able to figure out in a lab how leaders are developed or how people make decisions—or to even get people to agree on the concrete attributes of a leader, he says. So, the concept of developing games that will help is fuzzy, at best. Instead of spending time playing games, he recommends introspection to discover the areas in which you’re weak and focus developing those. And the best things you can to do to help yourself learn? That’s easier to answer.

“Exercise, sleep, and meditate, and eat good food,” he says.

[Image: Flickr user Sam Howzit]

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