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Why brain-training games don’t work, according to a behavioral scientist

Popular brain games can help you improve at specific tasks, but don’t tend to be especially useful if you’re looking to generally increase mental capacity.

Why brain-training games don’t work, according to a behavioral scientist
[Source image: Ruben Tresserras/Getty Images]

Success is often driven by your ability to solve problems and generate creative ideas. So, it is no wonder that people are looking for ways to increase mental capacity. And lots of companies have stepped into the void to help people improve their mental fitness.

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The analogy behind many of these brain-training activities is athletic training. If you want to improve your physical performance, there are exercises you can do that improve your overall fitness. Long-distance running, for example, can benefit your ability to do other activities that requires endurance, like cycling. Lifting weights can enhance your strength, making you better at many other sports that require strength.

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t seem to work the same way. There simply aren’t ways in which to train general mental capacities that will improve your performance at a variety of other tasks. Brain-training games often give you logic puzzles, lists of things to remember, or tasks that force you to pay attention. If you play those games, you will get better at them. But, the improvements you get from those games end up being specific. That is, you get better at the game and at things that are like the game. But, you don’t get better at thinking in general.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you can do to improve your mental abilities, though. It just means that brain games aren’t the route to getting there.

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To see why, it is important to recognize that psychologists distinguish between two kinds of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. (I hate these terms, but those are the names the field settled on, so we’re stuck with them.) Fluid intelligence reflects basic psychological mechanisms that influence your performance. For example, working memory is the amount of information you can hold in mind at once. People with a high working-memory capacity are typically better at solving complex problems than people with low working-memory capacity.

These basic mechanisms are important aspects of the cognitive architecture that support good thinking. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any exercises you can do that improve them. So, brain games that aim to improve working-memory capacity do not actually affect working-memory capacity, generally. Instead, people develop good strategies to play the game itself in ways that don’t benefit thinking more broadly.

Crystallized intelligence reflects the results of your life experience. After reading this article, for example, you will know about the concept of working memory. That knowledge becomes part of your crystallized intelligence. Similarly, problem-solving skills you learned in school or on the job become part of your cognitive repertoire.

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Your crystallized intelligence continues to grow throughout your life. The knowledge and skills you have make you better able to address new situations. Creative people tend to have a broad base of knowledge that enables them to find analogies between things they have encountered before and new situations that enable them to find new solutions to hard problems.

So, you can make yourself smarter, but not by playing games that purport to increase your fluid intelligence. Instead, you want to build that crystallized intelligence. Read books on a variety of topics, find podcasts in areas you don’t know much about, and go to lectures, or take classes that expand your knowledge and skills. The more you know and the more you can do, the better able you will be to address challenges deftly.

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