Brain Games Versus Nature Documentaries

Brain games may not be as effective at boosting mental capacity as people hope.

It seems brain-training games—online tests, quizzes, games, or flash cards designed to improve attention, memory, creativity, and concentration—are everywhere. But do they work? A recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE says … maybe not. (Learn about the brain.)

When researchers tested employees of the Australian Taxation Office to see if brain games boosted their mental capabilities, it turned out that workers who watched nature documentaries instead fared better on tests measuring language skills (as well as quality of life and self-esteem).

Cate Borness, a graduate researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney,Australia, tested 135 Australian public-sector employees on their productivity, stress, cognitive functions, and overall quality of life to get baseline performance levels.

Then she and her colleagues randomly assigned them to either a test group that underwent 16 weeks of short brain-training sessions using Happy Neuron software, or a control group that spent 16 weeks watching short nature documentaries and answering brief questions about them (to prove they'd watched the videos). The short clips were taken from National Geographic’s video website.

Watch one of the documentaries, the Okavango Delta.

Members of the control group—the "active control"—were assigned a task like watching the documentaries to ensure that any benefits seen from the brain-training app weren't simply because the control subjects were bored while the test subjects' brains were firing on all cylinders.

Nature and Language

"We didn't find a huge impact in terms of the cognitive training program," Borness said. But, oddly enough, the group that watched the documentaries left the study with statistically significant benefits.

The nature video group said that their stress had gone down, their quality of life had increased, and—according to tests that Borness and her colleagues gave both groups—their language skills had improved. (Read “Beyond the Brain” in National Geographic magazine.)

That could be because the videos and short questionnaires were language-based, Borness said. "You're listening to a video and then answering questions about it."

The brain-training games, on the other hand, were designed to improve multiple measures of intelligence and cognitive function; only about 20 percent of the games emphasized language skills.

One such game involved users having to fit words into boxes such that the last letter of a word was also the first letter of another word. The language-game players did see a slight increase in their language skills, but not nearly as much of an increase as the video watchers.

In the paper, Borness speculates that this could be because the games focused on language only a fifth of the time, with other games dedicated to memory, attention, reasoning, and more. Yet those games didn't produce any measurable effects in the test population.

Brain games like these could still be useful for some people, Borness said. "The product may be questionable in its efficacy, [but] I think part of the problem is not doing enough of it to have an effect." However, she added, "we haven't figured out what is 'enough.'"

Despite the results of the study, Borness says she herself is still a user of brain-training games. "I think they're fun. I'm one of those people who can't do nothing, so I get on my phone and play games." (Check out National Geographic’s Brain Games.)