An In-Depth Guide to Using Brain Training That Actually Works

By on October 3, 2014

Brain plasticity states that our brain can change shape in response to training. That means, that if you sew on a regular basis, you will gradually increase the size of the brain regions responsible for sewing. Likewise, if you are constantly doing maths, the brain areas responsible for short-term memory and abstract reasoning will get stronger. This is due to the proliferation and strengthening of neural connections within the brain, as encouraged by a number of specific neurotransmitters.

In short, the adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is particularly relevant when we’re talking about cognitive skills. Which might lead you to the conclusion that actively training your brain would be a good idea. Thus the ‘brain training’ industry was born, and we found ourselves with hundreds of games like ‘Brain Age’ and ‘Lumosity’ designed to help us practice particular cognitive skills and thus improve our brain power.



I’ve always been interested in nootropics (smart drugs) and the idea of becoming smarter through the use of a supplement or medication. Unfortunately, my experience with them has been mixed and it seems that at best they can give you a boost in energy and focus at the expense of not really knowing what you’re doing to your brain chemistry. Perhaps nootropics are to brain training what steroids are to bodybuilding? And so perhaps brain training is the equivalent of a good workout? Maybe that’s the better way to achieve ‘Limitless’ style brain power…

Does Brain Actually Training Work?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. While brain training is an alluring concept, the research doesn’t quite support the promise.

On the one hand, studies show that using brain training games and products does lead to ‘short term’ improvement in specific abilities. If you play a brain training game that tests your memory for instance, then your memory will perform better whenever you’re in similar circumstances. Play a lot of ‘Memory’ and you will get very good at ‘Memory’ (1).


Sadly though, there’s little evidence to suggest that this improvement can be more widely generalized. In other words, playing that memory game won’t make you particularly good at remembering where you put your car keys or remembering people’s names (2). Moreover, the studies also show that brain training games aren’t really any more effective than a range of everyday tasks (3). Did you know that you can increase the amount of grey matter in your brain simply by practicing juggling? Likewise, did you realize that taxi drivers actually have heavier brains than people in most other careers simply because they have to memorize so many routes?

‘Everyday’ Brain Training

Even ‘non brain training’ computer games are good for things like your reaction time, spatial awareness and visual acuity (4) – all those hours playing Sonic the Hedgehog have been hours well spent. Actually, if I were going to recommend any ‘casual’ game for brain training, it would definitely be Super Hexagon – you can feel your brain growing with that one.


And did you know that the ‘Tetris’ effect – your mind’s eye continuing to ‘play’ Tetris as you’re about to fall asleep (in the ‘hypnagogic state’) – is actually your brain ‘rehearsing’ and strengthening new neural connections. Tetris is ideal brain training if you want to get better at packing suitcases (my fiancé must be playing it secretly). I’ve discussed in another post that the Oculus Rift might be the ultimate tool for brain training games if used correctly in the future.

What are some of the best ‘non brain training’ tasks you can practice in order to train your brain? A few good options include:

  • Learning another language (this one has been shown to prevent the effects of age related cognitive decline, it also gives you more ‘tools’ for manipulating thoughts and having ideas, so is highly effective)
  • Learning to program (more on this in a future post)
  • Taking different routes home
  • Playing chess
  • Playing sports (like tennis)
  • Reading (especially fiction)
  • Exercise (which leads to improved memory and even ‘neurogenesis’ (the birth of new brain cells)

‘Brain training’ means your brain adapts to brain training and that’s pretty much it. If you want your brain to get better at something useful then you should practice that useful thing. Want to be more eloquent and confident in conversation? Have more conversations with strangers. Want to get better at thinking on your feet? Then work in a high-pressured job.

New experiences and novelty generally is also incredibly important as it stimulates the release of neurotransmitters associated with learning and brain plasticity. The take home message? We learn by doing.

The Exception to the Rule: The N-Back Test

That said, there are some forms of brain training that appear to have results that can be generalized. Perhaps the best example is the ‘n-back test’, which has been demonstrated in some studies to marginally improve fluid intelligence by improving short term memory (5).

In this test, you are shown letters in a sequence. Your job then is to say when the letter repeats itself. At first you say when this happens immediately and then as you progress you start saying when the letter repeats itself n number of steps back. In other words, you stop saying when this happens:


And start saying when this happens:


Gradually ‘n’ increases, and you have to look out for more and more steps back. This means you then have to hold the ever-changing string of letters in your mind, while at the same time comparing each one to the new letters as they’re introduced. This then forces you to use your ‘active’ short term memory and that makes it a useful type of ‘neuropsychological training‘.

The dual N-back test meanwhile takes this concept one step further and challenges you to look out for two different elements that may repeat. For instance, the letters might appear in different colours, and your job would then be to point out if the letter repeated or the colour. You’re now multitasking as well, which makes the task even harder.

When you use something like Lumosity or Brain Age, then they should incorporate proven training games like the N-Back test into their roster and dress them up as fun games. Likewise they should challenge you with tasks that you might actually be faced with in everyday life: things like working out change or remembering names.

You can try the dual n-back test at this link.

Ambidexterity Training

I would argue, that another type of brain training that is genuinely useful is ambidexterity training. This is a type of brain training that will lead to the development of a long-term skill that is useful in everyday life (for weight training, for sports, for martial arts…) but moreover, it may also help you to strengthen the communication between the hemispheres of your brain, which could quite possibly help lead to increased creativity. I wrote a blog post on the subject here.

I also created an app. (This was an old one though and doesn’t work on all devices – remember you get a refund if you uninstall within 15 minutes)

Meditation, MindWave and EPOC Headsets

Neurosky’s ‘MindWave’ and Emotiv’s ‘EPOC’ are two headsets that combine EEG sensors with brain training games. What this basically means, is that they measure the electrical activity in your brain in order to see if you’re excitable, calm and relaxed, or somewhere in-between. Doing things like emptying your mind of thoughts can help you to reduce electrical activity, and thus the included games will encourage you to try and do just that.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to have a go with either of these products so I can’t say from first-hand experience whether they work or not. The reviews are better (slightly better for MindWave) than you’d expect suggesting that the devices are at least efficient in recording brain waves to some extent and thus brain activity. Apps involve getting you to ‘concentrate’ on various things, thus potentially improving your ability to focus, but really being more of a fun way of passing the time. Other apps involve cute gimmicks like a media player that plays music dependent on the mood you’re in at the time.

What the devices can’t do is to measure brain activity in specific regions. Thus they can’t give you much insight into what your brain is actually doing and can’t help to make you better at any specific tasks (maths, language, memory etc…). Really at this point then, these devices are not particularly effective as brain training in the conventional sense.

That said, there is value to being able to concentrate and to being able to clear your mind of thoughts. If you can empty your thoughts of stress or focus more on the task in hand, then your performance will improve in any given scenario. Essentially, these are the skills gained from meditation and what something like MindWave is perhaps best viewed as, is a form of ‘biofeedback’ for meditation – a way to get immediate feedback on how well you’re doing at emptying your mind.

But just using conventional meditation will do the same trick. Meditation is essentially simply the process of taking back control of the contents of your thoughts so that you can best harness your brain power and control your emotions. Several studies have shown that regular meditation can improve IQ (6), so this is one more form of brain training that actually works – it’s just not what we generally see marketed as brain training.

If you want to improve your self-control and give your IQ a boost in the process, take up meditation. If you struggle to see results, consider MindWave as a useful tool.

Combining Nootropics and Brain Training

I’ve discussed my experiments with nootropics on this site a lot and if you’ve been a regular reader you’ll know that I don’t advise taking them on a regular basis due to the risk of tolerance (and the fact that the best ones (Modafinil!) are still somewhat mysterious in terms of their mechanisms). The way that I suggest that nootropics could be useful though, is in improving your memory, focus and learning when you really need it – like a laser.

Thus, if you really wanted to improve your memory or your brain plasticity, I might recommend occasionally using something like the N-back test while taking something like CiLTEP (designed to improve long-term potentiation) or Modafinil (to increase focus and memory) in order to get better effects. Only problem is that the amount you have to use brain training would make that pretty much moot.

So, combining brain training and nootropics is an interesting idea, but not one that I really think is viable at this point. To me nootropics are most useful when learning a specific new subject or writing a particularly in-depth article, but are to be used sparingly.

The Limitations of Brain Training

So nootropics and brain training isn’t really viable, using brain training services like Lumosity isn’t going to change your life and n-back training is the only type of brain training backed up by the evidence.

And even the n-back test isn’t going to make a huge difference to your daily life. It’s important to remember that even if you use the dual n-back test every single day for 20 minutes while taking tons of nootropics, you’re hardly going to turn into the guy from Limitless (because that’s what you want really, isn’t it?). Rather, you’re going to very slightly improve your working memory. This meaning, your head might hurt slightly less when you do maths…

So what should you be doing?

Well, I already emphasized the importance of challenging yourself through your everyday activities and by taking on responsibilities and challenges or learning new skills. That should be number one, and you should actively keep pushing your brain in your professional and personal life if you want to keep it growing.

Introducing: Cognitive Simulation Training

But I would also like to propose an alternative type of brain training, which I call ‘Cognitive Simulation Training’. I came up with this idea myself, and the idea is that you train your brain by testing it in the ways that you actually use it in real life, using the power of visualization training (which I’ve also written about).

For instance, to train your sense of direction, your cognitive map and your memory, you might imagine yourself walking to a particular destination you’re unsure of how to get to. You can even try re-tracing old routes you used to walk. How do you get from your Mum’s house to your old school? How do you get from your old flat to your lecture hall at University?

Another thing I like to test is my ability to think quickly and respond to questions with witty answers. One way I do this is by using an old drinking game I used to play: where you go through the alphabet and name a celebrity, band, film or comic book that begins with each letter.

Name a celebrity from television, whose first name begins with the letter H?

Another one is to test your ability to retrieve obscure information, by trying to remember what you had for dinner the night before last (harder than it should be, isn’t it?).

Ultimately, you’re practicing the skills you actually use in real life, in a setting much more similar to the situations you’d actually need them in. In theory then, you might be able to develop better ability to retrieve information from your brain quickly, which would actually be useful – making you more witty and charming in conversation and making you appear more knowledgeable. In short, you might be able to achieve something more similar to what we see in Limitless. Who knows though…

I’m building an app right now that aims to train you in this way. I’ll be testing it myself and then if it works, I’ll publish it and share the results with you guys (if you want to try aspects of this training without waiting for my app, look up the board game ‘Tell Me’, which works in a similar way). This specifically targets the shortcomings of my own brain too. I’m pretty smart when left to my own devices – give me two days and I can come up with a great comeback to your insult… Unfortunately though, I’m also slow and that lets me down in many situations.

For now though? Don’t bother spending lots of money on brain training games. If you want to expand your gray matter, just learn a new skill (a language ideally) or start working harder, then do some meditation and some exercise… For the very serious, the N-Back test, ambidexterity training and

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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