New game promises better brain

By Rob Warren

Nintendo’s latest game for the Nintendo DS promises a better-working brain, but a University professor is skeptical.

The new game, Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, which will be released in the U.S. on April 17, is actually a collection of mini-games. Nintendo designed the games to give brains a workout. The game promises that mental acuity will improve during weeks and months of playing the games.

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“Young or old, everyone looks for ways to get a mental edge,” said Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s executive vice president of sales and marketing. “Our brain-training series, led by Brain Age, builds on the popularity of word and number puzzles and acts as a treadmill for the mind.”

Denise Park, professor of psychology at the University and co-director of the University’s Center for Healthy Minds, is skeptical of Nintendo’s promises and doubts the existence of a mental treadmill.

“There is no evidence that performing these tasks will improve mental ability in other tasks outside of the games,” Park said.

However, the feeling of self-efficacy, or the ability to accomplish the tasks generated by the game, might have real benefits, Park said.

The game first tests a new player in a series of mini-games and assigns a “brain age.” The player then tries to improve scores and times. The game re-evaluates the brain age of the user throughout the user’s play. Players want to get younger brain age scores, because the game developers see older brains as less capable at these tasks.

“The belief that your brain is actually getting younger may be beneficial,” Park said. “If you believe you can do things well, studies have shown you improve.”

Park said users will definitely see improvement within the game itself.

“Whenever you train at a specific task, you will get better at it,” Park said.

The tasks range from simple to complex. One exercise is to count to 120 and another is the Stroop test.

The Stroop test lists a group of words in different primary colors. The tricky part is that all of the words are colors, but not the colors they are written in. Test takers have to name the color the word is written in, not the word itself.

Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day is the first in a series of three Nintendo DS games in Japan. The series is very popular there – each title has sold more than one million copies.

Nintendo did consult a neurologist while designing the game, Ryuta Kawashima. Kawashima’s research involves how reading and mathematic exercises benefit the brain.

“The game isn’t going to do any harm, and it might actually have some small cognitive benefits,” Park said. “I’d like to look at the game and its tasks before I make a decision.”