"Your brain is in its 60s," Ryuta Kawashima announced. The disembodied head of the neuroscientist from Tohoku University in Japan wagged on the Nintendo screen and admonished: "If your brain is older than you, you should take note!"

Miffed, this 34-year-old biophysics Ph.D. candidate decided to do something about it. I would train my brain daily.

With many studies emphasizing the benefits of mental exercise for cognitive health, I knew I was not alone in my quest for a sharper mind. A 2002 federally funded study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for one, found that regular practice improved reasoning and memory in older adults. And, given the number of electronic puzzles and games arriving regularly on the market, companies are more than willing to help. To date, Nintendo has sold more than five million copies of brain games in Japan alone.

But what are they like to use? To find out, I decided to try out three new releases--all of which tout themselves as having been designed with the aid of scientists: Nintendo's Brain Age, Learning Enhancement Corporation's BrainWare Safari, and CyberLearning Technology's SmartBrainGames.

Let the Games Begin
Nintendo, king of thumb-reflex games such as Mario Bros., has long targeted teenagers who have the speed of a mongoose. But in April 2006, Nintendo unveiled Brain Age, a nifty game for adults that more reasonably requires only that we scribble with a plastic stylus. Brain Age ($19.99; Nintendo DS controller, $129.99) is the American cousin of Brain Training, which rocketed to popularity in Japan in 2005.

Brain Training was the brainchild of Kawashima, professor of neuroscience at Tohoku. His concept: your brain has an age of its own, independent of your body. If you do not use it, it gets old; if you do, it gets younger. The object of the game is to get your own brain age as low as possible. The ultimate goal is a brain age of 20. (Presumably people did not like being told they had the mind of a 13-year-old.) The controller calculates your score on various games and places you on a curve Kawashima obtained from testing real people ages 20 to 70.

The controller folds out to resemble the dashboard of a small spaceship. To play Brain Age, however, you turn it sideways so it resembles a book. The touch-sensitive screen recognizes nearly illegible handwriting. As you write, speakers produce a pleasing raspy sound, as of a quill pen on parchment.

When FedEx delivered my advance copy, I eagerly jammed in the cartridge. Kawashima's visage appeared on the left screen, guiding me through a preliminary brain checkup: a Stroop test. I was presented with the words black, blue, red and yellow in those colors--except that black was sometimes red and yellow was blue. (When you try to combine a routine, automated task, such as recognizing a color, with one that demands conscious attention, such as being able to name the word as red even if the type is black, the result is interference, or the Stroop effect. The phenomenon was first observed in the 1930s by John Ridley Stroop.) As instructed, I spoke the words aloud, careful not to let the colors distract me. The controller interpreted my voice.

After I got the irritating news that my brain was at an age when many people are contemplating retirement, I progressed to daily training: quick arithmetic, reading aloud from classic books (Kawashima trusts you to be honest about when you turn the page), picking numbers out of a cloud of twirling, sliding decoys.

After what I thought was an awesome performance, Kawashima declared that my brain age was 51. "This is a wake-up call! I fear your brain is asking you for help!" Furious, I raced through the math exercises, glared at the lists of words for memorization, and counted numbers until my frontal lobes began to radiate heat through my forehead. "Hmm," Kawashima mused. "Your brain seems to be a little tired, doesn't it?"

It sure was the next morning. I had made the mistake of training my brain late at night and had set my cranium buzzing so fast it would not let me sleep. Over the next week, I practiced hard (in the mornings) and worked my brain age down. Of course, as with any video game, once I learned certain tricks, which had nothing to do with intelligence, my score improved. During an activity called Calculations X 100, for example, as the problems scrolled up the screen, I found I could look ahead and solve the next problem as my hand automatically wrote the previous answer.

On the third day Kawashima surprised me. "Draw a giraffe," he ordered. Then: "Africa." Next, to humiliate me, he showed me a real giraffe and a real map of Africa. "Drawing objects from memory activates your prefrontal cortex!" As my scores improved, I was able to unlock new and more interesting games. Brain Age also allows multiple users; my fiance insisted on playing, and we competed. She is a veterinarian and draws a mean giraffe. But her soft voice gave the controller trouble and slowed her on the Stroop test. "My brain age is 70!" she wailed. Unfortunately for my flagging sense of pride, that did not last long. She soon scored "younger" than I, and the brain age arms race was on.

After a week of exercises such as Low to High, Calculations100, and Head Count, were my synapses any slicker? It is hard to say, when there is no external yardstick against which to measure progress. But one week into brain training, while taking a phone message, I found I could effortlessly hold one 10-digit number in my head and scribble down another. Maybe Kawashima is onto something.

Heart of Smartness
When you hold information like a phone number in your head, you are using short-term memory, a key tool that the brain uses in processing speech. Short-term memory also comes into play in another learning game I tried, because it is a problem area for many people who struggle with mental disabilities. "I see children, adolescents and adults with various conditions all the way through cognitive dysfunction to brain injury," says Patricia Chunn, a clinical speech pathologist. "For many of these people, the biggest problem is memory." Chunn is scientific adviser to Learning Enhancement Corporation, a Chicago-based company. In July 2005 LEC released BrainWare Safari, software that is designed to improve cognition and memory in children ages six to 12. Safari, like Brain Age, knits logic puzzles and memory challenges into a gamelike setting. In Safari, however, the quest is for an older brain. You choose an animal--a monkey, jaguar, parrot or bear--who starts off as a toddler. The goal as you complete levels is to help your avatar friend grow up to be an adult, with business suit and briefcase.

To use Safari, you must connect to the Internet. My trial user name and password were registered to my editor. I did not realize this mattered until I chose Moby Monkey and finished my first task, picking out a geometric shape that did not fit in a lineup. Moby skittered onto the screen in his diapers. "Good for you, Mariette!" Then he scampered back into the bush. My first thought: "I have to get that primate out of those ridiculous Pampers pronto." My second: "I fail any of these tests, at least it won't be me who looks dumb."

It is difficult to imagine what the average cyber-savvy eight-year-old would think of Safari's somewhat clunky graphics. The home screen is a Peruvian panorama with volcanoes, Inca ruins, llamas and various jungly inhabitants depicted in bright colors. As you move your cursor around, cartoon blurbs pop up, challenging you to take tests such as Volcanic Patterns and Piranha Pass. In the center is the Safari Lodge, where I went to check how many tests remained before I could get Moby into some trousers. I quickly identified what did not belong inside the Andean hut: the Safari Guide, an explorer in khaki with a bristly mustache.

Shown a string of colored boxes and instructed to click five times to the beat before repeating the sequence, I belatedly realized there was a soundtrack. I found that recalling colors was much harder if I first had to match the rhythm. "Clicking forces [the processing task] into short-term memory," Chunn says.

Safari ($349 for the first user, $200 for the second, $150 for others) was carefully planned and is under constant revision: psychologists, vision therapists and speech pathologists advise the designers. Positive reinforcement is relentless. "You have succeeded at this challenge! You should be very proud!" The comments from the animated characters quickly became too much, and I turned the sound off. But it is important to children, says Betsy Hill, LEC's chief operating officer. "They get so excited when their character changes or the fireworks go off." LEC plans to introduce a version for adults soon. BrainWare Vegas, anyone?

Get Your Motor Runnin'
Research also provides the foundation for SmartBrainGames, made by CyberLearning Technology in San Marcos, Calif. Compared with Brain Age and BrainWare Safari, SmartBrainGames feels like pure play--although it, too, is play with a purpose. It is intended for children with attentional difficulties or patients recovering from brain injuries such as concussions. The user plays a racing game on a Sony PlayStation while wearing electrodes to monitor brain waves. The object is to keep your brain waves calm while you zoom down the freeway, dodging slowpokes.

For SmartBrainGames ($595), CyberLearning licenses a NASA patent on using electroencephalographic feedback to modify a video game during play. I met Domenic and Lindsay Greco, co-founders of CyberLearning, at the Serious Games Summit in San Jose, Calif. Domenic explained about alpha, beta and theta waves--different low-frequency voltage oscillations that the brain produces--while Lindsay soaked three electrodes in electrolyte solution. The ratio of beta to alpha and theta waves produces what NASA calls the Engagement Index, a measure of attention to the task. The target mode corresponds to a range of this index. If you get too excited and your brain waves stray outside, you start to lose steering control and power.

Lindsay attached the electrodes, fitted into a visor: one behind my ear, one on the top of my head and one on my left temple. "With traditional neurofeedback devices," Domenic said, "you have to sit with the patients and motivate them." You do not need much encouragement with SmartBrainGames. I fired up my engine and accelerated onto the freeway. Suddenly, the handheld controller vibrated, another form of feedback. "See, you just lost steering," Domenic said. The car drove sluggishly. I strained to relax my brain waves, but no dice. The car slipped in and out of control. Bam! I rear-ended a van at 125 mph, and the car, windshield shattered, spun 360 degrees. I just did not have a feeling for what was needed.

"What you're trying to do is create conscious correlations--'What am I doing that's having that dramatic effect?'" Domenic added. "You'll get that as you work with the system on a more regular basis." In other words, I was trying too hard to feel an active connection between my brain and the game. According to Domenic, if I played SmartBrainGames for two weeks, my brain would find its way by trial and error into a state akin to that experienced by quarterback Joe Montana at the height of his powers.

I left the Serious Games Summit without having felt the mind-machine connection. Nevertheless, driving home in heavy traffic, I saw that crash over and over again in my mind, from all angles. I concentrated as hard as I could to keep my brain waves in the zone.

(The Author)
KASPAR MOSSMAN recently completed a Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. The last computer game he owned was Crystal Quest for the Macintosh Plus.

(Further Reading)

  • Effects of Cognitive Training Interventions with Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Karlene Ball et al. in Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 288, No. 18, pages 22712281; November 13, 2002.
  • The Better Brain Book. David Perlmutter and Carol Colman. Riverhead, 2004.
  • Train Your Brain: 60 Days to a Better Brain. Ryuta Kawashima. Kumon Publishing, 2005.
  • www.happyneuron.com, a Web resource for mental fitness.