Mind over matter: Can video games improve mental agility?

We talk to the brain training experts who believe that video games mixed with moderate activity are the key to improving one's mental agility.

Experts believe that computer games can help train our brains and our bodies.
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Computer games seem to get a continuously bad press.They’re often blamed for the increase in the numbers of sedentary, overweight and antisocial children and adults.

Even the rise of the more active Wii Fit has been laughed off by some experts, who insist that dancing in a virtual world or playing 10-pin bowling in your living room is no real replacement for the benefits of proper exercise.

But now research suggests that if you can mix the best of both worlds – combining the mentally stimulating activities of the computer with relatively mild exercise – you could both greatly improve the capacity of your memory and stave off the onset of dementia.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in the US found that anyone who regularly played computer games as well as exercised, such as brisk walking, golf or aerobics, had a much lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life when compared with someone who only did one of the two activities.

In the study of 926 people, those who listed computer usage alongside exercise in their hobbies showed the lowest levels of cognitive impairment in later life. This suggests that you should keep your brain in top condition through exercise, diet and mind-building ­challenges.

“The brain is a muscle and, as such, each time we learn something new – be it a new game, a new puzzle, a new dance routine or a new language – if the level of intensity required for the task is high, then we develop new connections,” explains Pooneh Roney, a director of The Brain & Learning organisation (thebrainandlearning.com), based at the Grosvenor Business Tower in Dubai.

Roney, a teacher and specialist in cognitive neuroscience, runs brain-training courses for learners aged six and upwards in the UAE. “To increase overall brain function we need to engage in new activities, games, exercises that develop key cognitive areas,” she claims.

Through her work, Roney has learnt that it pays to stimulate the mind with chores and tasks you don't savour. "I was a maths teacher for 14 years and love to do sudokus – but I have poor visual processing and so I avoided jigsaw puzzles," she admits. "However, to increase my brainpower, I should stop doing sudokus and do jigsaws instead."
In other words, don't let your brain rest on its laurels.

Top tips for a sharper mind

1 Use your phone
Despite the well-publicised worries about mobile phones rotting your brain, using the gaming apps on a smartphone could have the opposite effect, so says research published in the US Archives of Neurology. Try the brain game apps from Lumosity (lumosity.com) – such as Face Memory Recall. The neuroscientist-devised programmes have been shown to test memory and thought processing speed.

2 Try some ExerBeat
ExerBeat for the Wii is a something-for-everyone game that features 150 different workouts. You'll tax your body doing the moves and your mind trying to keep up with the action. It's that magic combination that researchers from the Université Paris-Sud, France, say works best. By studying the effects of gaming on cognitive vitality, the French scientists found the largest benefits seem to be provided by "exergames" which combine game play with significant physical exercise.

3 Call in the brain trainers
Teachers such as Roney run programmes designed to whip brains into shape, especially for children struggling at school. Sessions include work done with a personal brain trainer combined with the puzzles and tests available through www.brainskills.com.

4 Get to the Boom Blox BashParty
Taking the fun and complexity of block-building games to a new level, Boom Blox Bash Party is a Wii game developed by EA Sports with advice from the movie director Steven Spielberg. It enables players to work in teams to complete challenges and work out puzzles in a virtual world that will still give you a mental and physical workout.

5 Join the Big Brain Academy
The Nintendo DS game (now available on Wii too) offers a whole package of mind-bending tasks that fall into one of five categories: think, memorise, analyse, compute, and identify. Once you take your brain personality test you can improve your score by completing tasks faster and more ­efficiently.