Video puzzle games which exercise a child’s working memory were found to enhance abstract reasoning and problem solving skills significantly, researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They added that the improvements persisted for at least three months after they stopped playing the games.

The authors found that giving the brain a daily workout really can improve wits and intelligence.

Video game makers have always promoted the cognitive skill training children can benefit from by playing some games. Studies never seem to agree on whether this claim is really true.

Psychologist Susanne M. Jaeggi, PhD. and team set out to determine what effects video games might have on the brain. Of 62 elementary and middle school children, 32 were trained for fifteen minutes five times a week for a month on a computerized task while the other 30 practiced general knowledge and vocabulary tasks. The video games tested working memory – this involves holding information while you solve a problem.

The researchers found that only the children who had been involved in the brain-training video games had clear improvements in abstract reasoning and problem solving – and these improvements persisted for three months after the training stopped.

In the working memory games, which were adaptations from a game aimed at older users, the kids had to follow and remember a sequence of positions on a grid, recognize a pattern and respond to questions about it. Each successfully completed sequence was followed by a longer one – the game progressively challenges the child’s ability to hold data in his/her brain, as well as spatial information.

The game requires total concentration, in some cases for stretches of over a minute long. They have to be able to block out distractions while concentrating on a single task.

The authors stressed that the children who benefited the most were those who really needed them, as well as kids who do not find these types of games frustrating.

Jaeggi said parents should beware of pushing their children too far, as is often the case with sports and musical performance. It is important to get the right balance between too much and too little.

Children with good working memory find it easier to remember teacher instructions, are better able to focus on classroom tasks, and are not easily distracted, the authors explained.

The authors concluded:

“We propose that future research should not investigate whether cognitive training works, but rather should determine what training regimens and what training conditions result in the best transfer effects, investigate the underlying neural and cognitive mechanisms, and finally, investigate for whom cognitive training is most useful.”

Working memory, also referred to as short-term (recent) memory is a system of storing and managing the information needed to perform complex cognitive tasks, such as comprehension, reasoning, and learning. It involves the selection, initiation and termination of data retrieval, storage, encoding, and other information-processing functions.

An example of a working memory test is memory span. For example, the examiner reads a list of random numbers out loud; about one number per second. The listener has to recall them in order. Most people’s memory spans are limited to approximately 7 numbers.

George Armitage Miller, psychologist and author of “The magical number seven, plus or minus two,” found that typical memory span capacities for young adults were seven digits, six letters, or about five words.

Some studies have shown that a child’s working memory at 5 years of age is a better predictor of academic success than IQ.

“Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training”
Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah
“Proceeedings of the National Academy of Sciences” June 13, 2011, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103228108

Written by Christian Nordqvist