Osmosis News

Do Brain Teaser Puzzles Really Give Your Mind a Workout?

Amin Azzam
Published on Jun 22, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Ever wondered whether brain teasing puzzles actually help your brain itself? The Osmosis team wondered that too! To accompany the fun puzzles we’ve been sharing this month, we decided to explore the research behind brain teasers to see if they really do keep your brain in shape.

Some quick brain physiology

The brain accounts for approximately 2% of human body weight, yet it is often cited as using 20–25% of the total body glucose consumption. That’s one glucose-hungry organ! It’s a quick leap to conclude that doing a lot of thinking means the brain needs more glucose. And a lot more activity in the brain must lead to more brain power, right? Isn’t it just like how exercising a lot makes you stronger and healthier?

The challenge with the parallel is that we’ve not truly proved that more thinking equals more brain power. There is some evidence to support that claim, but it’s not yet been proved unequivocally or in all cases.

The scientific method

Recall the “scientific method” from your middle school years? You probably were taught that to prove something true, science uses careful experimental measurements, often by starting with a hypothesis about how things work in the world. By eliminating or controlling all variables in a slow, deliberate and systematic approach, one can develop/accumulate evidence to support or refute the original hypothesis. Publish your findings so other scientists can add to your mountain of data. Their scientific experiments might prove the opposite of what you found. But that’s okay, because over time scientists—and science—will converge on what the real truth is.

So, what’s the truth behind brain teasers?

So what’s the scientific evidence that brain teasers actually increase brain performance? The Journal of Psychological Science published an article in 2016 entitled, “Do ‘Brain-Training’ Programs Work?” Written by seven authors across six different universities, the article summarized how two different consensus statements across two groups of scientists came to opposite conclusions. 

The first group (of 70 scientists) reported in 2014 that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that brain games could improve cognitive functioning. Yet the second group (of 133 scientists) reported that there was plenty of evidence that brain training helped. The 2016 study recommended a set of standards—a sort of ruler by which to standardize measurement. The authors then applied their ruler to all the prior published studies to see just how much accumulated evidence there was across the published studies. Their conclusions? Here I quote directly from their article (because it’s written so well):

Based on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance. We also find that many of the published intervention studies had major shortcomings in design or analysis that preclude definitive conclusions about the efficacy of training, and that none of the cited studies conformed to all of the best practices we identify as essential to drawing clear conclusions about the benefits of brain training for everyday activities. 

So what to make of this scientific puzzle? It seems the jury is still out on this one. But while we wait for definitive proof, I will draw a parallel of my own. I’m a psychiatrist who leads psychotherapy groups for patients living with chronic medical conditions. Many of my patients experience active symptoms that often have no cure (such as chronic pain). They’ll ask me (and each other) whether various “unproven” treatments really work or not. My advice? For any proposed solution, look to the evidence—both for and against—and keep an eye on your wallet. If you’re spending within your means and something seems to be helping you, then what’s wrong with that “placebo effect” after all? On the other hand, if you’re spending a lot of money on something where the scientific data just isn’t piling up, then you might reconsider whether that’s money well-spent.

So what to do while we wait for definitive scientific truth? It can’t hurt to engage in intellectual stimulation. At the very least, there’s the satisfaction in completing the task, and it may well prove to be beneficial in the long run. Which makes me think of another wonderful parallel. The job of writing this blog piece led me to some really interesting research about the science behind brain teasers. I now know more than I did before writing this. And by completing this task, I’ve contributed to the brain teaser “grey literature” (e.g. writings that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals). What’s next? I think I’ll go find a sudoku or crossword puzzle to tickle my brain while I drink my morning coffee. 

About Dr. Amin Azzam

Amin Azzam, MD, MA is an Adjunct Professor at UCSF School of Medicine and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. He is also a Simulation Educator at Samuel Merritt University, and the Director of Open Learning Initiatives for Osmosis. His clinical focus is group psychotherapy for patients with chronic illness.

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