Talking tech since 2003

Games of all sorts—from video or mobile to board or card games—have long been enjoyable indoor pastimes. They connect families and friends together which feels more crucial than ever right now as people are forced to distance from each other. But games are more than just entertainment to pass the time. Data-backed evidence shows they can stimulate brain power too, so if you are in search of a hobby that’s both fun and a mental workout, look no further. Below are four ways that games will sharpen your brain.

Games teach you to observe and be aware

There are two kind of alertness—tonic, which occurs for minutes at a time, and phasic, which occurs in the moment—and you need both to strengthen the brain. The more alert your mind is these areas, the quicker your executive functions will be, notes the Cortex Journal. That includes the ability to practice organization, recall, strategic action, flexible thinking, impulse control and focus. Tactical games such as poker hone this mental awareness by teaching you to observe “tells,” or nonverbal cues. “A crucial skill to learn if you want to be successful at poker is how to read other players and notice subtle changes” in their behavior, points out Global Poker School. Detecting these tells can even boost decision-making odds, Global Poker School continues.

Games activate the risk and reward center

Brains are wired to release a neurotransmitter chemical known as dopamine which is “associated with reward-seeking behavior,” explains mobile game creator Jane McGonigal in her TED Talk. Dopamine emits when a new skill is learned, and it yields a positive sensation that arouses the brain to keep learning more. Games activate this reward center, but they also tap into an “element of uncertainty,” or risk, which McGonigal refers to as the “neurological goldmine” because, while any kind of reward is exciting, what causes the neurons to fire on all cylinders is a reward that’s not guaranteed or predictable since it comes with a risk of failure. Uncertain “reward structures make people braver, […] more willing to take on difficulty, harder to discourage,” she adds. 

Games boost the memory as you grow older

The older you become, the more difficult it can be to remember facts, dates, events, whereabouts and other details that once seemed clear to you. But research published in the British Medical Journal indicates that games can reinforce memory and even lower the risk of dementia. This is because game participation fortifies the connection between your brain cell networks to increase mental acuity and resilience. “Board or card games are the perfect activities for seniors and their families. There are easy steps and directions to follow which is important both for older adults and children alike. The memorization, combined with social interaction, is helpful for aging minds to remain sharp,” confirms Nicole Hanna, executive director of Vineyard Henderson Memory Care.

Games promote creative, nuanced thinking

Experiential and role-play games such as Minecraft can stimulate creativity, based on research from Iowa State University. While there could be a number of reasons for this, the study posits that when you are immersed into the virtual world of a game, you need to flex certain skills such as abstract problem-solving and ideation to accelerate through the levels which opens your mind to consider a strategy from different, unique perspectives. In addition, creativity unlocks both imagination and innovation, and another study from neuroscientists at the University of Colorado–Boulder has found that when you harness imagination, this can help to minimize anxious or fear-based thoughts and redirect the neurons to more constructive and healthier brain activity.

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