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The Future of Brain Workouts

For thousands of years, humans have strived to move beyond the limits of their own minds through education, philosophy and meditation. Cognitive neuroscientists like myself are trying to turn such aspirations into reality by applying knowledge of neuroplasticity and cognition to cognitive training programs. Millions of people use their income to buy cognitive training games. This trend will continue as new discoveries foster the development of improved training programs, and the implementation of these programs will eventually cause a significant impact in society and education.


Cognitive training games and traditional cognitive training differ in the reward mechanisms presented to the participant. Computer based cognitive training presents users with tasks that challenge specific cognitive processes (1). People who train using these tasks are largely motivated by the promise of long-term cognitive improvement. While this is effective for some, engaging training may cause many to discontinue their practice. This makes these tasks potentially less effective than cognitive training games due to their over-reliance on the user’s ability to choose long-term rewards over short and medium term interests. Cognitive training games add an additional source of motivation by presenting the user with traditional cognitive training tasks that have been altered to function within the reward-based video game model. This alternative presentation of cognitive training makes tasks more engaging, thereby increasing user’s participation and motivation, which is likely to make the training more effective. CogMed’s current program is a good example. Though overall, the combination of games and training has yet to come into its own. Cognitive training without gaming elements may be challenging and effective for research samples, but in the end it will likely be under the shadow of more actively engaging cognitive training games.

Catching up with our aspirations

Cognitive processes –like memory, attention and visual processing– correspond to certain networks of neurons. The proponents of cognitive training assume that training these networks to be more efficient and effective in a game environment can result in real world improvements for analogous mental tasks. Compare this mental training to doing biceps curls at the gym; biceps curls not only help with lifting dumbbells, but also with lifting backpacks, laundry and bunches of bananas. Cognitive training depends on the assumption that brain training works also in this fashion, which hasn’t been easy to prove. The biggest hurdle for cognitive neuroscientists is not developing the training game, but discovering how to use that game to train one’s neural networks in such a way that any benefits gained within the game translate to benefits for a wide range of tasks in the outside world. This phenomenon is known as transfer, and it is widely recognized as the goal of cognitive training. When scientists uncover how to best formulate a training task so that transfer occurs, cognitive training games will become ubiquitous.

An increase in our understanding of the brain will be followed by an increase in our ability to shape our brain function. Today, people with poor sight or hearing can use cognitive training to improve their brain’s ability to process visual and auditory data (2). Vision and hearing are the two brain functions most easily aided by cognitive training: they are two areas of neuroscience that are exceptionally well understood. In the past ten years, cognitive neuroscientists have made progress in understanding higher cognitive processes like working memory and attention, and new training regimens have arisen to take advantage of these newfound perspectives. In the next ten years, the science underlying cognitive training will expand rapidly, and as a result, the programs we use today will be significantly refined, and will be joined by many new cognitive training regimens.

Cognitive training will be fun

Most of the cognitive training games of 2011 resemble the simple games you can play online for free or apps designed for smartphones. However, in ten years, we can expect many of the big developers, following Nintendo’s lead, to introduce critical gaming elements. Envision games featuring improved graphics, compelling gameplay, and engaging storylines that compel players to train their brains often and in a variety of ways. Imagine a role-playing game (RPG) in which your character’s level and progress are determined in part by your performance on a variety of cognitive training tasks, and the selection of tasks are dependent on the class chosen by the player, and thus tailored made for each individual user. Much in the same way that RPG style games will foster unique training experiences, cognitive training games in general will become tailored to individual interests, focusing on training specific cognitive mechanisms, rather than providing a general training regimen that the user may not be looking for.

More training styles

In addition to interactive and engaging training, society will benefit from a variety of paradigms that go far beyond today’s limited range:

Attentional Control- These games will have an enormous impact on the millions of medicated children and young adults in the world by giving them an engaging and interactive way of conquering their inability to focus. This will be of great benefit to families whose children struggle with academic pursuits. CogMed already has a program in this vein, although it is far out of the price range for the majority of people who would benefit from this training system (3).

Creativity- Games that train creativity may be some of the most valuable to the future of society as a whole. In the age of Google, the ability to memorize swaths of information is becoming increasingly irrelevant, while the ability to connect disparate parts and engage in “divergent thinking” is becoming more important than ever (4). Some current non-training games, such as Scribblenauts, Minecraft and Little Big Planet, already encourage and reward creativity. Cognitive training developers will look at these games for inspiration when trying to create platforms that encourage players to use their creativity to complete the task.

Emotion regulation- This training will help people with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or even bipolar disorder overcome their emotional problems, potentially replacing medication or therapy. Similar training programs are offered today for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

Non-Conscious Defenses- Starting all the way back in the 1950’s, firms have sought to understand human psychology in order to capitalize on our biases and tendencies through influencing us on the sub-conscious level. In the past couple decades however, research into non-conscious processing and subliminal priming have begun to unravel the fascinating ways that people develop preferences for products and how they estimate value. Companies have been following this research closely and already implement their findings into many forms of media: magazines, movies and even presidential election commercials (5). Expect that training games will begin to offer cognitive defenses against advertising seeking to influence us on the sub conscious level.

Societal impact of training

If training becomes highly effective but remains expensive, it will worsen societal stratification by being accessible only to people able to afford it. We already have some indication that this may happen: the highest rated programs are currently on the order of several hundred to over a thousand dollars (2,3). Fortunately, these concerns are partially assuaged by the role that the open source gaming community has played in the development of training games. Many open source computer games already exist (6) and with the help of neuroscientists, the open source community would embrace the opportunity to create free, effective and entertaining cognitive training games. In fact, the creation of open-source cognitive training games is already underway (7). This movement has been accelerated by the nearly scandalous prices charged by the market’s biggest players for the relatively simple games currently offered.

Although computer game cognitive training will have an increased impact on many of us over the next ten years, the largest impact will be in cognitive therapy and psychiatry. For example, people with working memory deficits, such as those affected by Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia, will find solace in their ability to reclaim some of their normal functioning through the use of working memory or fluid intelligence targeted training games. Physicians and therapists will rely less on medication as they have more effective and engaging treatment alternatives.

In the near future cognitive training will become ubiquitous in the private sphere, and the logical extension of this would be inclusion into the education system. Unfortunately, cognitive training is unlikely to reform the US education system in the next ten years. Before cognitive training games can be implemented nationwide, politicians, teachers and parents will want to see that this training has transfer effects into school programs like math classes or writing and vocabulary This is very difficult to prove, as even the most sensitive modern psychometric testing has difficulty detecting transfer effects between cognitive constructs, let alone practical applications. Furthermore, our society has biases against gaming and the negative effects it can have on children and young adults. The inclusion of videogames into school curricula will be a tough sell to the parent-teacher associations and school officials. However, as the neuroscience of education continues to demonstrate that some of our current methods of education run counter to the biological basis of learning, changes may be incorporated into curricula that will include cognitive training games. This will create a significant impact on the education system, and as a result, many children, teens and young adults will be able to engage in self-directed cognitive improvement.

Author Bio:

Aki Nikolaidis is a graduate student in Dr. Kramer’s lab at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. His research focuses on using neuroimaging techniques to uncover the neural changes that occur in response to cognitive training. He is passionate about the future of technology and especially how lessons from neuroscience will help individuals fulfill their intellectual potential. You can find his educational videos online at:

Learn more:

1-Dual N-Back

2-Posit Science:

3- CogMed Pricing

4- Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk about schools killing Creativity

5-Journal article about subliminal priming in elections:;jsessionid=A38F6CFE2373FA0E85365872FEB1BC24.d02t01

6-List of open source video games:

7-The Open source brain training movement(in rough order of importance):


  1. The best workout is arguably to measure the general intelligence of your brain and then try to improve this score.

    Shane Legg said he will soon publish some of his work on his AIQ (algorithmic intelligence quotient) . You can watch a video of his speech about AIQ at the singularity summit: vimeo dot com/17553536
    AIQ measures the performance of a general intelligence in a lot of randomly generated environments, just like the environments of my Occam’sRazor game on my web site razorcam dot com (Legg agreed that my game could be a human interface for an AIQ test)

    Also “Measuring universal intelligence: Towards an anytime intelligence test” from Hernández-Orallo has been published in the high impact journal “Artificial Intelligence”
    Like AIQ , this paper is heavily inspired by AIXI.

  2. I consider this one of the handful of articles on this site which has a basis in reality and doesn’t strike me as preposterous. The history of cognitive training could probably go back further to the development of flight simulators and B.F. Skinner’s teaching machines, based on his experimental analysis of behavior. For example:

    • Thanks for your kind comment. The teaching machine envisioned by Dr. Skinner is being implemented in a very web 2.0 way at the moment:

      Getting students to learn at their own pace, as Dr. Skinner touted in the video you linked to, is one of the main tenets of the Khan Academy. Also, I think that this website could be a vehicle for the large scale introduction of cognitive training into the classroom.

    • Getting students to learn at their own pace, as Dr. Skinner touted in the video you linked to, is one of the main tenets of the Khan Academy. Also, I think that this website could be a vehicle for the large scale introduction of cognitive training into the classroom.

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