75% of adults report they are concerned their brain health will decline and are looking for ways to enhance their brain health, according to Positive Neuropsychology1https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-031-11389-5_11. The good news: building brain health may be easier than expected—by playing games!
Our brains are amazing organs because of their ability to change and form new connections over time. This concept, called neuroplasticity, tells us that our brains can be exercised in specific ways, just like muscles, to become stronger. Games of all types can improve mental function2https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jgs.13304 and prevent brain shrinkage3https://agsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jgs.12607.
And playing these games over a longer time span may also improve focus, memory4https://basic.medscimonit.com/abstract/index/idArt/909022, response time, and reasoning, all measures of cognitive function5https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2019.00221/full.
What Are Brain Games?
Brain games are games played online and offline, on your own or with a partner or team, that stimulate your brain. Brain games are sometimes differentiated from brain training, which is described as more intentional, like going to a class at the gym instead of simple play. For the purpose of this article, these terms are used interchangeably.
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Best Brain-Training Games and Activities to Play On Your Own
While there is a benefit to the social interaction of playing games together, individual games can be played anytime to get an immediate brain boost, provide a break from a complex task or calm the mind.
- Crossword puzzles
Crossword puzzles have been gracing newspapers around the world since 1913. And for the 50 million people doing them regularly, they build memory and attention skills and increased fluency6https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6191832/.
A recent study7https://evidence.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/EVIDoa2200121 showed that crossword puzzles are useful for people with mild cognitive impairment, resulting in even better outcomes than web-based games. The beauty of these types of puzzles is that, like jigsaw puzzles, you can attack more difficult ones as you get more proficient.
Crossword puzzles and books are widely available, and many print publications still offer them daily. AARP also publishes a free online puzzle each day.
- Jigsaw puzzles
From young children to older adults, puzzles can help develop short-term memory as your brain looks for matching colors, shapes, and patterns. The more complex the image, the more pieces, and the size of the pieces all add to the difficulty. You even get a hit of dopamine when you find a correct match.
To make a puzzle even more complicated, flip over the pieces to try to solve the puzzle based solely on the shape rather than the colors and design.
This classic card game played with a deck of cards can help improve your strategic thinking as you move cards in ascending order, from ace to king, by suit. It’s a quick game that can be played with a 52-card deck or online.
And while employees playing Solitare at work has been mocked by comedians and TV shows, it’s actually a good way to give your brain a mental break from more complicated work. Plus, it’s a more positive way than doom-scrolling to refresh your brain.
If you haven’t played before, watch this 5-minute tutorial and learn to play.
Sudoku might be the game for you if you prefer numbers to words. Here’s how to play: A 9×9 grid of squares must be filled in with numbers from 1-9 with no repeated digits in each row or column. Additionally, there are 3×3 squares marked out in the grid, and each of these squares can’t have any repeat numbers.
Sudoku is available online and as an app on iOS and Android. It’s also available on many news sites, such as the New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.
- Concentration/matching games
Nearly anyone can play Concentration, also known as Memory, Shinkei-suijaku (Japanese meaning “nervous breakdown”), Matching Pairs, Match Match, Match Up, Pelmanism, Pexeso, or simply Pairs. In this game, cards are laid face down, and players take turns flipping two cards over each turn. The objective is to find the pairs of matching cards.
To make the game more challenging, add more cards, set a time limit on each round, and lay the cards out in a random pattern.
Sometimes when you’re having trouble concentrating, it means you need a short break to refocus your attention. Enjoy one of these 10 short videos to recharge your brain.
Games to Play With A Partner or Group for Brain Health
Socializing with others is beneficial because isolation8https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-isolation-affects-memory-and-thinking-skills is associated with cognitive decline. So plan a game night and pick up a classic game or try something new to keep your brain as healthy as possible.
Boggle is another fun game where players try to find as many words as possible from a grid of dice with letters within a set time limit. Words must be at least three letters in length and must be made from the adjacent letters. The goal is to find more unique words than the other players.
Boggle is an excellent game for children and adults and can help people connect socially while working out. It is available as a board game online, in the App Store, and on Google Play.
Like Chess, Bridge is a game that requires concentration, memory, and collaboration. In its basic format, four players in two competing pairs sit opposite their partners around a table. Each team bids and attempts to win hands. The brain is engaged with the card counting and noting the information gathered in the bidding.
Research9https://bridgemindsport.org/home/research/ found that playing Bridge keeps people brighter, happier, and more social as they age. Its social environment has implications for good health through increased positive cognitive, social, and quality of life outcomes. Many communities offer freeBridge lessons at a community center, or you can learn the basics at the American Contract Bridge League.
Chess ranks as one of the more challenging games because it requires you to plan, concentrate and execute your strategy on a 64-squared chessboard arranged in an 8×8 grid. The objective of the game is to capture the opponent’s king.
Chess greats like Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fisher, and even the fictional character Beth Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit represent brilliant strategists at work. Casual games can take up to an hour, whereas tournament-level games may take from 10 minutes (fast chess) to more than six hours. Learn to play online for free.
Scrabble helps players increase their vocabulary and improve strategic thinking by making words using tiles with letters on a 225-square board. The words must connect like a crossword, and bonus points can be collected using high-value letters, such as Q and Z, on squares with a double and triple word or point values.
Usually played with two to four people, Scrabble can be more or less challenging depending on the players’ expertise. The person with the highest score wins, but everyone wins with a positive brain workout. If you work up to a Scrabble expert status, your visual perception and working memory may also be enhanced, as was demonstrated in one study10https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26026707/.
Scrabble is available as a board game on the App Store, Google Play, and online.
Video Games to Boost Brainpower
Video games have often gotten a bad rap for being a waste of time, particularly for young people and teens. But a 2018 research study11https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6234876/ suggests the benefits of video games for cognitive and emotional skill-building for healthy young adults.
Let’s look at a few options for people of all ages—from youngsters to older adults—for increasing logic, reasoning, memory, and strategic thinking.
If you’re between 55 and 75 years old, Super Mario 64 (or other modern-day Mario platformers) may be the prescription to delay mild cognitive impairment due to increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum. A 2017 study12https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171206141648.htm found that playing Mario improved spatial memory and recognition ability for adults in this age group.
In this game, offered in various formats on Nintendo gaming systems, players take Mario through various levels, navigating through obstacle courses, hidden objects, puzzles, and other enemies.
- Nintendo Wii
You might be surprised at the benefits of using the discontinued Nintendo Wii gaming system. Its Wii Sports offers physical and mental components such as your box, bowl, golf, baseball, and tennis. Combining physical and mental activity and turning it into a social experience with a partner or group will undoubtedly boost your brain power.
Tetris has been a favorite game of many since its release on Nintendo in 1984. In it, gamers are challenged to move various-sized puzzle pieces around to organize them to fill spaces on the screen. Since then, it has moved to numerous platforms and apps to accommodate the changes in the video game landscape.
Some research13https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/mnt/releases/162599#1 indicates that playing Tetris results in a thicker brain cortex, improving brain efficiency. Another study showed that playing Tetris could reduce the impact of painful memories or waiting for important news.
It’s so popular that there is even an effect called the Tetris® Effect14https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetris_effect which describes how people think about strategically and efficiently organizing their personal space.
It might be a surprise that this highly popular online multiplayer fantasy game made the list of brain-building video games. World of Warcraft, or WoW, has players create characters who overcome quests and challenges in the fictional world of Azeroth. As they conquer new lands, they reach new levels and earn gear that propels them even further.
So how does this connect to brain health? One study15https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563212000143 asked participants aged 60-77 to play WoW on their home computers for approximately 14 hours over two weeks. The control group did not play WoW.
The test scores of the WoW players showed a much greater increase in cognitive functioning, and those who scored lowest on the baseline testing saw the most improvement. Among the advances were increased attention and spatial orientation.
Nintendo offers a brain training and mental fitness game, Brain Age Concentration Training, for several of its game systems. The training includes numerous games and activities to improve your memory and concentration. Because it can also be played on portable devices, you can mentally work out anywhere.
Online Games and Apps That Are Good for the Brain
With computers and mobile devices, almost anyone can take advantage of brain training through apps and online games, almost anywhere, with a few moments of idle time.
This website claims to have the world’s largest collection of brain teasers—over 15,000+ puzzles, games, and other brain teasers, free for your mental workout. You can even create your own puzzles to give your brain a more strenuous challenge.
CogniFit offers neuropsychological assessments and brain training programs that evaluate 23 cognitive skills. Once the initial tests are completed, CogniFit’s patented methodology sets an “optimal sequence of brain games specifically for the user.” The programs are specifically designed for individuals 55 and over and those who have had a stroke, Parkinson’s, and other illnesses.
This app, initially touted for those learning English and preparing for the SAT, helps users build their communication and analytical skills by reading, listening, speaking, and writing. With over 40 personalized games, you are sure to find ones that pique your interest and boost your brain simultaneously. The app is available through both the App Store and Google Play.
Can you get over a bad mood with a game? Yep! Happify’s activities help you conquer negative thoughts, cope with stress, and empathize with gratitude—all components for a happier and more fulfilling life.
Using the basics of positive psychology, Happify’s quizzes, polls, and gratitude journal—combined with a nurturing community help you learn life-changing habits.
- Happy Neuron Happy Neuron focuses its games on five critical brain areas: memory, attention, language, executive functions, and visual/spatial activities. It creates a personalized training plan to fit you and tracks your progress, so you can be sure to get the most from your time online or on the Android app.
KenKen is an online grid-based numerical puzzle that uses the basic math operations—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—while also challenging your logic and problem-solving skills. The daily challenge allows you to customize the grid size to increase the difficulty as you progress. And it was, not surprisingly, developed by two men named Ken.
With something for everyone, Lumosity has games to improve your math and problem-solving skills, flexibility, attention, memory, and processing speed. Their word games also increase vocabulary, reading comprehension, and more.
One study16https://www.lumosity.com/en/science/ broke people into groups that either used Lumosity or did crossword puzzles five days weekly for 15 minutes daily. After ten weeks, those who played Lumosity improved more than twice as much as the control group did and showed significant improvements in subtests of working memory, arithmetic reasoning, and processing speed.
Check out what it can do for you on the desktop version or the app available in the App Store and Google Play.
22. Left vs. Right
Left vs. Right tests your awareness, adaptability, reflex, reasoning, precision, and patience through an app available on Google Play and the App Store. It includes 51 mini-games that test and train your brain in one of six categories to give your brain a workout while having fun.
Mensa may be known as the high IQ society. However, those who may not fit that description can still benefit from the exercises to help improve reasoning, concentration, memory, agility, and perception. Their research shows regular brain training can significantly enhance fluid intelligence17https://www.simplypsychology.org/fluid-crystallized-intelligence.html, which aids your ability to reason, detect patterns and learn.
With more than 35 brain games designed around research from Cambridge, Yale, and King’s College London, Peak Brain Training uses short, intense workouts to test your focus, memory, problem-solving, and mental agility. Their app, available through the App Store and Google Play, coaches you as you work on improving your cognitive skills over time.
25. Personal Zen
Personal Zen uses the journey of two animated characters to reduce anxiety by training your brain to focus more on the positive and less on the negative. It uses a neuroscience-based technique called Attention Bias Modification18https://personalzen.com/science/ to re-train emotional and attentional patterns that cause anxiety and distress.
Players report reduced stress and anxiety even by using the app a few minutes a day, several days per work. Find your Personal Zen on the AppStore or Google Play.
This website offers thousands of personality tests and surveys to help you better understand your mind. Their test section lets you determine your emotional intelligence, IQ, analytic reasoning, and more. Additionally, there are logic, verbal, spatial, math puzzles, and trivia quizzes.
SmartCards+ helps you memorize anything from significant phone numbers to interesting words or a new language using spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is a memory technique that involves reviewing and recalling information at optimal spacing intervals until you can recall it sufficiently.
In SmartCards+, you make your own flashcards using text, images, and sound or import pre-made decks from popular apps like Anki and Quizlet. It also tracks your progress with beautiful reports so you can retain the information for a long time! Download it from the App Store for iOS devices.
Thousands of people play Wordle, a web-based word game where players have six attempts to guess a five-letter word. After each attempt, colored tiles indicate if the letters are correct and in the right position. This game keeps the brain active and engaged as your mind sorts through possible letter combinations to find the right answer.
Wordle can be played in the New York Times Crossword app or the New York Times News app in the Play tab. A new challenge is released each day.
29. Word to Word
Another word game option is Word to Word, in which players match associated word pairs to complete the online puzzle. This game tests your knowledge of English synonyms, antonyms, crossword puzzle clues and answers, fun trivia facts, idioms, riddles, popular sayings, history, movies, hangman, word search, and more. It is available on the App Store and Google Play.
Brain-Building Activities for Kids
30. Pediatricians, child-health organizations, and the Centers for Disease Control19https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/early-brain-development.html#:~:text=Parents%20and%20other%20caregivers%20can,their%20child’s%20skills%20and%20interests promote the importance of brain development in early childhood through public service announcements20https://www.first5california.com/en-us/videos/former-la-galax and materials targeted to parents and family members. If you have a young person in your life, you can contribute to their healthy future.
Many of the previously referenced games can be played by all ages. Find 20 additional ideas such as I Spy With My Little Eye, pretend play, and other activities specifically targeted to those earlier in their brain development here.
Best Practices for Brain Health 101
As you age, you can protect your brain by staying physically active, eating a healthy diet, and staying mentally active. Adding in brain games offers an excellent workout for the mind and can help you maintain your cognitive function.
- Get enough sleep. Brains need quality rest21https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-deprivation/lack-of-sleep-and-cognitive-impairment to operate well; without it, the neurons become overworked, leading to fogginess and a reduced ability to function and focus. Give your neurons some love by getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night if you’re between 18-64 years old and 7-8 hours if you’re over 65. Click for a sleep calculator to help you with an optimal sleep plan.
- Fuel your brain. Studies22https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/ have shown that good, nutritious fuel is critical for maintaining brain health and preventing atrophy23https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9071484/. Foods to look for include vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Watch this
- Move your body. Numerous studies have identified benefits from aerobic exercise24https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2021/07000/Spontaneous_Eye_Blink_Rate_Connects_Missing_Link.13.aspx for memory, focus, and comprehension. And this benefit isn’t just for adults. In a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study25https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090331183800.htm, scientists found that physical activity also improves children’s ability to pay attention.
- Play mind games. Brain games are an excellent workout for the mind because they constantly force you to create new pathways as you solve puzzles, remember clues, and learn new things. The brain thrives on regular challenges. And a little bit each day goes a long way toward brain fitness. One study saw a positive impact on attention and memory function after three weeks of playing a brain game for just 15 minutes daily.
Your Brain Workout Plan
Understand how your brain works. The thinking brain and the feeling brain are two different animals, and knowing how to herd them can make a huge difference. Learn 15 actions you can implement for better overall mental health.
Use it or lose it. Staying mentally fit is important to overall well-being, and setting time aside each week for it can improve your quality of life over time. Experts26https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30367-6/fulltext?inf_contact_key=779905f3c1735bf89533cbb79fb3e8eaf651f238aa2edbb9c8b7cff03e0b16a0 say it’s never too early, or late, to make a difference.
Find a brain health buddy. Having an accountability partner is a strategy that can help you be successful in many areas of your life, so why not get a brain health buddy? It could be as simple as someone who shares your love of Wordle that you can text your daily score. Or it could be identifying a consistent bridge partner to join a league with. Find whatever works best for you to stick to your commitment.
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