Can brain games improve your memory?

I struggle on a daily basis with remembering things, no matter how significant or insignificant the thing may.  It can be a school-related assignment or a coffee date, but if I don’t write it down in my planner or my phone, it’s not going to happen.  The other day, I was wondering if there is something that we can do as humans to improve our memory.  Then I remembered the trend from several years ago that was all about playing computer brain games found on sites like to improve cognitive functions such as memory.  Was this just, in fact, a trend to drain the wallets of the naive American people?  Or were these companies actually onto something?

Memory is a complicated yet amazing process, and can be broken down into three main stores. When stimuli is first observed, it goes into the sensory memory store.  This is like where item that aren’t rehearsed get lost (like trying to remember a phone number).  If an item makes it through the sensory memory store, then it is now in the working memory store.  This is a place of learning where maintenance and active rehearsal are necessary.  If an item is to make it all the way to the long-term memory, it needs to first be encoded.  Ultimately, getting information in the long-term memory is the goal.  But this is so often harder than it appears to be.

Image result for memory process diagram

In a study that I found from the Procedia Journal of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 50 undergraduate students were recruited to play games–brain games.  At the beginning of the study, participants were assessed on their working memory and their attention capacity.  Over the course of a three week-long period, participants were given five different memory games to play each week (with one game per weekday).  After the training period came to a conclusion, participants took a post-test of sorts to test their working memory once again.  This test included the sequencing of numbers and letters in alphabetical and numerical order.  What the researchers found after analyzing this data was that on average, there was a significant increase in working memory capacity after the training occurred.

In a separate article that I found from Science, I learned about the other side of this theory.  This article mentions a study that was done at the Florida State University, where 77 undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to play games on Lumosity or a video game called Portal 2.  After 8 hours of playing one of these two games, researchers discovered that the participants who played Portal 2 scored higher on 3 tests of problem solving and spatial skills, on average, than those that were assigned to play games on Lumosity.  They concluded that because the Lumosity participants scored no higher than those of the other game, that the brain game hype is nothing to get too excited about.

Image result for lumosity

Something else to note about sites like Lumosity is that oftentimes memory skills are often only focused on one specific task rather than a broad range of memory-focused tasks.

The X variable is brain games in this question.  The Y variable is memory, but we have yet to find out how X and Y are related.  How can humans best sharpen their working memory on a day to day basis?  Could a confounding variable help solve the answer to this question?

Because these two studies don’t necessarily line up in their results, I’d be curious to find a meta-analysis on the topic.  Something that I think is important to remember about brain games, particularly those that are online and that are subscription-based, is that they aren’t the only known way to sharpen cognitive skills.  Taking a walk outdoors, sitting down for coffee with a friend, cooking, taking part in all sorts of other recreational activities have been shown to help clear and sharpen the brain, and thus improve one’s memory.

To conclude, I want to make note that this topic could most certainly suffer from the Texas sharpshooter problem in the sense that some it’s easy for people to want to bash companies like Lumosity.  Both of the studies I included have extreme and opposing conclusions in which the Texas sharpshooter problem could exist.

If you’re anything like me, I think the best case X variable is practice.  Like shown in the diagram above, rehearsal is necessary to keep information in the working memory.  Whether that practice be brain games or conscientiously thinking, practice makes perfect…right?


Dingfelder, Sadie F. “A Workout for Working Memory.” American Psychological Association 36.8 (2005): 48. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.

“The Human Memory – What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Go Wrong.” The Human Memory – What It Is, How It Works and How It Can Go Wrong. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Underwood, Emily. “Neuroscientists Speak out against Brain Game Hype.” Science | AAAS. Science, 22 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

3 thoughts on “Can brain games improve your memory?

  1. Patrick Winch

    Sarah- I’ve always been a huge lover of brain games, especially those that are less serious such as puzzles and riddles. But, when it comes to academics, I almost always create acronyms when I study. I know it’s not much of a game, but I believe that abbreviations are a type of cheat-code for remembering important information. I found an article (link below) that expands on the power of abbreviations and things of that sort.

  2. Melissa Fraistat

    Just like you, I also love playing brain games, but always wondered if these types of games actually help improve your memory. Although the data is not clear on if it does in fact improve your memory, I will still continue to play these games, because there is still a possibility they are helpful, and I find them fun, nonetheless. Besides games, I also enjoy watching a show called Brain Games, which shows brain games in action and shows the reasoning for how they work. Here is a link to the show’s website where you can play games and watch clips from episodes.

  3. Sabrina Chan

    This is an interesting alternative to other video games, as many parents are concerned about violent video games such as first-person shooters causing violence. ( (Although, there is very little evidence to support that claim.)

    Either way, to quench parents’ anxiety about the video games children typically enjoy, educational games can be played instead. The way memory can quite possibly be improved while still having fun should most definitely be explored more deeply.

    Overall, I enjoyed your blog post, and it’s great that you listed x and y variables.

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