Study: Nintendo's Brain Games Don't Trump Pencils

So much for Nintendo's claims that its pocket-sized DS Lite can "test and rejuvenate" your gray matter, says Times Online.

According to the UK news site, a new study by cognitive psychologist Alain Lieury in Brittany, France claims that playing brainy games on the DS Lite is no better for your cerebral bits than sussing out equations with a pencil and paper. The survey split 10-year-olds into groups, some using the DS, others using pencil-and-paper or nothing at all.

The results of various mental tests were mixed. On balance, children using the DS either didn't improve at all, or only improved on par with their pencil and paper peers.

The study purports to rebut claims by Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima (developer of the popular DS game Brain Age) that "The more you use the brain in a challenging way, the better it can work... We know that the mental processes of our brain start to weaken if we only use it in our routine daily life."

The implications of Kawashima's claims? Play Brain Age and your brain will work better.

Lieury's study isn't the first time someone's questioned such claims. In 2006, Business Week ran a piece that sampled various neuroscientists' opinions, some disputing the plausibility of the methodology behind "brain-age" studies themselves (Brain Age assigns your brain an "age" based on your mental performance -- younger is obviously better).

At the time, however, Business Week reported that Nintendo was "quick to disavow any scientific claims for its Brain Age games," quoting Nintendo's then head of marketing Perrin Kaplan as saying simply "We're in the entertainment business."

So is Nintendo really claiming that Brain Age is "a scientific test," as Lieury suggests?

Have a look at the Brain Age page in question (with Kawashima's claims) and see what you think. Then have a look at this New Scientist article (and related op-ed) published January 14, 2009, entitled "Doubts raised over brain scan findings," which calls into question the scientific veracity of studies about emotions and behavior based on brain regions that "light up" while engaging in a given activity.

Nintendo hasn't really said anything, if you parse what's out there carefully. But it is doing a heck of a marketing job implying there's some sort of super-relationship between the DS and improved mental agility.

Pencils are old technology. The DS is new. New must be better. Call Diet Pepsi something like Pepsi One and presto, instant alternative (but really still the same) soda line.

Stick a DS Lite in Nicole Kidman's hands and imply what's old is new, and voila: technological magic realism.

Matt Peckham's Brain Age score is higher than yours (because higher is better, right?). You can follow his neurally unbalanced dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.

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