Brain game

How useful is a game for the brain?

Ryuta Kawashima (Chiba City, May 23, 1959)


Ryuta Kawashima, creator of the brain games for Nintendo DS, was undoubtedly destined to amaze the whole world with his thoughts on brain training: 'As a teenager I dreamed of one day being able to put my brain into a computer, to spend the last day that way. of humanity," he once said about himself.

Kawashima studied medicine, was a visiting researcher in Sweden in 1991 and by then had become proficient in making images of what happens in the brain.

He successively became assistant, lecturer and professor at Tohoku University, in the city of Sendai, in northeastern Japan. Tohoku is one of the country's oldest and most prestigious imperial universities.

He specialized in improving the mental functions of dementia patients and is a world authority in that field. His 'learning therapy' is used in Japan in 400 retirement homes with a total of more than 6,000 patients.

In 2001 he received a substantial grant from the government to scientifically demonstrate that Alzheimer's patients benefit from his therapy.

The patients did learn what was in the training – an improvement – but it was not clear whether they could also transfer those skills to everyday life. Were you okay with it?

A 75-year-old man could suddenly go to the toilet alone, a 77-year-old woman dressed herself again, instead of walking around in pajamas all day. But couldn't this be explained by the social contacts created by the research?

Kawashima's world changed in 2003 with the publication of a book containing all kinds of tests that caused a noticeably increased brain activity in his images (for which there are various techniques). In Japan, with its many elderly people, millions of copies were immediately sent out. This is how he caught the attention of Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata. Together with fifteen Nintendo programmers, Kawashima created the computer game (for Nintendo DS) that was released in Japan in 2005 and in the United States and Europe in 2006. In just a few years, more than 20 million units of the game were sold.

The series of tests starts with the Stroop task – known from psychology – in which the player sees the name of a color printed in another color (the word blue, for example, in red letters) and then has to say aloud which color he perceives.

The faster and more accurately he can do that, the more points he gets. A test from 1935, admittedly. And the series ends with some sudokus. Kawashima himself – in the form of a cartoon character – gives encouraging comments. The central question is: how old is your brain?

It gets younger and younger – 20 years old is the lower limit – the more you practice.

It was nice for Nintendo to reach the 'grey gamers'. But is this more than a game? Kawashima thinks so.

And so he has not only spawned a flood of similar games, but also hundreds of scientific studies, articles and discussions among neuroscientists.

Can you jog with your brain as you do with your body? 'Use it or lose it' – use your brain or lose it – is that true?

Neuroscientists remain sceptical. 'Compare it with wrinkle cream,' says one of them, 'it doesn't help, it doesn't hurt.' Much research has come to the conclusion that the elderly do indeed learn what is practiced in the games.

And still possess that knowledge five years later. But it remains difficult to prove that they can then cope better in everyday life.

Kawashima has four sons between the ages of 14 and 22 who are not allowed to play video games during the weekdays.

One hour on weekends. "Gaming isn't bad in itself," he says, "but it does rob the time it takes to study and communicate with other family members." He believes in discipline and he disagrees that studying should be fun. 'Having fun is not studying.

Making children study is not to amuse them, but to put pressure on them to make greater efforts.'

The Nintendo royalties he can claim privately run in a new university lab. “My relatives are angry about that, but I tell them that if you need money, you have to get it yourself,” he says.

He is quite satisfied with his annual salary of 100,000 euros. Kawashima has since become a well-known Japanese artist. In one of his numerous projects, he is working with Toyota on a car that keeps older drivers fitter and more alert.

How does he see his own old age? Kawashima: 'I will undoubtedly become senile. Medical researchers are known to die from what they study. So I must die of a brain disorder.'

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