Concentrating to Jog Your Memory

What are the adult brain mechanisms at work when playing the children’s game “Concentration” (memory card game)? This game is beneficial for all ages, but what’s the brain science behind it and how do adults benefit from playing it?
— Adrianne

Kids seem to remember the tiniest of details from everywhere. But as adults we’ve all had our blurry moments – when all that information gets lost in the jungle of neurons and refuses to leave the tip o’ the tongue, driving us a little crazy.

Tinkering with memory using simple card games and extensive brain training has been under the lens lately. But could a game like Concentration help you concentrate? Let’s find out.

Neurons in our brain are very active, continually forming and trimming connections in response to experiences – a process termed neuroplasticity. One of the many theories for memory is that it is stored as specific firing patterns between these active neurons, making each memory an interconnected neuronal path. We create new memories with every experience, tweaking our brains as we learn a fact, watch a movie or play a game. Neuroplasticity makes it possible to remember something really well or forget it altogether. As you can probably guess, memory did not escape our human love for classifying almost everything, only in this case it helps a lot. Memory is broadly broken down into knowing what (declarative) and knowing how (procedural); memory games require a mix of both.

 Source: http://www.museumofplay.org/

Source: http://www.museumofplay.org/

Concentration is a fun game to build and strengthen semantic or fact-based memory. It uses short-term working memory lasting up to a few minutes, for sequential tasks such as picking out cards and recalling associations. Practice makes perfect and with repetition, the associations can become long-term memory. The process is complex, but largely, the three main aspects of brain science involved during a game of Concentration are: making random decisions, storing short-term working memory, planning and recalling by association.

  1. You look at the board and pick two cards randomly.
  2. You memorize their positions; the brain places this into working memory.
  3. You repeat this process randomly; each time the brain matches the new information against the old information – is the new card associated with an old one?
  4. Once you have had enough picks to allow repetition, you start picking non-randomly, calling out card positions from the working memory.

During the initial gameplay, the brain needs to break the card symmetry by picking them up at random. Now it turns out that neurons have basal inherent noise that can create randomness, which is sometimes used during decision-making when faced with equal choices. We’ve explained more of random decision-making in an older post, but it is still bit of a gray area. 

The next steps in the game are memory storage and recall. We store visual details of the cards as short-term working memory. Our ability to store temporarily allows us to pay attention every time we actively engage in an action, or to hold that thought. An extreme example of working memory is when a chess player mentally calculates and sifts through various future moves to pick the best one. This process involves the pre-frontal cortex located right behind the forehead; however the exact neural mechanics of planning remain unclear. Each time we learn new facts during a game of Concentration, we run them through working memory to match, recall and strengthen previous associations. That's essentially how the game would proceed, concentrating mostly on working memory.

Now children and adults have differences in brain structure that translate to varied abilities: adults have better face learning and time perception, but children have better language acquisition. But is there anything fundamentally distinctive happening between a young and an older brain during a memory game like Concentration? Possibly yes, but there are no studies that have probed this precisely. But surely, Concentration can be a useful fact-learning tool for both kids and adults by linking facts on pairs of cards: if I played a game matching A with apple and B with bird, it would help me learn the alphabet, and by matching anion cards with cards for their chemical formulae, I would improve my chemistry. Repeating such games over and over again is a great way to lay down long-term semantic memories.

This brings us to the tantalizing question – can more of this game improve overall memory? For that matter, can engaging games achieve holistic brain improvement? The brain training industry argues yes, but a sizeable number of scientists from the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development released a signed statement against the claim last year. Their pet peeve? The lack of solid evidence for overall cognitive improvement – playing a game only seems to make you better at that game. Believe it or not, I played extended rounds of an endless running touchscreen game called Temple Run to improve my reaction times on the road driving a real car. While my driving abilities are great now, I don’t think swiping my fingers across my phone had anything to do with it. The scientific status quo for memory games, Sudoku, and crosswords is similar, with only weak support for improving memory in adults over 60 at the risk of developing dementia. This means that while Concentration may be fun to play and might improve some aspects of memory, it isn’t your ticket to a better brain.

But despair not – all is not lost. There are other ways with greater scientific backing to improve brain function: getting cardiovascular exercise, socializing, or engaging in challenging new experiences. So perhaps it might be a good idea to finish that game of Concentration, and go out on a rugged adventure with friends. That's probably a much better way to untangle those threads of memory and truly exercise the brain.

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Devika Garg

Devika Garg is a brain scientist-turned science writer. She has a PhD in Neuroscience from the National University of Singapore, and she made the long journey West to join her husband at Stanford. She is passionate about communicating exciting science to non-scientists. Devika also loves singing, cooking, meditating or simply exploring the lovely California outdoors, all while musing over the magnificence of science.