Mental ability — for rats as well as people — doesn’t depend on the number of brain cells, but on the number of connections between those brain cells. And the stimulation of play increases the number of connections.
To refine their understanding, researchers then put some rats in an enriched environment and some other rats in a position so they could watch the rats in the enriched environment. What they found is revealing: The ones who watched didn’t get any smarter and their brains grew no bigger.
Preliminary studies on people are finding the same thing: Something about playing games increases brain power. But watching people play games doesn’t do it.
And playing games usually gets you face to face with people, talking to them. We are social creatures, and we are healthier and happier when we have enough enjoyable social contact. Passive entertainment like television doesn’t encourage much interaction. The television programmers and the people who design the commercials don’t want you to turn away from your TV and talk to your spouse. You might miss a commercial. So they try to keep it as lively and appealing as possible. The end result is people can “be together” for hours on end without talking to each other. This doesn’t satisfy our need for sociability.
So...playing games can increase the connections between brains cells and between people.
But we all know games are a waste of time. The problem is, we do waste our time. We watch TV and movies. We waste hours. Apparently we have a need to waste time, or at least to spend time doing something other than working, even when our work is enjoyable.
Since passive entertainment like watching TV doesn’t seem to enrich our minds and playing games does, here’s the bottom line: Games are a better waste of time than TV or movies.
Here are two tips for replacing some of your TV time with games:
1. Mix it up. Different games require different skills. Your partners will be good at some, lousy at others. Mix it up and you won’t win or lose all the time and you’ll get better in areas in which you are now weak.
2. Play games you think are fun. The games that are likely to do you the most good are the ones you think are fun. If chess isn’t fun for you, regardless of its stature in the gleaming world of the sophisticated set, don’t start there. Be guided by one criterion: Fun.
You don't need to find games that stretch your mind. You don’t need to make a game “do you some good.” As long as you’re having fun, it is doing you some good. The benefit is in the fun. If you’re concentrating too hard on trying to do something good for yourself, it won’t be as much fun, so it won’t be as good for you.
So relax and enjoy yourself. Replace some of your TV time with game playing, and you’ll be better off.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.