Improve Your Intelligence with Brain Workshop

Everywhere you turn there are "brain training" games that claim to help you "lower your brain age" or "boost your brain power" and other such marketing hyperbole. Much like saying a certain breakfast cereal is "more satisfying" than other cereals, these claims are basically meaningless.

As fun as they may be to play, brain training games have one fundamental flaw: the improvements you see the more you perform the exercises are not evidence of your brain becoming better, smarter, or faster. Instead, the improvements are the same sorts of improvements that you will see in almost any task: the more you practice, the better you get at it. You haven't gotten any smarter, you've just learned how to perform the task at hand faster and more efficiently which translates into a better score.

An example from one recent brain training game, The Amazing Brain Train, is illustrative of my point. One of the mini-games is called "Pond Sum". In this exercise the idea is to guide a frog across a grid of lily pads laid out on a pond. Each pad is numbered and the idea is to guide the frog in such a way that the sum of all of the numbers that he jumps on will equal the number displayed at the top of the screen.

The Amazing Brain Train is another brain training game.

The Amazing Brain Train is another brain training game.

The exercise is a fun one and the presentation is excellent with nice sound effects and animated ducks and fish swimming past in the pond as you jump. As a game it succeeds very well, but does it make me smarter? Research suggest the answer to that question is "probably not". The real provable benefit that a mini-game like Pond Sum has is it helps me get really good at adding small numbers together quickly. This is a useful skill, so the game is not a total waste of time, but beyond the actual task of adding numbers together, there is not a measurable benefit to overall intelligence.

Recent research has suggested that a certain exercise can actually overcome this "practice makes perfect" issue and increase both short-term memory and fluid intelligence. The exercise is called "Dual N-Back" and it is the focus of a new brain training game called "Brain Workshop" that for once, may actually work.


Brain Workshop is a new program under active development and it is therefore probably not in your distribution's application repository. That will probably change in the future, but for now, you will likely need to install it manually. The instructions below should work on most current Linux distributions, but I've only tested them on Ubuntu.

Brain Workshop is a graphical python program and it needs a reasonably current version of Python. To see which version of python you have, open your terminal and type:

python --version

As long as the version number it spits out is greater than Python 2.5, you should be ok. If you don't have python installed then install it from your distribution's package repositories.

There is a single dependency (apart from Python 2.5+) that is required: AVbin. AVbin is a wrapper around ffmpeg that the Brain Workshop developers use to play the sounds of the game. As of this writing, the version Brain Workshop uses is avbin-linux-x86-32-7. Be sure to check the Brain Workshop Linux Download page for updated information.

For AVbin the installation procedure is easy as it ships with an install script. The basic tasks are to download it (see the link above), untar it, and then run the install script, which copies AVbin to /usr/lib

tar -zxvf avbin-linux-x86-32-7.tar.gz 
cd avbin-linux-x86-32-7/
sudo ./ 

Now that AVbin is installed, you can download Brain Workshop from the Linux download page and run it. Brain Workshop is a Python script so no install or compiling is necessary, you can just run it from where you unzip the zip file like so:

cd brainworkshop
python brainworkshop.pyw 

If everything works then you should see the main screen appear and when you are playing you should hear the game sounds through your speakers or headphones.

The Brain Workshop Main Screen

The Brain Workshop main screen.

You can also add a launcher to your Gnome or KDE panel to make starting Brain Workshop easier. For an icon for the launcher, there's a handy .png file inside the brainworkshop/res/ folder.

A simple launcher for Brain Workshop

A simple launcher for Brain Workshop

Playing Brain Workshop

Compared to most "brain training" activities, Dual N-Back is more difficult and not as entertaining (for me anyway).

The 'Dual' part of Dual N-Back refers to the number of things to remember and 'N' refers to the number of times back that you're supposed to remember. The two things to remember in Dual N-Back are a spoken letter, and the position of a square on a 3x3 grid.

Each session has 20 trials plus whatever the 'N' is. The square can appear in any of the grid spaces except the middle space. The letters in the default mode are limited to 'C', 'H', 'K', 'L', 'Q', 'R', 'S', and 'T'.

The game defaults to Dual 2-Back, but I suggest you start with Dual 1-Back, at least for your first few sessions. To change to Dual 1-Back, press "m" to go into manual mode, then press the F1 key to decrease the N-Back to one.

Here is an example session of Dual 1-Back:

Trial 1: Spoken Letter = "C"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 1
In trial one I don't do anything but memorize that the spoken letter was "C" and the square was in the top left corner.

Trial 2: Spoken Letter = "L"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 2
In trial two both the letter and the square are different than they were in trial one, so I don't have to do anything.

Trial 3: Spoken Letter = "C"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 3
In trial three the spoken letter is different, but the square is in the same place as it was in trial two, so I press the "Position Match" key (A).

Trial 4: Spoken Letter = "C"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 4
In trial four the position of the square has changed from what it was in trial three, but the spoken letter is the same, so I press the "Audio Match" key (L).

Trial 5: Spoken Letter = "K"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 5
In trial five both the position and the spoken letter are different from what they were in trial four, so I do nothing.

Trial 6: Spoken Letter = "K"

A sample run through of Brain Workshop, trial 6
In trial six both the position of the square and the spoken letter are the same as they were in trial five so I press both the "Position Match" and "Audio Match" keys.

The exercise continues like this for the remainder of the trials.

Once you've mastered Dual 1-Back, switch to normal mode and give Dual 2-Back a try. Dual 2-Back is harder than Dual 1-Back, but not too bad. Using the same set of example trials above, here is how they would play if I was playing Dual 2-Back:

Trials 1–2
In trials one and two I don't have to do anything but memorize what was said and where the square was on the grid.
Trial 3
In trial three the position of the square is the same as it was in trial two, but this is Dual 2-back and I need to remember the state of things two trials back, so I need to remember that the position of the square is different than it was in trial one, but the spoken letter is the same, so I press the "Audio Match" key (L).
Trial 4
In trial four the position of the square and the spoken letter are different than they were in trial two, so I do nothing.
Trial 5
In trial five the spoken letter is different than it was in trial three but the position of the square is the same so I press the "Position Match" key.
Trial 6
In trial six the position of the square and the spoken letter are different than they were in trial four, so I do nothing.

If you think playing this game sounds hard, I agree with you. If you think it sounds easy, I salute you. I think the mental difficulty of this game and how it forces you to remember two completely different things is what makes it work as well as the research says it does. The mental stretching and gymnastics required are also what makes it not as fun as other brain games in my opinion. I do like playing the game, just not as often as I play other games. I have to be "in the mood" for it, I guess, which probably is along the same lines as the reason I don't exercise as much as I should — it's not as fun as alternatives.

Assuming you find the game entertaining, but you also find Dual 1-Back or 2-Back too difficult, you can play Position N-Back or Audio N-Back by pressing 'C' to go to the "Choose Game Type" screen and then pressing "0" or "1" respectively. Then, once you are proficient playing each one separately, you can try them together.

On the flip side, Brain Workshop also includes several ways you can increase the difficulty. One way is by increasing the N to whatever number you want. The other is by increasing the number of things you need to remember from Dual to Triple.

There are also some experimental modes, including Dual Letter N-Back, Tri Letter N-Back, Quad Letter N-Back, and Arithmetic N-Back (including Dual and Triple variants). These experimental modes add things like remembering a spoken and visual letter in addition to the position of the square, or performing the spoken arithmetic operation on some displayed numbers. Personally they just make my head hurt, but you might find them a good way to increase the challenge.

No brain trainer would be complete without some way to chart your progress and Brain Workshop has simple "Daily Progress Graph" section that plots your improvement (or lack) on a simple grid. You get to the mode by pressing 'g' from the main screen and then pressing 'n' to cycle between the graphs for the various game types.

Brain Workshop includes simple progress charts.

Brain Workshop includes simple progress charts.

If you want to delve under the covers of the game, the settings for Brain Workshop are kept in the brainworkshop/data/config.ini file. You can edit the file and tweak the settings. In the file you can do things like changing the background from white to black, removing the window decorations, changing the size of the window, setting the arithmetic operations to use, and so on. The file is fairly self-explanatory, but you might want to make a backup first in case you break something.

The game is under heavy development and it will inform you when a new version is available for download. The basic gameplay has remained the same over the different versions that were released during the past few weeks I've been using the software, but various bugs relating to graphics and sound issues have been fixed so I definitely recommend getting the new updates as they are released.


So, is Brain Workshop better than other brain training programs? The research that has been done suggests that it is better at actually improving your intelligence. That is a good thing. However, it is not as fun to play in my opinion as other brain games. So which is better? The exercise you actually do because it's fun? Or the exercise that is better for you, but which you don't play as much?

Whatever the answer is to that question, I am glad that some open source developers have taken the time to implement this research into an actual product. In the process they have leapt over most other games in this category by providing something that real research has suggested actually works, instead of something that a marketing department would like to convince you actually works.

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