Are Brain-Training Games Worth It?

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Jan. 28 2014 10:58 AM

Are Brain-Training Games Worth It?

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Can games keep your brain sharp?

Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

This post originally appeared on The Conversation.

The-Conversation

I’m not old by any means, but I’ve become a little more forgetful lately. This morning I poured myself a thermos of coffee and left for lab, abandoning it on the kitchen counter. I nearly forgot about the paper I had to review this week until I saw the deadline looming on my desk calendar. And I didn’t remember my friend’s birthday until logging into Facebook—and I’m always the one people rely on to remember birthdays.

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I sure could use a little memory boost. Unfortunately, despite the growing popularity of brain-training apps and programs like Lumosity, CogniFit, CogMed, and Jungle Memory, I’m not going to find any help here; studies raise doubt about whether they have any tangible effect on improving cognition.

Lumosity co-founder Michael Scanlon means well, though. He started up the company in 2005 with Kunal Sarkar and David Drescher, after dropping out of his neuroscience Ph.D. at Stanford. Since then the company has reached more than 35m people and this time last year the company’s mobile app was being downloaded nearly 50,000 times a day.

“Lumosity is based on the science of neuroplasticity,” the commercials tout, and Lumosity’s website advertises its ability to “train memory and attention” through a “personalized training program.” This plan includes more than 40 games designed to boost memory, flexibility, attention, processing speed, and general problem-solving ability.

Lumosity has even put out a fancy PDF describing the science behind their games and changes in individuals’ BPT (brain performance test) scores before and after training.

A year after Lumosity’s official launch in 2007, Susanne Jaeggi and colleagues at Columbia University published a study suggesting that memory training not only enhanced short-term memory ability, but actually boosted one’s IQ an entire point per hour of training. Wow!

But Thomas Redick and colleagues at Georgia Tech thought it sounded too good to be true. With a skeptical eye, they attempted to replicate Jaeggi’s findings. This time, unlike Jaeggi’s study, they tested 17 different cognitive tasks, including tasks for fluid intelligence, multitasking, working memory, and perceptual speed. They also had two control groups: one that underwent placebo training, and one that did no testing whatsoever.

After 20 sessions, Redick found that while participants improved performance on the tasks at hand, their newfound abilities never actually transferred to any global measure of intelligence or cognition. Their study was published last May.

Another investigation, published in December by a group at Case Western Reserve University, employed a similar placebo-controlled design. Focusing on working memory and abstract problem-solving, they found that even training for up to 20 days resulted in no significant improvement in mental capacity. Again, though, the researchers did note that performance on the specific tasks improved.

When Adrian Owen and colleagues of Cambridge University reported similar results after a six-week online cognitive training regime using 11,400 participants, he attributed these task improvements to familiarity—not a true change in cognitive ability.

And a recent meta-analysis of 23 studies confirmed these and others’ findings. Monica Melby-Lervåg and Charles Hulme of University of Oslo concluded that brain-training programs did indeed produce short-term, highly specific improvements in the task at hand, but with no generalized improvements to overall intelligence, memory, attention, or other cognitive ability.

In other words, according to these studies, it seems that remembering which shape came before the circle in the sequence will not help you remember that one last item on your grocery list as you’re out shopping. And it certainly won’t raise your IQ by any significant amount.

In this age of tablets and mobile devices, it’s unfortunate that something so readily available cannot help us exercise our minds in ways that may benefit us beyond the screen.

And these revelations may be especially bad news for many who put reliance on apps like Lumosity everyday—the elderly attempting to ward off dementia, for example. Or those suffering from brain trauma and individuals with learning disabilities.

The takeaway message from these studies? If you enjoy the games, by all means continue. But don’t necessarily believe the hype nor continue wasting your money if you’re using these apps to truly improve your memory, reaction time, or intelligence in the longer term.

If the idea of using mental exercise to stave off the effects of age on memory and other functions still appeals, then continue to expose yourself to a variety of problem-solving skills throughout the day—and not necessarily on the computer.

Or, if you’re anything like me, just try to remember where you actually placed your morning coffee before you leave the house. The shot of caffeine probably does more for my workday brainpower than any brain-training app will.

The Conversation

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine. She a columnist at the Conversation, writes the blog Gaines, on Brains and is a regular contributor to NBC, Nature Education, and Psychology Today.

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