Brain training has gained popularity in recent years. But does it really work? Some are not so sure. Most certainly, Gareth Cook does not think so. In a 2014 New Yorker blog post titled “Brain training games are bogus,” Cook lambasted companies such as Lumosity, Jungle Memory, and CogniFit. The author even went so far as to say that 10 hours of brain training per week could be dangerous because it gives people false hope and prevents them from engaging in more healthy activities, such as exercising.
Military and clinical neuropsychologists have used structured sets of brain exercises focusing on one specific brain area or function for decades. Today, game developers repackage these exercises into software for commercial use.
Basic applications assess and enhance cognitive abilities. Sophisticated adaptive packages offer several tools to exercise different brain structures. These advanced software platforms also enhance cognitive function by continually responding to user performance and incrementally increasing difficulty accordingly.
Brain training software applications exploded onto the market about 10 years ago. Perhaps one of the best-known brain trainers is Lumosity, a web-based program that offers games promising to improve memory and attention. More than 50 million people now use Lumosity in hopes of strengthening their brains. Millions more use brain training websites such as the California-based Happy Neuron and Cogmed.
Most of these sites focus on improving short-term memory, although they prefer the term “working memory.” They also promise to improve attention, language, and executive functions, along with visual and spatial skills.
BrainGameReview separates the brain game market into the following segments:
- Scientifically validated brain games: Based on established neurocognitive tests and referenced in peer-reviewed journals
- Brain training programs: Scientifically validated brain game “coaching systems”
- Casual brain games: Not backed by scientific validation, and for entertainment and general education purposes only
Scientifically validated brain games provide great hope for those suffering from serious cognitive problems; casual brain games offer serious fun and entertainment. Brain training programs lie somewhere in the middle.
Brain Training Works
Makers of brain training software are quick to provide information that shows their product improves some measure of cognitive performance. The Cogmed website offers links to more than 40 published articles to prove the efficacy of their product. Subjects range from “Polymorphisms in the dopamine receptor 2 gene region influence improvements during working memory training in children and adolescents” to “Working memory training in college students with ADHD or LD.”
On their research page, Lumosity boasts about a study of 1204 students from 40 different schools who had better scores on cognitive assessments after supplementing their studies with Lumosity exercises than students who did not complete the company’s brain training.
Brain training does show promise for reversing some signs of aging. In a study funded by Health Games Research, a program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and by the National Institute on Aging, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that one specially designed 3-D video game could improve cognitive performance in older adults.
In the game, study participants raced around a track where signs popped up intermittently. Researchers told participants to ignore all but one type of sign; participants were instructed to press a button when they saw that particular sign. This abrupt change from driving the car to responding to the signs caused interference in the brain. The American Psychological Association says that brain interference caused by switching goals can cost up to 40% of productive time.
According to the researchers, this interference increases dramatically throughout the course of a lifetime. The UCFS team goes on to say that, after training on their NeuroRacer game for just 12 hours over 1 month, participants aged 60 to 85 performed better than 20-somethings playing the game for the first time.
In other words, multitasking undermines brain performance but brain training can rebuild it.
Brain Training Does Not Work
Researchers from the University of Oslo performed a meta-analysis of 23 investigations of memory training by teams around the world. They concluded the games improved performance in only a narrow set of tasks and that these improvements do not transfer to broader, more useful skills.
A research team at Georgia Tech tried to duplicate earlier research that supported the benefits of brain training. They divided 93 participants into 3 groups: control, 8-day brain game players, and 20-day brain gamers. Performance of the training task improved among the players but the playing participants showed no real improvement in mental abilities tested, especially fluid intelligence and working memory capacity.
So it seems scientifically validated brain training is likely to help individuals struggling with certain types of cognitive dysfunction. Casual brain games are entertaining and offer a fun way to learn. Research on both sides of the aisle suggests brain training programs improve cognitive function for specific tasks exclusive to that computer experience.
In other words, brain training games can teach the participant to drive a racecar in a video game, but these talents do not necessarily translate to the track at the Indy 500. In any event, many scientists, educators, and game developers would argue that brain training does not hurt, although Gareth Cook and others will likely disagree.
- About brain plasticity. BrainGameReview website. http://www.braingamereview.com/neuroplasticity-brain-plasticity/.
- Chooi W-T, Thompson LA. Working memory training does not improve intelligence in healthy young adults. Intelligence. 2012;40(6):531-542. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289612000839.
- Cogmed website. http://www.cogmed.com/.
- Completed research behind Lumosity. Lumosity website. http://www.lumosity.com/hcp/research/completed.
- Happy Neuron website. http://www.happy-neuron.com/.
- Kurtzman L. Training the older brain in 3-D: video game enhances cognitive control. University of California, San Francisco website. September 4, 2013. http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/09/108616/training-older-brain-3-d-video-game-enhances-cognitive-control.
- Lumosity website. http://www.lumosity.com/.
- Peer-reviewed research supports the claims made by Cogmed. Cogmed website. http://www.cogmed.com/published-research.
- Melby-Lervåg M, Hulme C. Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Develop Psychol. 2013;49(2):270-291. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/dev-49-2-270.pdf.
- Multitasking: switching costs. American Psychological Association website. https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx.