Does Brain Training Work?
Their advertisements are EVERYWHERE on the internet.
Keep your brain young. Train your brain in minutes a day. Games developed by top neuroscientists. What could you do with a sharper brain?
Of course I’m talking about the brain training industry. You’ll likely recognize names like Lumosity, Brain Age, and Cogmed. Those are just a few of the big names and the list of players is growing. In 2014 an estimated 1.3 billion was spent on brain training. That’s billion…..with a B.
It’s no surprise that people are interested in improving their brain abilities. It’s human nature to want to be stronger, better, and faster. Also, a large part of the US is increasingly older. For them, it’s about maintaining a quality of life and staying productive. Nobody wants to be a burden on friends and family.
You may have even seen brain training in the news. One week you may read an article about how brain games work. Next week, you see an article about how it’s not effective. If you’re a bit confused, don’t worry. A lot of people are.
So let’s shed a little light on this subject. I’ll break down the reasons for the confusion, take a look at expert opinions, and take an objective look to see if it’s worth your time.
What I mean “Brain Training”
I feel a need to clarify here. Brain Training is used loosely in the media, sometimes to describe many types of cognitive training. It’s important because some forms of cognitive training are more specific, have been test more rigorously, with different levels of effectiveness.
For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at software type “brain games”. I’m talking big companies with commercialized products and large marketing budgets. And usually they have a number of different games for you to play, and promote that they increase various types of cognitive abilities.
Why the Conflicting Reports in the Media?
There is a reason why you may be reading conflicting reports on the brain training debate. It’s a pretty complex issue. And sometimes the media glosses over these finer points. Let’s take a brief look at some of the factors that come into play when looking at the science.
Who is Being Studied
Not all the research is looking at the same groups of people. For example, you have children, adults, and seniors. You also have people with learning disabilities, trauma, dementia, or different levels of cognitive decline. These brain differ in age, development, function, and have different needs. The results of brain training have been shown to vary from group to group.
What is Being Measured
There are variety of cognitive abilities. IQ is a well known, but by far not the only one. There’s processing speed, cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and plenty more.
There is more than one way to measure cognitive abilities. IQ, for example, can be tested by several methods by more than a single test. To get a better, more accurate picture, a number of tests can (and should) be used to measure IQ.
Using many tests to measure an ability is good. But you can see how this can quickly become a labor intensive task to use multiple types of test on a number of cognitive abilities.
What are the Benefits
Can the training make an impact on your day to day life? If you’re investing time, you’ll want to see real results. Without an increase in quality of life, what’s the point?
The research community calls this “transfer”. Can practicing the game transfer to tasks in real life. “Near” transfer means that there isn’t any benefit other than just getting better at the game.
“Far” transfer, on the other hand, is the holy grail of brain training. It’s what the researchers are striving for. So by training on the task, you will see a benefit in abilities and skills above and beyond that of just the game.
Duration of Training and Benefits
How long does one have to train before they start to see any benefits? Does it take hours? Weeks? Maybe months before you can see any benefits?
And after you see an increase in mental ability, how long does it last? Will it stick with you, or is it more like a muscle? Will you lose the benefit over time if you don’t constantly maintain your practice regime?
These are all important questions. But so far, the research hasn’t uncovered any solid answers.
Letter from the Experts
In 2014, a group of 70 scientists addressed their concerns about the brain training industry in a letter.
The letter cautions consumers about the claims being made by the companies and other marketing tactics they use. Their marketing messages not only exaggerate, but also mislead the public. There is little evidence that playing brain games will “improve broad cognitive abilities”, raise IQ, or prevent Alzheimer’s. While some research avenues show some promise, they emphasize that the issue is complex. Only further studies can uncover whether the benefits are real.
In the closing of the letter they say this:
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”
Is Brain Training Effective?
The evidence says no. Not for normal healthy adults at least.
So don’t believe the marketing hype that is currently splashed across their websites. Other experts agree that the games and and studies used to back their claims haven’t been thoroughly test and only loosely related to the research of enhancing cognitive abilities.
That’s not to say that there isn’t hope for brain training. For select groups of people, it can show a modest effect. But this doesn’t hold for the majority of us. Some methods are showing some promise. But those techniques only reflect a small percentage of the games that these companies are promoting.
In time, evidence might reveal better methods by which we can actually train our brains. In their current state, though, it seems the games are just simply that. Games.
A More Important Question
There is another question that rarely gets asked when studying brain training. The concept is touched upon by the experts in their letter. They state:
“Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it.”
The concept of opportunity cost shouldn’t be undervalued. Even if brain training does turn out to produce benefits, you have to weigh them against the benefits of other activities. Pound for pound, will an hour of brain drills be more effective than say, doing an hour of exercise – which also has many cognitive benefits. This issue is rarely brought up in the brain training debate.
Old School Brain Training
Why invest your time or money in something that has yet to prove itself? Especially when we already know you can get brain health benefits – backed by science – from other activities. It makes more sense to spend time on proven activities to improve your brain and help you enjoy your life. Some of the biggest activities that can improve your life – and even your cognitive abilities – are things like:
Strengthening Your Social Circle
Engaging in novel and challenging activities
Which are some of the core pillars of brain health I promote here at TheBrainFlux.
Image Credit: Lydia Darnall