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Are Brain Training Apps a Waste of Time, Money?

By Nathaniel Scharping
Oct 4, 2016 1:10 AMNov 20, 2019 2:56 AM


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(Credit: Shutterstock) Brain training games have been a hit among both elderly individuals hoping to keep their minds sharp, and younger people searching for a competitive edge. But are the mental jumping jacks and cortex curls worth the time and energy? That's a difficult question. A new review of scientific studies on mental exercise gives us good reason to be brain training skeptics — the latest volley in an ongoing debate between researchers. Authored by a team of seven researchers, the review analyzed over 350 papers assessing the effectiveness of various methods of brain training. They found that the evidence for improvement is weak at best, and that many of the papers suffered from methodological flaws that call their conclusions into question. Most importantly, they found that so-called "transfer effects" — the potential for specific exercises to confer wide-ranging mental benefits — are effectively non-existent.

Contentious Question

Researchers were inspired to conduct their review by a pair of open letters, each signed by dozens of researchers, that offered contrasting opinions on the efficacy of brain training. The first, authored by the Stanford Center on Longevity in 2014, argued that there was no evidence to support the efficacy of brain games, although isolated benefits could exist. A rebuttal was quickly issued by Cognitive Training Data, a website maintained by Michael Merzenich, a professor of neuropsychology at the University of California San Francisco and founder of Posit Science Corporation, which distributes cognitive training programs. They conceded that better research was necessary, but defended prior research showing that brain training games had a positive effect. In this new review paper, published Monday in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, researchers from various universities combed through a corpus of published data to sort fact from fiction.

Digging a Little Deeper

On the surface, it appeared that there was a substantial body of evidence supporting the transfer effect and of the benefits of brain games in general. But when the researchers dug deeper, many of the papers that claimed to find a positive correlation between mental exercises cognition turned out to be poorly designed. A lack of control groups, failure to publish complete results and the absence of pretest baselines were among the most serious flaws. This means that, in studies that showed improvements, the benefits could just as likely be attributed to placebo effects or external influences as to the games themselves. Based on these procedural shortcomings, the researchers say that much of evidence in favor of brain games should be called into question. Not every study was flawed, of course, but even those that did conform to standards failed to show that brain training games were the mental cure-all that many hoped. In studies that documented brain games' positive effects, participants simply got better at the task they were assigned. Playing the crossword every day, for example, just makes you better at solving crosswords.

Problem for Companies

This may be bad news for companies like Lumosity, which have relied on similar papers to sell variations on the premise that playing games that test your brain will "strengthen" it. The Federal Trade Commission recently fined Lumosity $2 million and told the company to alter its marketing after doubts emerged regarding its methods. The researchers didn't find any harmful outcomes from playing the brain games, and they do acknowledge that our understanding of the transfer effect and neuroplasticity in general is still incomplete. Still, there may be other ways to help your brain. For example, take a walk in the park — there is a fairly well-established correlation between exercise and cognition. Instead of playing an app, you could read a book, learn a language or pursue a new hobby — all activities that stimulate the brain without a smartphone.

For a first-person take on the debate, check out contributor Dan Hurley's months-long experiment testing out various methods of brain training for himself.

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