Is training your brain just a game?

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Health / Psychology / Myths / Medicine

Want to be smarter and better at concentrating? Want to improve your memory and protect yourself against dementia? Brain-training programs promise all this and more – but do they work?

Do brain-training games make you smarter? Image credit: dire schaefer via Flickr

The claims

The logic behind brain training is simple. Carry out a mental task repeatedly, and you get better at it. It could be memorising a string of numbers, or fitting together a series of shapes as fast as possible or any number of other ‘fun games’. If repeating these tasks improves your memory, concentration or critical thinking, it seems reasonable to suggest you’ll also get better at real-life tasks that depend on the same skills. The catch phrase is neuroplasticity: our brains change as a result of how we use them.

You don’t have to spend long exploring brain-training websites to find a huge variety of claims about the benefits awaiting you once you start playing. For a start, you can expect ‘135 percent faster auditory processing’, ‘increased brain activation’, ‘improved cognition’sustained improvements in working memory’, improved focus and speaking abilities, ‘lower risk of depression’ and ‘more happy days’. All of the brain-training websites I looked at cited long lists of scientific research papers to back up their claims.

Many respected scientists have put their names to brain training, serving as experts for the numerous brain-training companies. And hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have documented the benefits of brain training. One important study published in 2015 looked at the effects of brain training in nearly 7000 people over the age of 50. The results? Within six weeks of beginning training, the study participants showed improved reasoning skills.

It would be easy to conclude that investing time – and money – in brain training would be a wise choice. We’ve certainly embraced the phenomenon: it’s been estimated we’ll spend $US3.38 billion on brain training annually by 2020. But are we putting our money to good use, or are we being conned?

Checkmate

Many scientists have questioned the claims made by brain-training advocates. And while studies have documented the benefits of brain training, other researchers have looked for improvements in mental functioning after brain training and found none. In 2010, a study of more than 11,000 people found no evidence for the transferability of reasoning, memory, planning or attention skills learned playing the training games to any real-life situations. In 2014, a group of more than 70 psychologists and neuroscientists published a ‘consensus statement’ arguing that although as a community, we are very fearful of losing our memories and other mental skills as we age, ‘claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading’. They didn’t suggest we don’t learn new skills playing brain-training games. But importantly,  they argue there’s no evidence that playing brain-training games helps us in the real world.

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. Consensus statement (2014)

But later the same year, more than 100 scientists responded with another statement, arguing ‘certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalise to everyday life’.

To train or not to train

Last year, in what could be the nail in the coffin, a group of scientists published a review of every research paper that brain-training companies have cited as evidence for the power of brain training – a total of 374 papers. It took them two years to review all of the research. The authors concluded that none of this research is without problems. For example, many of the studies included only a small number of participants. Others failed to take the placebo effect into account (simply telling someone that playing a game will improve their skills can lead to improved skills). They conclude brain training might make you good, even exceptionally good, at a particular game. But there’s essentially no evidence that playing a brain-training game will have any flow-on effects in the rest of your life.

Lumos Labs, the group behind the popular brain training site Lumosity, paid a heavy price for exaggerated claims about brain training: $US2 million. In 2016, the Federal Trade Commission declared Lumos Labs misled consumers with unfounded claims that ‘Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.’ Another smaller brain-training company paid $US200,000 and agreed to stop ‘making a range of false and unsubstantiated claims.’

The fact is, if you want to get good at brain-training games, playing these games is an excellent plan – and there are plenty of free ones available online. But if you want to improve your memory, concentration or ability to think creatively and critically, there are plenty of better things you could do with your time than stare at a screen. Experts recommend a number of more effective approaches. Firstly, get some exercise: your brain will benefit from the increased blood flow. Second, learn something new. This is a sure-fire way of kick-starting your thinking. Finally, hang out with your friends – being sociable is great for our brains.

Anyone care to join me at a salsa class? We know dancing is an excellent way to ward off dementia.

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