Do Brain Training Games & Techniques Make Us Smarter?

Brain WorkoutWe’ve all seen and heard the ads – brain training games will make you smarter! Partly fueled by the engagement, variety, and dynamic interaction that video games offer, various brain training games (e.g., Lumosity, NeuroActive, Big Brain Academy, Brain Age) and other software (e.g., CogMed) promise to (or suggest might) improve specific cognitive abilities such as working memory and even overall intelligence. Some professional establishments (I shall not name them but they know who they are) claim that they are sort of a brain gym that will balance your child’s brain in ways that boost cognitive functioning and overall IQ.
The braining training industry is now over $1 billion/year with projections to surpass $6 billion/year by 2020. Here’s the key question – do brain training games (and other approaches) really work? Do they actually improve working memory and/or overall intelligence? There is promise in brain training games and other approaches because the brain is malleable (known as neuroplasticity). Every time we learn something, our brain changes. New synapses are formed and, in some cases, even new neurons. We can learn a foreign language, advanced mathematics, and how to play a musical instrument even as adults. When we do, our brains do grow new neural connections. So, in a sense, our brain is like a muscle that grows stronger by working it out.
Some studies have found that brain training games do improve certain cognitive skills. For example, a recent study showed that adults ages 60-85 who played a game NeuroRacer for 12 hours over the course of a month showed improvements in other cognitive tests of attention and working memory. The researchers also found corresponding improvements in EEG readings for these participants. However, the study needs to be replicated and expanded before firm conclusions can be drawn.
Most of us, including myself, really want to believe we can grow smarter through exercising our brains like a muscle. At least, we would like to stave off the effects of aging on our brains. I sure don’t like to think that my brain is weakening with age! Unfortunately, that makes us eager to buy into the promise of brain training – both figuratively and literally. 
Does Brain Training Make Us Smarter?

  1. Despite the findings from the above study, in general, it does not appear that brain training games/software improve working memory or overall cognitive functioning. A recent meta-analysis (study statistically aggregating the results from other studies) did not find brain training improved working memory. There isn’t evidence that these brain training games boost overall IQ either.
  2. When claims are being made by companies about the effectiveness of such software, one must always ask, “What is the evidence and who’s evidence is it?” If it is the company’s own research, I wouldn’t count it. It’s a case of the fox guarding the hen house. Even when well-intentioned, internal research is subject to a type of confirmation bias knows as “an allegiance effect.” We are inherently biased toward whatever we are selling or promoting. That’s why the research needs to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Publications are not completely free of bias either. There’s a bias known as a “publication bias” in which null findings (no differences between groups) tend not to get published because they are not as interesting as studies that find differences between groups. Thus, even when studies are published finding a relationship between brain training and improved cognitive functioning, there are likely many more studies that did not find such a connection that were not published – either because they were not submitted or the journal editors deemed the null findings “not interesting enough” to publish. I do not count anecdotal claims such as, “Johnny improved three reading grades after two months of training with Beefy Brain!” because such claims are subject to many biases as well (e.g., cherry-picking the case examples, allegiance effects, and effort justification to name a few).
  3. As Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’ve heard of certain companies that purport to balance/retrain the brain claim they can increase IQ by an average of 15 points…!?! Not surprisingly, such claims have not been substantiated in peer-reviewed journals. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
  4. Although brain training might improve certain areas of cognitive functioning, it doesn’t appear that these improvements are generalizable. In other words, the improvements within the software or game don’t translate to gains outside of the software/game.
  5. The placebo effect is huge. Many positive effects seen in medicine (e.g., pain management, antidepressants) and other health care (e.g., acupuncture, energy manipulation) are due in part (and sometimes whole) to the placebo effect as well as the therapeutic effects of”common factors” such as having a supportive caregiver listen to us. Just because someone feels smarter or makes better grades after some brain training games (or going to one of these businesses that claim to improve brain functioning), it does not mean that the brain functioning was improved by the training per se. For example, a teen might feel more confident and less stressed after such training and work harder in class as a result, thus getting better grades. The specific cognitive training is not responsible for the improved grades. Rather, other areas of functioning were improved as a result of training that could end up helping the individual.
  6. Related to the above, grit (stick-to-it-ness) has been found to be highly correlated with success academically and in other areas of life…even more so than IQ. Perhaps repetitive and challenging brain training games help develop grit in users. So, improvements in performance seen after arduous brain training could be due to the enhancement of grit that helps users experience greater success that is then mistakenly attributed to enhanced cognitive functioning rather than to enhanced grit.
  7. Different types of brain training, including games, might help foster a growth mindset (the perspective that the brain, like a muscle, grows stronger with practice) rather than a fixed mindset (the perspective that intelligence is “fixed” and unchanging – one has it or one doesn’t). Research shows that persons with a growth mindset tend to take on challenges, and those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges. Tackling challenges fosters grit which, in turn, leads to greater accomplishments and success. Brain training, by its very nature, represents a growth mindset perspective.
  8. There is some research to indicate that learning a foreign language and taking on new, challenging activities could delay the onset of age-related cognitive declines and Alzheimer’s. So, perhaps brain training could prove helpful in some respects but, again, generalizability might be the issue. The skills developed through the brain training software to date do not seem to generalize to day-to-day life.
  9. It might be that the brain training does produce results in people where it is a form of rehabilitation for an injury or condition (e.g., head injury, stroke, age-related cognitive decline) rather than just trying to enhance cognitive functioning in children and adults without such conditions.
  10. Newer and more sophisticated technologies and approaches along with updated research might (are likely?) to find brain training games and approaches to be beneficial. However, they will not be a panacea. I don’t think it is likely that huge gains (like 15 IQ points) in cognitive functioning are a possibility in the near future. We are a long way from learning kung fu in 10 seconds by being jacked into The Matrix! Also, any substantial, generalizable cognitive improvements will be the result of A LOT of hard work…hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of training.
  11. When it comes to brain training, opportunity cost is an issue. That is, when someone is spending time brain training, what is he or she NOT doing instead? For example, if a person gives up some sleep or exercise in order to do some brain training, it is likely that they won’t experience gains because both exercise and sleep are necessarily for optimal brain functioning.
  12. With brain training games and approaches, the cart is still before the horse. There is definitely promise, but it is important to not lot hope and hype cloud our discernment of the realities of brain training at THIS stage of the game. Keep your eyes and ears open for new findings as high-quality research is published in peer-reviewed journals. Just remember that any extraordinary claims will require extraordinary evidence.

In my next blog, I’ll cover whether brain training games and businesses could actually be harmful to people.

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