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Do Brain Games Make Us Smarter?

images 2As I get older, I find myself more drawn to the idea that we can train our brains to make us smarter. Although the idea might be seductive, a year ago I blogged in detail about brain training and said that the evidence doesn’t show that it improves our overall cognitive functioning. Has new research been conducted since that time? Do brain games make us smarter?

What’s the Verdict on Brain Games/Training?

Unfortunately, the answer is still “no.” The research doesn’t support that it truly makes us smarter or enhances specific cognitive abilities such as working memory. What inspired me to write an update was a recent article “Can You Train Your Brain” in Scientific American Mind (July/August of 2015) about brain training in which the author, Simon Makin, concludes that the research findings, in general, do not indicate that brain games make us smarter.  This isn’t just his opinion either. He noted that, “…last October a group of more than 70 neuroscientists working under the auspices of the Center on Longevity at Stanford University and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin issued a report stating: ‘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.'”

Near vs. Far Transfer Effects

When we talk about brain training, the concepts of near and far transfer effects come into play. Basically, near transfer effects mean that the brain training in one specific area/task can improve performance in a similar area/task. Far transfer is what neuroscientists, and the rest of us, are most interested in knowing. This speaks to the generalizability of the brain training. That is, does brain training broadly help improve our cognitive abilities so that our daily functioning in areas such as school and work are enhanced? There is still a lot of ongoing debate about all of this, but near transfer effects (e.g., training in working memory helps us with mental computations) is still questionable and far transfer effects don’t seem to be panning out at all.

Noteworthy Issues Regarding Brain Games/Training Research

Although some of the research on brain games is mixed, there are several important things to note when evaluating the claims about brain training/games:

1. The burden of proof is for researchers to show that it really works. In scientific research, we accept the null hypothesis of no differences/effects (i.e., brain games don’t result in cognitive improvements) unless rigorous AND independent studies show otherwise (statistically).
2. Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Any claims that brain games/training significantly improves our day-to-day cognitive functioning is an extraordinary claim.
3. Companies who profit from various sorts of brain training, such as Brain Balance, Lumosity, and Cogmed, have a strong, vested interest in supporting their claims that their brain games/training do produce generalized, sustained changes. But this is a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. With so much time, effort, and money invested into their companies, there is a strong confirmation bias in place. A confirmation bias can be totally unconscious and unintentional. It is just a natural cognitive bias that causes us to cherry-pick our data to support what we already believe and/or are invested in psychologically (and financially).
4. A publication bias, unfortunately, often comes into play in research. Statistically significant results are three times more likely to be published in a journal than studies of similarly high quality with null findings. So, studies that find positive effects of brain training are more likely to be published than those that don’t.
5. Related to the publication bias, there is a “file drawer effect” in that researchers who don’t find what they are looking for (e.g., that their brain training/games don’t enhance cognitive functioning) aren’t usually required to submit these findings for publication. As the name implies, the researchers can simply choose to file these studies into drawers so that the findings never see the light of day.
6. One can’t base broad conclusions on one or two studies alone. Studies should be replicable. They need to be rigorously controlled so that the results cannot be explained by other factors. For instance, some of the brain training studies that showed positive effects of brain games didn’t control for the motivation of the study participants. In general, research studies have found that when participants are being observed by researchers, they tend to work harder. Thus, some of the positive findings from some studies of brain games were better explained by the motivation of participants. When later studies controlled for this motivation, the benefits of the brain training disappeared.
7. A meta-analysis is a study in which researchers aggregate the data across many studies to determine, with greater confidence, what the effects of a treatment/intervention are. The authors of a recent meta-analysis on the efficacy of brain training to improve working memory concluded that the brain training appears to produce only short-term, specific improvements that do not generalize.

The Takeaway?

At this time, it still doesn’t appear that brain training/games are a worthwhile endeavor if the goal is to improve cognitive performance in a way that enhances day-to-day functioning. As I discussed in a previous blog, there is a potential harm in pursuing brain games/training in the form of opportunity costs. That is, instead of doing brain games for 10 hours per week, what else might we be doing that could be time better spent? Here are a few options that are likely to yield better results:

1. Get more sleep: There is a great deal of research that supports that sleep loss affects memory, mood, processing speed, and so on. If brain games/training are done at the expense of sleep, well that’s a big mistake!
2. Exercise: Exercise has been shown to improve aspects of cognitive functioning and delay age-related memory decline. If given the choice between brain games and exercise, exercise trumps brain games with regard to improving (or at least maintaining) cognitive functioning.
3. Learn something new: Learning a foreign language, how to draw/paint, or how to play a musical instrument might provide some cognitive benefits. Regardless, it can be useful (and fun) to acquire new skills and hobbies.
4. Play complicated video or board games: Playing games like Settlers of Catan, Civilization, and Dungeons & Dragons give the brain a workout and are loads of fun. Regardless of whether there are far transfer effects from these games, the fun and social connection that come from them are life enhancing.
5. Be more social: Research indicates that socializing can enhance aspects of cognitive functioning. Plus, our happiness is very dependent upon strong social connections so it is win-win to invest time into social relationships.
6. Maintain a healthy diet: The mind and body are connected and, while I’m not making claims that a healthy diet, or particular foods, significantly enhance cognitive functioning, it does appear that a healthy diet helps improve and maintain aspects of cognitive functioning.
When it comes to brain games and brain training, it’s important to look beyond the hype and promises and see what the research really says about the claims. At this point, it doesn’t seem that the promises of cognitive enhancement through brain games and training really hold up. Our time, money, and energy are better spent in other ways. If new research shows otherwise, I’ll be sure to post an update!

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