A red flag always goes up in my mind when I see an entire industry sprout up around something that doesn’t have a lot of research backing. That’s been the problem with these so-called “brain games” — you know, those video or online games that supposedly improve your memory or thinking.
Makers of these games like to point to studies of people who were older (usually seniors), had existing memory or cognitive problems or other issues who engaged in specific tasks and then were shown to have some improvement in memory or cognition. Few studies have been done on these games with everyday folks like you and I. And fewer still studies have been done on the specific games being marketed to consumers (often the studies use tasks that the games then try and replicate, but we don’t know if they’re replicating all the important bits or not). And fewer still studies have been done and published in peer-reviewed professional journals (not just on people’s websites).
So when the prestigious journal Nature publishes a study about real brain games used on a large sample size, this is going to be a piece of research that gets our attention.
The study recruited 8,600 participants ages 16 to 60 to play online brain games designed to improve people’s memory skills, reasoning and other cognitive abilities. They were compared to a group of 2,700 people who did not play these “brain games,” but instead spent a similar amount of time on the Internet and answering general knowledge questions.
The primary measure of change was an IQ test given to all participants before and after the experiment.
The researchers found that there were no significant differences between the two groups at the end of the experiment.
Now, granted, there are some obvious limitations to this experiment. The brain games were made up by the researchers — not existing games put to the test. We have no idea whether commercially available games would fare better or not.
So how did commercial producers of these “brain games” respond to the new study? Well, denial of course!
One maker of brain games said the BBC study did not apply to its products. Steve Aldrich, CEO of Posit Science, said the company’s games, some of which were funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, have been proven to boost brain power. […]
Posit Science has published research in journals including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing their games improved memory in older people.
You can look at all of the training references yourself for Posit Science’s programs. Not a single one of them suggests the skills measured in these studies generalize to everyday life after the training is completed:
“There is precious little evidence to suggest the skills used in these games transfer to the real world,” said Art Kramer, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois. He was not linked to the study and has no ties to any companies that make brain training games.
Nowhere on Posit Science’s marketing page for its “Brain Fitness Program” does it mention that every claim it’s making is based on a very specific population of older individuals. Or that the tasks it says it improves will help you with real-life tasks in memory or cognition. There’s nothing wrong with what science does exist that’s behind these games. But developers like Posit Science aren’t telling you that if you’re 21 and looking to improve your memory scores for help with studying for an exam, there’s little evidence this stuff is going to do anything for you.
So what’s a mind that wants to improve to do? Easy. Exercise remains the simplest thing you can do to improve your brain.
He said people should consider learning a new language or sport if they really wanted to improve their brain power. “To stimulate the intellect, you need a real challenge,” said [Philip Adey, an emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at King’s College in London], adding computer games were not an easy shortcut. “Getting smart is hard work.”
Other types of activities that challenge your brain with novelty include crossword puzzles and Sudoku.
Food for thought next time you consider buying one of those “brain training” games or videos. A crossword puzzle or a walk around your neighborhood may be just as effective (and far cheaper!).
Read the full article: Study: Brain games don’t make you smarter