Neuromyth: “Brain Training” Is Supported by Neuroscience
Online computer games promise to improve “memory, problem solving, concentration, speed of thinking, language, and visual-spatial recognition.” They further promise that they “work your social skills, social awareness, self-awareness, and self-control” while you’re having fun. These are tempting offers, and this is a very lucrative and growing business in the United States as people age and many older adults seek out ways to maintain cognitive functioning.
“Brain training” grew from $600 million in annual revenues in 2009 to more than a $1 billion in 2012 and is projected to reach $4 to $10 billion by 2020, according to a 2016 promotional video by SharpBrains, a brain training enterprise. Brain training programs have many audiences. Some are aimed at aging populations, others at millennials, while others cater to young schoolchildren. “Brain training” is different than educational gaming in that brain training programs usually claim to be backed by neuroscience. Brain training is also usually computer mediated and prides itself as being “playful,” “fun,” and “enjoyable”: “Brain Training: Fun and Simple Exercises to Train Your Brain to Immediately Get Sharper, Faster, and More Powerful” seems like attractive alternatives to the hard work of learning. While it is correct to presume that learning does not have to be painful and can be enjoyable, brain training through commercial ventures is not necessarily the solution.
Where the Myth Comes From
Multiple commercial as well as clinical venues sell “brain training” services. The promise of improved brains with little effort is very attractive— humans always want as much as they can get with as little effort as possible. Many “brain training” commercial ventures have neuroscientists and medical physicians on their boards, who testify to different (narrower) elements of the (broader) promise, or who are simply listed to offer the appearance of scientific backing. For example, one such business is run by a Stanford marketing graduate who identified his business as “an independent market research firm.” He himself does not have any neuroscience credentials, nor does he claim to do anything but market research, but his scientific advisory board includes (in addition to other marketing professionals) four medical doctors, one of whom is a well-known author on aging. This researcher’s reputation as an expert on aging lends a great deal of credibility to the company’s claims. This medical doctor, however, has never published any work on brain training and is better known for his work in the 1970s and 1980s on aging populations and blood pressure, Alzheimer’s onset, and maternal age, sleep and aging, and immunodeficiency in aging. The simple presence of this person on the webpage, however, is enough to convince many people that these types of companies are credible and neuroscientifically based.
What We Know Now
The term “brain training” is extremely broad, so much so that consensus about what is meant was debated in 2014 in academia, as dozens defended the concept while others criticized it. In an attempt to resolve this conflict, the Association for Psychological Sciences published a paper that showed, unsurprisingly, that:
[b]ased on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.
This means that if a person plays a computer game that rehearses working memory, working memory skills will likely be improved, but only for the duration of the practice. This also means that orienting attention might be improved (near transfer), and self- regulation will likely not improve (far transfer). It shouldn’t come as much surprise that if a targeted skill is rehearsed, it can improve. In short, if a single cognitive sub-skill is rehearsed, such as inhibitory control, it can improve, but this doesn’t mean that all executive functioning sub-skills will also improve, nor that the effects will last longer than the training.
We know that many studies that show positive results for brain training suffer from either sampling bias or the placebo effect. One of the biggest training businesses, Luminosity, paid $2 million in fines because the Federal Trade Commission said their advertisement “preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline.” Additionally, many studies cited to support brain training are too small to be statistically reliable, and others have selectively reported data. Michael Kane of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro is cited as saying: “It’s astonishing how poor some of the experimental designs have been, violating many of the most fundamental principles that we regularly teach to undergraduates in introductory courses.”
We also know that there is not very much evidence for or against brain training in school-age children. With so little known, Ferrero and colleagues suggest:
[t]he propagation of brain-based interventions with dubious scientific basis involves not only a substantial economic cost, but also an opportunity cost; that is, parents and children risk wasting money and time in a useless treatment when they could invest those resources on an effective solution . . . Many of these practices are unlikely to produce any benefit and can even harm schoolchildren.
While there are few interventions shown to work with children, there is a rich body of research on sub-skills, with studies that are more refined and convincing. All these studies suggest that some aspects of cognition can be improved by some interventions, but most do not last long term, nor are they transferable to general cognitive benefits as seen in Table 5.2.
Table 5.2. Examples of Brain Training of Cognitive Skills and Findings
|Working memory||Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental Psychology, 49(2), 270.||“. . . programs produced reliable short-term improvements in working memory skills. For verbal working memory, these near-transfer effects were not sustained at follow-up, whereas for visuospatial working memory, limited evidence suggested that such effects might be maintained. More importantly, there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic) . . . ”|
|Attention||Posner, M. I., Rothbart, M. K., & Tang, Y. Y. (2015). Enhancing attention through training. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 4, 1-5.||“ . . . there are no studies showing that training the executive network in children can improve adult outcomes” “There are correlations between the executive attention network and self control or self regulation in children and adults . . . ”|
|Inhibitory control||Karbach, J. (2015). Plasticity of executive functions in childhood and adolescence: Effects of cognitive training interventions. Revista Argentina de Ciencias del Comportamiento, 7(1), 64-70.||“Despite some encouraging findings revealing that executive control training benefitted untrained task and abilities, such as fluid intelligence and academic performance, recent findings regarding the transferability of training-induced performance improvements to untrained tasks are heterogeneous.”|
|ADHD||Tajik-Parvinchi, D., Wright, L., & Schachar, R. (2014). Cognitive rehabilitation for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Promises and problems. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 23(3), 207.||“Cognitive training shows promise in remediating deficits in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a disorder believed to stem from deficient cognitive processes— where the focus has been primarily on training working memory and attention.” “Although the overall pattern of findings from these studies is promising, the methodological and theoretical limitations associated with the literature limit conclusions about the efficacy of cognitive training as a rehabilitation method for ADHD.”|
|Decision-making||Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Falcone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., . . . & Diefenbach, P. (2017). No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Neural Activity During Decision-Making. Journal of Neuroscience, 2832-16.||“ . . . we found no evidence that cognitive training influences neural activity during decision-making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of delay discounting or risk sensitivity. Participants in the commercial training condition improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time. Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults above those of standard video games for measures of brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance.”|
All these examples suggest limited benefits to brain training, at best.
This information helps teachers prioritize the activities they do in class. Simple repetition of patterns (with or without technology) is excellent for extending working memory, but unless continual rehearsal occurs, the effects don’t last long, as research from brain training shows us. On the other hand, simulations, case studies, and problem-based learning are extremely effective in long-term learning goals, due to the direct application, social interaction, and emotional connection to the content. These comparisons make it easier for teachers to make better decisions about successful classroom interventions.
Did You Enjoy this Myth? Check Out the Book
Excerpted from Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain © 2018 by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.
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Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2019). Neuromyth: “Brain Training” Is Supported by Neuroscience. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/brain-training-is-supported-by-neuroscience/