Everything you do changes your brain. Even reading this article. Right now, wherever you are, looking at these words is shaping and modifying the connections between neurons inside your head. It seems like a scary thought, but this process – known as neuroplasticity – is fundamental to our ability to learn new skills, keep hold of old ones, and form new memories.
Imagine, then, if we could take control of that process. If we could target specific types of skills and cognitive processes, then we could teach our brains to be better at, well, anything.
That’s the idea behind so-called “brain training” apps – by playing different types of puzzles that require you to, say, remember sequences of numbers, or concentrate on finding the odd one out in a group of objects, then our general memory abilities will improve, and we’ll be better at concentrating on difficult everyday tasks. And brain training is big business – the app Elevate, for example, costs $149.99 (over £100) for lifetime access.
It would be great if brain training could be used as a quick fix to help boost our cognitive abilities, particularly in the run-up to exams. But what does the scientific research actually have to say about whether these games are effective or not?
Brain training under the microscope
The key question is whether or not we see transfer effects – whether our improvement at these games goes beyond the game itself – say, in helping you to more easily remember facts and figures for an upcoming exam. Obviously, if you play a memory game for hours on end, day after day, you’ll get better at the game – that’s neuroplasticity for you. But being an expert in a single, specific memory game isn’t exactly a useful life skill.
In 2010, a team led by Cambridge researcher Adrian Owen (now at the University of Western Ontario) tried to answer this question. Just under 11,500 people took part in a massive online study for six weeks, in which they had to practice a range of different brain training tasks for a minimum of 10 minutes per day, three times per week.
The tasks covered the full range of cognitive abilities that brain training apps claim to improve – things like planning and problem-solving abilities, short-term memory, attention, and maths skills. Critically, Owen’s team also had participants complete a “benchmarking” set of tasks before and after the six-week training program. The benchmark tasks were different, but assessed the same skills that were being trained during the six weeks.
If brain training games do result in a general improvement in cognitive skills, then you would expect the performance on the benchmarking tasks to show an increase after the six-week training programme. But that’s not what Owen’s team found – much the opposite, in fact. Although participants showed some improvements in the training tasks, they didn’t show any transfer effect. In other words, this was evidence that brain training doesn’t work.
Different findings for different age groups
As with anything in psychology though, the story isn’t that simple. For older adults at least (in the 60+ age group), a few recent studies have suggested that targeted brain training might show some promise. In 2013, US neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley had a group of older adults play a custom video game, NeuroRacer, for one hour, three times per week, over the course of a month. In the game, players have to keep a car in the middle of the road, while simultaneously watching out for a target symbol – for example, a green circle – to appear above the track. Essentially, it’s a multi-tasking game.
Not only did the participants get better at the task, they also showed improvements in tests of attention and working memory – cognitive abilities not trained directly by the game itself. Along similar lines, a study published last year in Jamda, led by Anne Corbett at King’s College London, showed improvements in reasoning skills in older adults who used more targeted brain training games over a period of six months.
Different games, different effects?
So we see some effects depending on the age group we’re looking at – but it’s worth pointing out that the games used across all of these studies are very different. Moreover, games that do show an effect, like NeuroRacer, are a far cry from the ones used in commercial brain training apps – so the nature of the game itself seems to be important. This begs an interesting question, then: do off-the-shelf, typical video games offer any brain-training-style benefits?
There’s some evidence to suggest that they might. Research published by Adam Hampshire and colleagues in 2012 showed a small-to-medium positive relationship between the frequency with which people play video games, and scores on short-term memory and reasoning task. In line with this, in January last year, researchers at Florida State University published work comparing people playing the popular first-person puzzle game Portal 2 with those using a commercial brain training app, Lumosity. They found that the video game players showed an improvement in measures of problem solving, spatial skill and persistence, whereas the brain training users showed no improvements.
However, the broader experimental research in this area is far from conclusive. In part, this is because some scientists have argued that the research methods used to look at the effects of video games are fundamentally flawed. So until we develop more ways of testing the effects of video games, we can’t conclusively say whether they offer some potential in improving our cognitive abilities.
So, do brain training apps work?
Overall then, there isn’t much in the way of clear evidence that brain training works for healthy individuals. If you download an app for your phone, chances are you’ll get better at whatever games it throws on the screen for you – but you won’t see any improvements beyond the game itself. All of this means that people should be sceptical of the benefits they might expect from using these sorts of apps, and brain training companies need to be extremely careful about the claims they make about their products. The company behind Lumosity fell foul of this in January, when they were fined millions of dollars for making fraudulent claims that their games can help people to perform better at school or work.
Neuroscientists are similarly sceptical – in 2014, nearly 70 scientists signed a statement saying that there is no convincing scientific evidence that brain games have any sort of positive effect.
So we don’t have a quick fix for making our brains smarter. Rather than wasting money on brain training apps to help you through an exam then, you’re probably better off playing a standard video game – or better yet, doing some good old fashioned revision.
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