The Brain Training Myth

For about a decade now we have had wave after wave of advertising and op ed pieces telling us that brain training games can improve your memory, your cognition and even stave off dementia. The problem with all this is that it is not true.

In fairness, until recently the picture was complicated by a rash of poorly conducted studies that commonly found small, inconsistent effects; much like the kind of elusory effects claimed by the complimentary medicine crowd. This all came to a head three years ago when one group of 70 scientists published an open letter claiming that brain training didn’t work and another group of 133 scientists published a letter saying that it did.

Fortunately, back in October, the first authoritative, high quality review of the brain training literature was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (open access). In it they establish a set of high quality best practice guidelines for future brain training study and then retrospectively apply those standards to the literature produced thus far.

Their first significant finding was that the quality of the research done to date was generally of a low standard. No one paper met every one of their best practice guidelines. Obviously there was a spectrum with some papers meeting most of them whilst many met only a few.

When it looked at the papers cited by companies that manufacture or market brain training products they found that the papers were often unrelated to brain training itself. Frequently the paper would be basic research on brain plasticity and the company would then make a rather large, unwarranted, leap to saying that playing their game would improve all kinds of unrelated brain functions.

Once all the low quality and irrelevant studies had been weeded out there was a pattern that remained. Brain training games make you good at brain training games. No great surprise there. But what about the transferrable benefits they claim to have to generally improve your brain function? The authors write:

“…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.”

That, to me, sounds like a fairly common sense conclusion; but will it have an effect? I doubt very much if it will have an effect on the marketing people and purveyors of the apps; they’re in it to make money not to get at the truth.

People who should take note are the journal editors who are evaluating whether or not to publish a new paper – they should check if the paper is of a suitably high standard. Educators and those in charge of education budgets should take note; these apps are not likely to help improve performance of students and we should not be spending public funds on purchasing them. Charities and other support groups also need to pay attention. At the time of writing I found this page on the Alzheimer’s Society website claiming that brain training “[can lead to] improvements in reasoning and verbal learning skills”.

When it come to trying to slow the progress of dementia it is all too clear why people would grasp at any straw available to them. It is a deeply, deeply unpleasant way to go; but brain training isn’t going to help much if at all.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t keep your mind active. There is some tentative evidence that doing crosswords, playing bingo, playing an instrument or a sport and other cognitively demanding tasks can be helpful. If you have a greater number of strong connections in your brain then they will take longer to break down.

In the same way that we cannot say eating a specific fruit or vegetable will stop you getting a particular form of cancer, we cannot point to a particular activity that will prevent a certain neurodegenerative disease. All we can say is: eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and not too much red meat. Similarly: keep your brain active and making new connections; challenge it and give it something novel to do.

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