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'Brain Training' Apps: Do They Work?

Bill Brooks / CC BY-SA 2.0
Alexander Reed Kelly
Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

Bill Brooks / CC BY-SA 2.0

Everything we do changes our brains. But do the skills we learn in “brain training” games amount to a general boost in our cognitive abilities?

Biological psychology lecturer Pete Etchells writes at The Guardian:

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.

For more on the subject, including some information about the benefits of a very narrow subset of games, read here.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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