When it comes to improving physical performance, we humans generally have two options: we can engage in specific exercises chosen for their ability to strengthen our muscles, increase our speed, and facilitate oxygen uptake, or we might turn to some kind of performance-enhancing supplement. Those methods have proven effective for just about every organ and structure in the body. But does the same type of approach work for the brain? More specifically, can regular use of brain-training applications on our smart phones, or playing Sudoku or attempting the daily crossword puzzle, actually improve our ability to remember or sharpen our mental processes?
There are plenty of websites, software developers, publishers and others who would like us to believe that brain games really work. They also want us to pay for the games that they are marketing, and tens of millions of consumers have proven ready to do so: in America alone, people have signed up for sites like Lumosity and Elevate to the tune of over $1 billion per year. This is reason enough to wonder whether their offerings are just a modern form of snake oil or an effective and easily accessible tool that provides real cognitive benefits. There are plenty of arguments for both sides, and a growing consensus that though brain games may offer some benefits, they are not necessarily what has been promised. Perhaps more importantly, playing the games may not be the best use of your time if improving memory or enhancing cognitive ability is your ultimate goal.
The Origins of Brain Training
It is important to understand where the interest in brain training began, and why it has grown so quickly. The impetus was an attention-grabbing study conducted by neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire of University College London on London taxi drivers. Its initial goal was to determine whether the cabbies, world-renowned for their remarkable knowledge of London’s labyrinthian streets and the test they need to pass in order to get their taxi license, had larger hippocampi. The hippocampus is the part of the brain known to be crucial to long-term memory and spatial navigation (Science Daily.) After confirming that, to determine whether it was their larger hippocampus that qualified them for the job, or whether their memory centers had expanded in response to their growing knowledge of the city’s streets.
Over a four-year period, Maguire examined both candidates to be cabbies and non-taxi drivers, testing their working and long-term memory, then retesting to see whether performances improved, and in whom. Participants also submitted to multiple MRI scans to determine whether they had experienced any structural changes in their brains. What she found spurred a brain training revolution: the drivers who successfully learned the city’s streets and passed the required knowledge test performed far better on the same memory tests they had taken earlier. They also did better than those who failed the knowledge test, even if they had previously earned similar scores. Their brains had grown as a result of their intensive study and activity, and later studies, including one conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, confirmed the findings and concluded that route learning changes brain tissue.
A New Industry is Born
In response to this research, a new industry was born, but aspiring entrepreneurs quickly found the scientific research sparse. Instead of waiting for more proof of the effectiveness of brain training, founders like Lumosity’s Michael Scanlon elected to create their own research labs, using their subscribers’ results to shore up claims that playing games could make people smarter and charging $14.95 per month for providing those games, and the positive feedback that went along with playing them. They even published some of their findings, then quoted their own research on their websites. Of the self-fulfilling nature of using self-funded research, Scanlon said, “The product is informing the science, which then turns back into the product,” Scanlon says. “Not all companies have the option of having their R&D and business models in such alignment.” Though he acknowledged that research produced by his organization would be less trusted than that of independent researchers, his solution to the problem was to provide scientists with access to his games in hopes that it would encourage them to pursue their own studies. (Fast Company) The publishers of brain-training games cite studies indicating that their products improve attention, working memory, and processing speed in the young, while older users are able to preserve brain function and memory, fending off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and the cognitive decline that comes with age.
The Studies Supporting The Claims
Over the years there have been multiple studies whose conclusions support the use of brain games, but two in particular stand out as having driven the claims of brain game publishers and proponents. The first was a trial funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, and the other conducted by University of Michigan psychology researchers and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
- The NIH study, which included more than 2,800 participants between the ages of 65 and 94, revealed that cognitive training aimed at improving older adults’ memory, reasoning and processing speed not only slowed cognitive decline and improved their ability to perform daily living tasks, but that the impact lasted as long as ten years. Volunteers participated in 10 one-hour sessions of brain training over five to six weeks, and when tested ten years later exhibited less decline in cognitive abilities than participants who had been in the control group and had not received the training. Said study co-author Sharon Tennstedt, PhD, vice president of the New England Research Institutes, “It’s like going to the gym 10 years ago and doing some strength training, and you still have good arm strength 10 years later. You are maybe not quite as strong as you were then, but there is still benefit.” Another of the study’s co-authors, University of Washington research professor Sherry Willis, PhD, highlighted the study’s findings as pointing to “plasticity” of cognitive functioning, and made the connection between their study’s results and the aging population’s high level of interest in maintaining their brain health. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change, strengthening neural pathways and even creating new ones. One of the key benefits shown from this study was the ability to adapt to change. “Maintaining cognitive functioning may become even more salient for the generation now moving into their 60s and 70s. Baby boomers who are moving into old age are really becoming extremely aware that they may have to work longer. And this study speaks to the plasticity of cognitive functioning — that older adults can improve from cognitive training and they can maintain the effects.” (American Psychological Association)
- The second study, which was conducted in 2008 by researchers Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, focused on younger subjects and a single specific memory challenge known as the dual n-back. Participants were provided between 8 and 19 25-minute brain training sessions. The study revealed not only that training subjects’ gained more working memory with more training sessions, but also that their general problem solving ability improved at the same time. This suggested that the exercises successfully strengthened multiple “executive processes” in the brain. (Science Daily)
The Studies Denying the Claims
Though the basic premise of these two studies and of others promoted by Lumosity and other brain game companies are compelling, there has been a significant outcry from researchers who object to the leap of logic that has been drawn between the conclusions of individual studies and the claim of tangible brain benefits. In 2014, a group of 69 researchers grew so concerned that marketers were implying scientific consensus on the benefits of brain games that they published a statement under the banner of The Stanford Center on Longevity with the intent of tempering claims they believe are at best exaggerated and at worst misleading. Their statement read in part,
“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”
There is a significant amount of research that specifically decries the claims about brain game effectiveness:
- A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study compared performance of 128 young people who were randomly assigned training on Lumosity games and playing video games, then tested for changes on brain activity, cognitive skills and decision making abilities, but found that “evidence for transfer beyond trained tasks is mixed.” The researchers concluded that there was “no evidence for relative benefits of cognitive training with respect to changes in decision-making behavior or brain response, or for cognitive task performance beyond those specifically trained.”
- The question of whether the gains made by playing brain games transfer to other abilities was tested by neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario Canada. Led by research scientist Bobby Stojanoski of the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University, the study tested 72 volunteers to see whether a targeted approach that trained one particular brain skill translated into improved skills in a different task controlled by the same brain region. Working memory in a task the participants had been trained on was tested, and then the exercise was repeated on a task for which they had not been trained. Results for performance on the second task were compared to the performance of a group that had not received training at all, with results showing no cognitive boost derived from the related brain game practice. “We hypothesized that if you get really, really good at one test by training for a very long time, maybe then you’ll get improvement on tests that are quite similar. Unfortunately, we found no evidence to support that claim,” says Stojanoski.
The Importance of Generalizability
An important focus of independent research conducted on brain game effectiveness has been “generalizability” — particularly in areas where there is no scientific consensus. It is essential in all research to assure validity and reliability of research, and in the case of brain games the question is whether the exercises being offered simply provide improvement in a single task or whether it can be generalized into other cognitive areas. According to Yale neurologist Steven Novella writing for Science-Based Medicine, after conducting in-depth analysis of multiple studies of brain game effectiveness, he reached the conclusion that brain training of all types and targeting many different tasks was effective, but that the effects were “restricted to the specific tasks being trained” and “do not significantly generalize to other tasks or cognitive functions.” Though he found little difference in the effectiveness of brain games as compared to using traditional educational techniques, he acknowledged that the games are less labor intensive and may be more enjoyable. Novella writes, “Suggestions that … brain-training makes your brain function better in any way other than simply learning the task that is being practiced is not evidence-based…. the very concept of “brain-training” is probably flawed. It is useful as a marketing slogan, but does not seem to be based in reality. “Brain-training” is just a fancy term for good old-fashioned learning, but is meant to invoke an image of cutting edge neuroscience and brain plasticity which is not supported by evidence. It’s just learning.” (Washington Post)
But What About the Physical Changes to the Brain?
Proponents of brain training hark back to the original cabbie studies and MRI studies showing growth of their hippocampi, as well as other research showing that after brain training, EEG reports showed that specific types of brain training changed brain activity. But the training involved showed no improvement in cognitive performance outside of the trained task, and were the very same changes seen following any type of learning: playing a game may change neural systems, but so too does studying a new language or taking up an instrument.
The FTC Weighs In
In the midst of scientific controversy over the effectiveness of brain games, the federal government made itself part of the conversation in January of 2016 when the Federal Trade Commission filed a $2 million lawsuit against Lumosity, charging the company with making “unfounded claims” about their games’ ability to reduce or delay cognitive decline or improve ADHD. The result of that filing was refund checks being issued to over 13,000 subscribers who had spent a minimum of $239 in subscription fees, and a requirement that the company shift their marketing efforts away from any claims of tangible benefits. Commenting on the lawsuit, Lumosity’s CEO Steve Berkowitz dismissed that it had any significant impact, stating that their central mission remains the “emotional connection people still have with their product.” They are now focusing heavily on providing users with feedback showing how their performance changes over time. (Fortune)
The Bottom Line on Brain Games
Each individual needs to make their own decision about playing brain games or engaging with brain training technology, but that decision needs to be based on a thorough understanding of what the activities are and are not capable of accomplishing. The 69 cognitive psychologists behind The Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community were emphatic in denouncing any claims that the games could prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, and warn against putting too much weight on unsubstantiated claims. “The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date,” which they say points to cognitive health being dependent upon habits and lifestyles adhered to over the course of a lifetime. (Fast Company)
Beyond warning against being taken in by inflated promises or misplaced hopes, the scientists also advise that those interested in preserving cognitive health select the learning opportunity that is most appealing to them. “If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it.”