Will brain training games make you smarter?

December 14, 2014
video games

My friend Rob is doing brain training exercises. And I’m sorry to break the news to him that 15 minutes a day might not be enough. Who isn’t worried about their memory and mental agility as they’re ageing? Who hasn’t heard that computerised brain training games, spruiked by dozens of on-line companies, might keep dementia at bay?

I’ve always hated games; but I’m anxious I’m jeopardising my brain health by avoiding brain games and, in my spare time, reading a book. Rob has been giving his brain a workout for about two years. But is he better off? Has he done enough to make a difference? Or is the whole computer brain training business a scam?

I felt confirmed in my laziness and prejudices after I read a joint statement released recently by over 70 of the world’s neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists. Titled A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community, the statement was organised by two prestigious research bodies, the Stanford Centre on Longevity, and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.

And really, these scientists poured cold water on the brain game craze, especially on the “extravagant and misleading claims” of the companies behind it. “In commercial promotion…small, narrow, and fleeting advances are often billed as general and lasting improvements of mind and brain,” the statement says. “However, as the findings accumulate, compelling evidence of general and enduring positive effects on the way people’s minds and brains age has remained elusive.” The scientists say further research is highly desirable. But they criticise companies for claims that exploit the anxieties of adults facing old age. “Perhaps the most pernicious claim, devoid of any scientifically credible evidence, is that brain games prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease,” they say.

The usual criticism is that playing the games makes you better at the games but not at anything that might be useful in life. You might become quicker at “catching” a bird flying across your computer screen. But that won’t help you walk up the stairs, or invest your money wisely, or remember the name of the former colleague you bump into in the street. A pair of European scientists recently gathered the best research – 23 studies of memory training – and concluded that the training produced short-term effects that didn’t transfer beyond the games.

The New Yorker magazine, in a scathing piece called Brain Games are Bogus, shows how the early positive results on memory training have been discounted or not replicated by other researchers over time. And it reminds us that the scientific literature probably overstates positive effects because the research which finds brain training has no effect tends not to be published. The Economist also weighed in to point out that brain training “may be a money spinner despite scientists’ doubts.” The “mind-blowing” popularity of Lumosity, the company that launched brain training computer games in 2007, shows an ageing global population to be hungry for these mental work-outs, and prepared to pay for them. Last year Lumosity had 45 million registered users in 180-plus countries.

Rob, for example, is not that fussed about the scientific evidence. He’s aware of the debate. “I don’t care whether it increases your cerebral capacity or just makes you better at the game,” he says. “It’s fun. And it’s possible it’s improving my brain function.”  He plays the computer games for 15 minutes every day; there’s a variety of games at different levels of difficulty, testing speed, flexibility, problem solving and vocabulary. And he’s never bored. “The games tantalise me with the possibility of perfection,” he says. “And there’s the competitive thrill of trying yet again to outdo the familiar opponent, the self. What a contest!”

Brain training exercises have their supporters in Australia, including Dr Nicola Gates, a clinical neuropsychologist who did her PhD on the subject. Her latest academic paper, outlining the apparent benefits, has recently been published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. She, too, objects to some of the outlandish claims made by commercial companies and urges interested people to seek out university trials.

“There’s an increasing body of evidence that programs which are well-designed and executed have significant positive benefits,” she told me, “and not just on the tasks tested but on psychological wellbeing and daily functioning.” To get the benefit, however, people have to complete tasks of increasing complexity, and do so for 30 minutes minimum a day, three to four times a week, and for months. “When people play these games, they don’t do it for long enough,” she says.

Dr Gates says brain training is not a panacea but with physical exercise, stress reduction, good cardio-vascular health and social connection it’s part of the armoury to be employed for a healthy old age. More controversially she says it may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s if you are at risk of developing it. But it doesn’t have to be brain training games. “Shock your brain into doing something hard,” she says. “Don’t keep doing what you’re good at.”

I’m awfully good at reading books. Before I submit to brain games, and the humiliation I fear awaits me, I want more evidence. But maybe salsa dancing is more my style, or meditation, or juggling. All good for the brain, I hear.

What do you think? Tried the games? Stuck with them? Please comment.

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