Big claims for widely promoted games underwent tough scientific tests
The Internet is chock-full of ads from companies offering “brain-training” games.
These online subscription services — which can cost hundreds of dollars a year — promise to improve memory, focus, and brain speed while boosting mental flexibility (neuroplasticity).
You can also find free brain-training games offered by various nonprofit organizations, such as AARP, which tend not to make scientific claims.
These games — whether paid or free — may be entertaining and absorbing, but are they supported by independent scientific evidence?
Let’s scrutinize three recent studies that sought to see whether brain games improve performance on real-world brain tasks — if at all.
Performance gains on brain games didn’t "transfer" in Canadian trials
To date, the clinical evidence for transferability of improved brain-game performance to routine home or work mental tasks hasn't been conclusive or very persuasive.
Eight years ago, neuroscientists at Ontario, Canada’s Western University examined about 11,000 people who’d “brain trained” with games for six weeks — and found that performance improvements on the games did not improve the participants’ IQ or working memory (Owen AM et al. 2010).
Earlier this year, Prof. Owen’s team conducted two follow-up studies designed to test whether improvement at a brain-training game would improve people’s performance on a different game that challenged the same part of the brain (Stojanoski B et al. 2018).
The new trials were also designed to test the common claim that improvement on a brain game improves memory and thereby helps prevent age-related dementia.
Across two experiments involving 72 people, the participants did display improvement on task-specific skills after training on games designed to improve those capacities — but the volunteers showed zero improvement on the new, second game.
In fact, their results resembled those of the control group, who played the second game without playing the first brain-training game.
Lead author Bobby Stojanoski, Ph.D., commented on their findings: “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.”
What does Stojanoski recommend to protect and improve memory and brain health? Better sleep, regular exercise, better nutrition, and ongoing education — lifestyle factors previously proven to enhance brain health and/or performance.
Florida study finds no game-derived memory benefits
Last year, researchers from Florida State University (FSU) published a clinical trial that tested whether improvements on a brain game would boost participants’ general thinking or so-called "working" memory skills (Souders DJ).
Older adults were divided into two groups for this one-month trial:
- Play a brain-training video game called “Mind Frontiers.”
- Challenge their brain with traditional number and crossword puzzles.
Everyone was asked to practice their brain activity for 15 minutes, three times a day, for a total of 45 minutes daily.
After the month of conventional and video-game brain training, the Florida team measured the subjects’ working memory and other mental abilities, including processing speed, memory, and reasoning.
As in the 2018 Canadian trial described above, the FSU team wanted to see whether improvement on one brain-training activity would translate to better cognitive function overall.
Lead author Wallace Boot, Ph.D. — a psychologist and expert on age-related cognitive decline — described their results: “Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way.”
Neil Charness, director of FSU’s Institute for Successful Longevity, points out that increasing number of people believe brain training helps protect them against memory loss. As he said, “People have real concerns about loss of cognition and loss of memory as they age, so they do all kinds of things to try to stave off cognitive decline,” he adds said.
Unfortunately, as Charness says, the findings by his team and others refute that belief: “It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks ... but these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer ... if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? The answer is probably no.”
As the Canadian researchers said, the Florida team pointed to good evidence that aerobic exercise, rather than mental exercise, is best for your brain.
Literature review finds little evidence for broader brain-game benefits
Two years back, an international team reviewed the available evidence on brain games.
The group behind the 2016 review included scientists from Florida State University, the University of Illinois, Michigan State University, Union College, and Britain’s Cambridge University (Simons DJ et al. 2016).
They sought to judge the credibility of recent, conflicting conclusions about the evidence for brain-training games:
- In 2014, an international group of more than 70 scientists found no evidence that brain games improve general brain performance or delay cognitive decline.
- Several months later, another group of 133 scientists and practitioners said they found substantial evidence that brain-training games can benefit everyday brain activities.
The team behind the new evidence review identified a likely reason for this conflict: “In part, the disagreement might result from different standards used when evaluating the evidence.”
To evaluate the credibility of each group's conclusion, the international team examined more than 130 journal articles concerning the benefits of brain training, plus all the published evidence cited by leading brain-training companies.
Their review revealed significant problems in design and interpretation of many studies, including the failure of some to include “control” groups.
In addition, some researchers inappropriately implied that broader brain-performance gains resulting from brain-game trials in specific groups — such as children with language delays and older adults with dementia — would apply to the general population.
A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that the results of some brain game trials had been distorted by previously undetected influences, rendering their results highly suspect (Foroughi CK et al. 2016).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, most of the cited research only tested for improvements on the abstract tasks that the study subjects trained on. In other words, the studies had not measured the effect of focused brain training on performance of real-world mental tasks.
Overall, the team found that the available studies contained no convincing evidence that improvements from training extend beyond the training task or game, and concluded that claims to the contrary are “premature at best.”
Lead author and University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons summarized the hopes dashed by their evidence review: “The idea behind ‘brain training’ is that if you practice a task that taps a core component of cognitive ability, like memory, the training will improve your ability to perform other tasks that also rely on memory, not just in the lab, but also in the world. That premise is known as ‘transfer-of-training’.”
Dr. Simons also condensed the international team's conclusions: “… we found little evidence for broad transfer from brain-training tasks to other tasks. We hope future studies will adopt more rigorous methods and better control groups ...”.
As he said, “Historically, there is not much evidence that practicing one task improves different tasks in other contexts, even if they seem to rely on the same ability.”
What’s our take away?
If you enjoy playing brain games, go right ahead — there's no evidence that they hurt.
But since commercial game-makers’ claims seem to rest on sand, think twice before paying for the privilege of playing.
And there are plenty of free brain games available via the Internet — just search for "free brain games". We'd consider that a no-brainer.
- Foroughi CK, Monfort SS, Paczynski M, McKnight PE, Greenwood PM. Placebo effects in cognitive training. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jul 5;113(27):7470-4. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1601243113. Epub 2016 Jun 20.
- Owen AM, Hampshire A, Grahn JA, Stenton R, Dajani S, Burns AS, Howard RJ, Ballard CG. Putting brain training to the test. Nature. 2010 Jun 10;465(7299):775-8. doi: 10.1038/nature09042.
- Redick TS, Shipstead Z, Harrison TL, Hicks KL, Fried DE, Hambrick DZ, Kane MJ, Engle RW. No evidence of intelligence improvement after working memory training: a randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2013 May;142(2):359-79. doi: 10.1037/a0029082. Epub 2012 Jun 18.
- Simons DJ, Boot WR, Charness N, Gathercole SE, Chabris CF, Hambrick DZ, Stine-Morrow EA. Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychol Sci Public Interest. 2016 Oct;17(3):103-186. Review.
- Souders DJ, Boot WR, Blocker K, Vitale T, Roque NA, Charness N. Evidence for Narrow Transfer after Short-Term Cognitive Training in Older Adults. Front Aging Neurosci. 2017 Feb 28;9:41. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2017.00041. eCollection 2017.
- Stojanoski B, Lyons KM, Pearce AAA, Owen AM. Targeted training: Converging evidence against the transferable benefits of online brain training on cognitive function. Neuropsychologia. 2018 Aug;117:541-550. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.07.013. Epub 2018 Jul 25.