Brain Training: Effective Brain Therapy or Simply Placebo?
From my perspective, brain training programs seem to have come out of absolutely nowhere. From the first time I heard a commercial for Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training game for the Nintendo DS, it seemed like a matter of days before the market was replete with similar products.
At that early stage, you had to think for a second to really get the idea of a brain training game. Today, the concept is a very familiar one. Your brain age, doing your daily brain exercises, battling Alzheimer’s with brain training; these ideas are all part of our every day language now.
But in the rush to bring these products to market, to review them, to discuss their merits and their flaws, we haven’t really stopped and asked ourselves: does brain training really work? Does brain training actually make a difference to your cognitive function? Does the concept of “brain age” even make sense?
More importantly, are the champions of these games right to say that playing them on a regular basis is an effective way to slow or even reverse age-related cognitive decline?
These are the questions we will attempt to answer here.
To start things off, we need to look at what the proponents of brain training claim it can do. We need to look at how it is supposed to work; only then can we see if it actually does work or not.
What Is Brain Training & How Does It Work?
You will no doubt all be familiar with the concept of brain training. It is a part of our every-day vocabulary now. But it is unlikely that any of you have stopped to think about the actual mechanisms of brain training.
How is it that it supposedly trains your brain?
What is special about the tasks it gets you to do?
The theory behind brain training is really quite simple. It is summarized fairly well on the website of one of the biggest brain training companies: BrainHQ. In their words, brain training is based on the concept of neuroplasticity. This is the idea that, since the brain is constantly replenishing and replacing its cells (like every part of you), it has the ability to change according to environmental demands.
So the brain is constantly changing, and by doing brain exercises, so the theory goes, you can force it to change in a certain way. The BrainHQ team state: “What BrainHQ’s exercises do is harness that change and direct it in ways that can enhance your overall performance and improve the quality of your life”
So how are the exercises designed?
Well, in the vast majority of brain training systems out there, games are split into different categories. These categories supposedly represent the different functions of the brain: attention, learning, memory, reaction time, and so on.
Tasks are then designed which stress one or more of these different ‘categories’. The idea is that you either choose a number of games all addressing one area if you feel that you need a lot of improvement, or you choose one game from each to improve cognitive function more generally.
These tasks are supposed to be very simple and very sensory. They will never be more complicated than remembering numbers, separating colours and words in rapid time, and so on.
This sounds so simple in theory; almost too good to be true.
So now we need to ask ourselves: do brain training systems like BrainHQ really work?
Instead of asking “does Lumosity work?” or “does Brain Metrix work?”, we should be asking: “does brain training ever work?”
Does Brain Training Really Work?
When we ask “does brain training really work?”, we’re actually asking “do brain training games bring about any meaningful, lasting changes in the way our brains function?”.
The answer to that question, unfortunately, seems to be a resounding no.
As the researchers who published this article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest so eloquently stated, “there’s little to no evidence that currently existing programs produce lasting, meaningful change in the performance of cognitive tasks that differ from the trained tasks”.
These researchers conducted an exhaustive review of all available literature on the effectiveness of brain training, including the many meta-analyses and clinical trials that currently exist.
One particularly large meta-analysis they quote was one conducted by Melby-Lervåg et al in 2016. This review looked at over 140 experimental comparisons published in over 87 different journals and magazines.
While these researchers did find that there were definite improvements in performance on tasks similar or identical to the training tasks, there seemed to be no improvement in general cognitive performance.
As the authors put it: “for measures of far transfer (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, arithmetic) there was no convincing evidence of any reliable improvements when working memory training was compared with a treated control condition.”
What these studies are saying is that brain training seems to get you very good at the specific tasks you are training, but this does not transfer to your mental ability more generally.
Let’s use a classic brain training task as an example: if you spend 20 minutes every day trying to remember a group of numbers shown to you for a brief period of time, then you will get better at doing exactly that. But you wont get better at remembering phone numbers, or a group of faces, or anything like that in the process. You will simply be getting better at that specific game.
This point is really driven home by this article from Scientific American. It references a statement put out by Stanford University, which was signed by over 70 psychologists and neuroscientists, which says:
The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based “brain games” alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.
The claims of the likes of Lumosity and BrainHQ, that completing certain exercises on a daily basis can improve your brain and make you more ‘intelligent’, therefore seem to be highly doubtful.
No doubt such games will create the feeling of improving cognitive function, because over time, your performance at those games will get better. So if at the beginning you could only remember 5 objects in sequence, and now you can remember 8, you can be forgiven for thinking that your memory is improving. But the science points to a different answer: your memory isn’t getting better, you’re just getting better at the game you’re playing.
Memory Training Games – A Mixed Bag
When it comes to memory training, the picture is a little more nuanced.
It is absolutely possible to improve your memory. By using specific techniques, some new, some ancient, you can improve your memory in various ways.
For instance, the “memory room” technique can be traced at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, and it is still widely used today.
This technique involves using a mental rendering of a familiar physical space to help you remember objects, numbers, words, or just about anything.
You start by choosing a room you are intimately familiar with.
You make sure that you know this room in and out without any hesitation. It is best to use a room you know from real life; do not make one up. At least not until you are incredibly adept at this technique.
You now populate this room with objects. Again, it is best to use the objects that you know are really found in the room. So think very hard about the objects in the room and their placement: the rug on the floor, the painting on the wall, the picture frames on the coffee table, the coffee table itself, the fireplace, the fire pokers, and so on.
You then number these objects. Get to know this stone cold. If you think of a number, you should know which object corresponds to that number, and vice versa.
Whenever you are given a list of objects or words to remember, you simply impose that object or word on the objects around your room.
So imagine you are given a list which starts: daffodil, bear trap…
You would then go to object number one in your room, which is say, a lamp. You then make this lamp a daffodil lamp. Cover it in daffodil wrapping paper; whatever comes into your head. See it in your head and then move on. If object number two is a TV, there’s an image of a bear trap playing on the TV screen.
Repeat this process until your list is memorized.
Two things are important here.
First, you need to see the object, word, or number interacting with your room object. You need to visualize it, or it wont work.
Second, always go in order. That’s how counting works. If you can’t remember your 4th object, don’t just use your 5th and hope to come back to it later. You just need to learn your room more thoroughly.
It is best to limit yourself to 10-15 objects at first; you can then introduce more objects later. However, when you introduce more objects, you need to make sure that you are not struggling to recall them before even trying to recall the thing to be remembered. You need to know where they are in the room cold.
This technique works and it is indeed a very powerful tool to have under your belt.
While cultivating a strong memory in this way is eminently possible, it seems that improving your memory generally does not really seem completely feasible.
Techniques such as a memory room can indeed help you remember objects and numbers, but it does not mean that practicing this technique will give you a better long-term memory (unless of course you build an inexhaustible memory palace and cultivate instantaneous reactions, a la Sherlock Holmes).
Does Brain Training Bring Any Benefit?
If you’ve read this whole article then it may seem like we’re warning you off brain training.
Brain training does not seem to help you improve your cognitive function beyond making you better at the specific tasks that you are practicing regularly.
In this sense it is dissimilar to physical training. Someone who gets better at pull-ups will invariably get better at barbell rows. Someone who gets better at squatting will get better at jumping. Someone who gets better at a specific memory game does not get better at remembering things in other contexts.
But that doesn’t mean it’s useless.
For starters, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get better at rapid set counting or remembering sequence orders.
More importantly, brain activity of any kind is better than nothing.
Keeping your brain active is probably the best way to stave off cognitive decline. Using your brain for a prolonged period every day is a sure-fire way to prevent your mental faculties from sliding at a precipitous rate. It doesn’t matter how you do this: reading, writing, playing chess, doing puzzles, or indeed playing brain training games. It is just important to do something.
So if you aren’t too keen on brain training games, you have no real reason to keep playing them. Try reading instead, or play a few games of chess. Or try some other types of puzzles which may not be marketed as brain training but which will probably help you stay mentally active all the same.
See what works for you and if you find something you enjoy, keep doing it!
In this sense, brain training is kind of analogous to physical exercise.
One form of exercise might be better for achieving certain goals than another, but doing anything is better than doing nothing. Walking to the store may not make a huge difference to your fitness levels, particularly when compared to something like running or rowing. But doing it every day is better than never doing it at all.
So brain training may not be able to make you more intelligent, but if you are either going to play your brain training game for a half hour or watch TV for a half hour, we can say without hesitation that it is better for your brain if you play the brain training game. This is especially true if you happen to really enjoy brain training games.
The next time someone asks, “does Lumosity really work?”, you can hopefully give them a more comprehensive, nuanced answer than before. You can tell them that the real question is not whether or not this or that particular program works, but whether brain training more generally really works.
The answer to that question seems to be an unequivocal “no”. At least not in the way that the brain training industry say it works.
In reality, it seems that brain training does not make your memory better in a general sense. It does not seem to increase your focus or your vocabulary.
It simply seems to make you better at the specific games it lays out for you each day.
The illusion of progress is created because you will inevitably get better at a certain game if you play it every day. But the fact that you could only remember 5 steps of a sequence 3 weeks ago and now you can remember 8 does not mean that your memory per se is improving. It just means you are getting better at that particular sequence game.
However, brain training does unarguably keep you brain active. Completing a few puzzles or memory games every morning is going to tax your brain so much more than just gawking at the TV like you otherwise might be doing.
In that sense, brain training can help slow the onset of cognitive decline. But only in the same way that reading, writing, playing a musical instrument, or playing board games can. There is nothing innately special about the games in Lumosity or BrainHQ.
If you enjoy brain training, then do carry on playing. If it keeps you away from the TV, or from other mind-numbing activities, then that’s great. If it is part of your daily routine, then by all means keep it in there.
But if you don’t like brain training games, you could get just as much long-term benefit from any other mentally-engaging activity. Pick up a book, dust off your guitar, or set up the scrabble board for the first time in 10 years. You will get your brain active and engaged, and you just might have a good time in the process.