Are brain games mostly BS?

You’ve probably seen ads for apps promising to make you smarter in just a few minutes a day. Hundreds of so-called “brain training” programs can be purchased for download. These simple games are designed to challenge mental abilities, with the ultimate goal of improving the performance of important everyday tasks.

But can just clicking away at animations of swimming fish or flashed streets signs on your phone really help you improve the way your brain functions?

Two large groups of scientists and mental health practitioners published consensus statements, months apart in 2014, on the effectiveness of these kinds of brain games. Both included people with years of research experience and expertise in cognition, learning, skill acquisition, neuroscience and dementia. Both groups carefully considered the same body of evidence available at the time.

Yet, they issued exactly opposite statements.

One concluded that “there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.”

The other argued that “a substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.”

These two competing contradictory statements highlight a deep disagreement among experts, and a fundamental dispute over what counts as convincing evidence for something to be true.

Then, in 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission entered into the fray with a series of rulings, including a US$50 million judgment (later reduced to $2 million) against one of the most heavily advertised brain training packages on the market. The FTC concluded that Lumos Labs’ advertisements – touting the ability of its Lumosity brain training program to improve consumers’ cognition, boost their performance at school and work, protect them against Alzheimer’s disease and help treat symptoms of ADHD – were not grounded in evidence.

What does clicking away on a laptop really improve? Akkalak Aiempradit/Shutterstock.com
In light of conflicting claims and scientific statements, advertisements and government rulings, what are consumers supposed to believe? Is it worth your time and money to invest in brain training? What types of benefits, if any, can you expect? Or would your time be better spent doing something else?

I’m a cognitive scientist and member of Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity. I have studied cognition, human performance and the effects of different types of training for nearly two decades. I’ve conducted laboratory studies that have directly put to the test the ideas that are the foundation of the claims made by brain training companies.

Based on these experiences, my optimistic answer to the question of whether brain training is worth it would be “we just don’t know.” But the actual answer may very well be “no.”

How well does research measure improvements?

My colleagues and I have argued that most of the pertinent studies fall far short of being able to provide definitive evidence either way.

Some of these problems are statistical in nature.

Brain training studies often look at its effect on multiple cognitive tests – of attention, memory, reasoning ability and so on – over time. This strategy makes sense in order to uncover the breadth of potential gains.

But, for every test administered, there’s a chance that scores will improve just by chance alone. The more tests administered, the greater the chance that researchers will see at least one false alarm.

Brain training studies that include many tests and then report only one or two significant results cannot be trusted unless they control for the number of tests being administered. Unfortunately, many studies do not, calling their findings into question.

Picking the one task that she improved on out of many casts doubt on the study’s validity. De Visu/Shutterstock.com
Another design problem has to do with inadequate control groups. To claim that a treatment had an effect, the group receiving the treatment needs to be compared to a group that does not. It’s possible, for example, that people receiving brain training improve on an assessment test just because they’ve already taken it – before and then again after training. Since the control group also takes the test twice, cognitive improvements based on practice effects can be ruled out.