Regularly playing brain training games does not increase the brain
It’s an interesting idea: By playing problem-solving, matching, and other games online for a few minutes a day, people can improve mental abilities such as reasoning, verbal skills, and speech. memory. But whether these games keep those promises remains to be debated.
“For every study that finds evidence, there are an equal number of articles that find no evidence,” says Bobby Stojanoski, cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario (SN: 03/08/17; SN: 05/09/17).
Now, perhaps in the biggest real test of these programs, Stojanoski and his colleagues have pitted over 1,000 people who regularly use brain trainers against around 7,500 people who don’t do the mini brain workouts. There was little difference between the performance of the two groups in a series of tests of their thinking skills, suggesting brain training is not named after him, scientists report in April Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
“They put brain training to the test,” says Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, cognitive aging scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although the study does not show Why brain trainers see no benefit, it shows there is no connection “between time spent with brain training programs and cognition,” Stine-Morrow says. “It was pretty cool.”
Researchers recruited 8,563 volunteers from around the world through Cambridge Brain Sciences, a Toronto-based company that provides assessments to measure healthy brain function. (Although several researchers are affiliated with the company, the company did not receive funding for the study.) Participants completed an online questionnaire about their training habits, their opinions on the benefits of training. and, if applicable, the program they were using. Some 1,009 participants reported using brain training programs for about eight months, on average, although the durations ranged from two weeks to over five years.
Next, the volunteers performed 12 cognitive tests assessing memory, reasoning, and verbal skills. They faced Simon-type memory exercises, such as spatial reasoning tasks such as mind-rotating objects, pattern-finding puzzles, and strategy challenges.
When the researchers looked at the results, they found that the brain trainers on average had no mental advantage over the other group in memory, verbal skills, and reasoning. Even among the most dedicated, who had used training programs for at least 18 months, brain training did not increase thinking skills above the level of people who did not use the programs.
It is not because brain trainers have poorer function initially and then improved. Participants who had trained for less than a month, and who were unlikely to yet have reaped significant benefits from the programs, performed at the same level as those who did not train at all.
“No matter how we sliced the data, we couldn’t find any evidence that brain training was associated with cognitive abilities,” says Stojanoski. This was true whether the team analyzed participants by age, program used, education, or socioeconomic status – all were cognitively similar to the group that did not use the programs.
Brain training can be beneficial in specific scenarios, Stojanoski says. But “part of our goal was to examine brain training in the real world.”
This real world is perhaps the best brain trainer, says Stine-Morrow. While it is possible to improve mental abilities, Stine-Morrow advocates practicing these skills in different real-life situations. “It’s a much better use of your time than sitting at a computer and doing small chores.”