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Best Evidence for Brain Training Falls Short

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Market researcher SharpBrains has predicted that the brain fitness industry will range anywhere from $2 billion to $8 billion in revenues by 2015.

That’s a wide swath, but the companies that sell brain-tuning software could conceivably hit at least the low end of their sales target by then.

The question that persists is whether any of these games and exercises actually enhance the way your brain works, whether it be memory, problem solving or the speed with which you execute a mental task. True, study participants often get better at doing an exercise that is supposedly related to a given facet of cognition. But the ability to master a game or ace a psych test often doesn’t translate into better cognition when specific measures of intelligence are assayed later.

One area of research that has shown some promise relates to a method of boosting the mental scratchpad of working memory— keeping in your head a telephone number long enough to dial, for instance. Some studies have demonstrated that a particular technique to energize working memory betters the reasoning and problem-solving abilities known as fluid intelligence.

Yet two new studies have now called into question the earlier research on working memory. A recent online publication in the Journal of Experimental Psychology led by a group at the Georgia Institute of Technology showed that 20 sessions on a working memory task did not did not result in a later acing of tests of cognitive ability. Similarly, a group at Case Western Reserve University tried the same “dual n-back test” and published a report in the journal Intellgence that found that better scores did not produce higher tallies for working memory and fluid intelligence. An n-back test requires keeping track of a number, letter or image “n” places back. A dual n-back demands the simultaneous remembering of both a visual and auditory cue perceived a certain number of places back.

What does this all mean, that the best means to boost smarts may not work? For the moment, it means a continuing academic debate because of all the excitement previously generated about prospects for upping intelligence, not just for self-help types and gamers but for students and those in need of cognitive rehabilitation. The study groups in this recent research were small—in the first study, 24 people who trained working memory and 49 others in two control groups—so the proverbial “more research” mantra will probably be invoked. But other work, including a meta-analysis of other studies, has also cast similar doubts.

So should you keep doing Web-based brain training? Only if you like it. Just don’t expect enormous leaps on your score for Raven’s Progressive Matrices or some other test of fluid intelligence. If you’re doing these tests as part of a personal self-improvement program, maybe consider the piano, Spanish lessons or even Grand Theft Auto 3—The Ultimate Tribute to Liberty. Any of these pose less threat of the monotony that could ultimately undermine the persistence needed for mastery of any new pastime. Seems like a no brainer, in fact.

Image Source: Shannan Muskopf

 

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Mythusmage 11:26 am 09/25/2012

    Once again we see people confusing memorization for learning.

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  2. 2. emts12 1:13 pm 09/25/2012

    This is a very disappointing read. I have a Lumosity membership and I had bought the hype about it’s potential for improvement – The data they advertised was impressive so this is disappointing indeed.

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  3. 3. bucketofsquid 4:53 pm 09/26/2012

    I’m pretty sure that GTA reduces intelligence. The only people I know that play it on a regular basis are particularly stupid.

    Link to this
  4. 4. selrachj 1:54 pm 09/27/2012

    So far, aerobic exercise is the only activity that boosts cognitive ability. People are suckers though and will undoubtedly spend a few billion on techniques that don’t transfer to the real world. The Sudoku players will get better at that, but nothing else.

    Link to this
  5. 5. AndreasM 4:40 am 10/13/2012

    selrachj, I would disagree with you on that. A lot of people are doing the N-Back task and report a number of benefits from doing it.
    And from the scientific point of view, there is no 100% guarantee of no transfer at all. One studies show there is significant transfer, other show there is left (or no) transfer.
    Of course, as stated in the article, you will not get twice smarter after doing the brain exercises, but it’ll help you keep your mind fit, similarly to body training.
    And you may do the N-Back task online completely free on a number of sites, like http://brainscale.net/n-back or download a standalone Brainworkshop application.

    Link to this
  6. 6. dangap 9:53 pm 05/12/2013

    It’s my opinion from personal use that some of the programs sold online are fantastic and some not so fantastic.
    Currently reviewing Dr Jonathan Paker’s home study course, although it’s not ground breaking info it is set out in a easy to understand format. The program really unclutters the mind. I have started a review http://memorytechniques.org, i look forward to going into a more in depth review as i progress through the program.

    Link to this
  7. 7. dangap 9:58 pm 05/12/2013

    AndreasM,

    Forgot to mention, i checked http://brainscale.net/n-back and have to say it’s quite interesting. Thanks for the link.
    This blog raises some interestingquestions.

    Link to this
  8. 8. dangap 10:23 pm 05/12/2013

    I find memory games or strategy type puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube a great brain work out, i like to think of my brain as a muscle, work it out to keep it fit and strong.

    Link to this

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