Our site recently ran a great story about how brain training really doesn’t endow you instantly with genius IQ. The games you play just make you better at playing those same games. They aren't a direct route to a Mensa membership.

Just a few days before that story came out—Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—published a report that suggested that playing action video games, Call of Duty: Black Ops II and the like—actually lets gamers learn the essentials of a particular visual task (the orientation of a Gabor signal—don’t ask) more rapidly than non-gamers, a skill that has real-world relevance beyond the confines of the artificial reality of the game itself. As psychologists say, it has “transfer effects.” Gamers appear to have learned how to do stuff like home in quickly on a target or multitask better than those who inhabit the non-gaming world. Their skills might, in theory, make them great pilots or laparoscopic surgeons, not just high scorers among their peers. Action video games are not billed as brain training, but both Call of Duty and nominally accredited training programs like Lumosity are both structured as computer games.

So that leads to the question of what’s going on here? Every new finding about brain training as B.S. appears to be contradicted by another that points to the promise of cognitive exercise, if that’s what you call a session with Call of Duty. It may boil down to a realization that the whole story about exercising your neurons to keep the brain supple may be a lot less simple than proponents make it out to be.

One clue that this is the case can be found in another just-released study in The Journal of Neuroscience from the University of Oxford that gives some inkling as to why an electrical brain stimulation technology—brain training without the exertion of learning advanced Hindi—might help get your neural circuits going, whereas other times it might actually do the opposite, making some people perform worse on a given task.

The study involves a technique called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) that is all the rage because it's cheap and appears to be relatively safe, and so has gained adherents (though not sufficient proof) as a means for enhancing neural function. Some people even build their own home zappers in the hope of tuning up their neurons and astrocytes. The new study shows that tDCS works sometimes, but whether it does or not seems to depend on how your brain is wired from the outset.

When applied to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an emotional regulation area, the low electrical currents delivered by tDCS in the study sped up reaction times on simple arithmetic compared to sham stimulation, while also decreasing the stress hormone cortisol, but only if an individual exhibited math anxiety. In contrast, study participants who weren’t petrified by math had slower reaction times and cortisol levels didn't go down when that part of the prefrontal cortex received a zapping. To add to the muddle, both groups performed worse on a psychological test that assessed executive control—in other words, the way the brain regulates the multitude of cognitive tasks it routinely encounters.

Yes, this was a small study—25 math-anxious types, 20 low on the scale—and, yes, more probing is needed. But the outcome does lead to some tantalizing speculations that extend to brain enhancement as a whole. It’s quite possible that increasing your mental bandwidth might work—at least sometimes...maybe—but it also may be devilishly difficult to tell if cognitive cattle prods—or, for that matter, brain games—are right for you. To know, really know, you might need more than a DIY citizen science project, something along the lines of a brain scan or a gene test. Good luck with that.

Image Source: Activision