Does Brain Training Work or is it a Waste of Time? This is What Research Shows

brain training

Brain training is a hot topic. It’s a million-dollar business and its popularity is still increasing. We have been interested in increasing people’s intelligence since the study of intelligence, but computerized brain training is a relatively new invention.

So, are computerized brain training games popular because of their positive effects on intelligence or are they a hype? Psychology experts are skeptical.

The marketing claims made by the companies go far beyond the evidence, and most studies on the effectiveness of brain training programs are sponsored by the brain training companies themselves. Hmm.

The company Lumosity is probably one of the most well-known and successful brain training companies. According to a blog post on New York Times, Lumosity has 50 million subscribers in 180 different countries.

For a training program to be effective, it needs to increase people’s fluid intelligence. In other words, we must be able to transfer the specific training to our daily lives. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason and to solve problems independently of previously acquired knowledge.

The rationale for brain training programs rests on observations that cognitive training is associated with decreased age-related cognitive decline.

Moreover, the adult brain is more plastic, i.e. susceptible to change, than we previously thought. The brain continues to form new neural connections throughout life (Chancellor & Chatterjee, 2013).

But does brain training work? This part of the article is inspired by a blog post on The Scientist Magazine. A meta-analysis of 23 studies shows that improvements in working memory after cognitive training do not last in the long run, and the very specific skills acquired in memory training cannot be transferred to other cognitive skills.

The authors conclude that: “… memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.” (Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013).

A study by Jaeggi and colleagues (2008) showed positive and promising results of a 10-hour cognitive training program. The authors found that cognitive training of the participants’ working memory led to improvements on some measures of fluid intelligence. These findings, however, have not been successfully replicated (Redick et al., 2013; Chooi & Thompson, 2013).

Another 6-week online study by Owen and colleagues (2010), involving over 11,000 participants, found improvements in all trained cognitive tasks. The effects, however, could not be transferred to untrained tasks, even when the tasks were closely related.

Taken together, brain training programs may help us become better at very specific tasks that are exercised by the games. We should not forget this! However, experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of the programs on general cognitive functions, such as fluid intelligence.

It’s not unlikely that some programs are helpful, but as mentioned in the beginning, the marketing claims made by the companies lack empirical support. 

I believe that brain training programs can be effective. How effective they are probably depends on the quality of the programs, people’s motivation and their brain’s plasticity.

However, according to Roberto Cabeza, a neuroscientist at Duke University:

“… It’s fine to play such [brain training] games for fun, but ‘if you’re doing it like a chore’ to postpone cognitive aging and dementia there are other, better established methods of keeping the brain sharp, such as exercising.” (ScienceMag).

At last, I think it’s promising that attempts are made to help people who experience massive cognitive decline, for example as a consequence of Alzheimer’s Disease. You can read more about it here.

Thanks for reading!

Image: Miguelángel Guédez
  • I searched for the article title and discovered this, didn’t think i’d find the answer

  • “A meta-analysis of 23 studies shows that improvements in working memory after cognitive training do not last in the long run, and the very specific skills acquired in memory training cannot be transferred to other cognitive skills”

    every time a lumosity ad has appeared on my screen I have thought “cool, this might be able to help you play video game apps faster but there’s no way it helps with anything useful”

    i am glad to see that intuition is backed up by empirical evidence.

    • Hey. I’m sorry I haven’t seen your comment until now. Anyway, you are so right about that! Well, from this research we know that computer programs train some very specific cognitive skills, but the question is then: How will this specific training help me in my everyday life with my everyday problems or difficulties? That’s interesting.