A team out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has done a serious assessment of studies of brain training games, like those featured in programs likeLumosity and Learning Rx. They hoped to get a final answer on whether playing these skill-specific games can result in general memory and cognition strengthening, as these companies assert, and some scientists support. The results don’t bode well: many of the studies looked at did not “adhere to what we think of as best practices,” says project leader Daniel Simons, professor of psychology at UIUC – thus casting doubt on the assertion that overall brain power can be improved by several rounds of Word Bubbles.
Some of the studies’ sample sizes were too small, or they didn’t have a control group; others didn’t consider the placebo effect. And the studies that did have sound methodologies showed that task-based brain training games do indeed improve your brain’s function – but only when later performing that exact task.
“‘You can practice, for example, scanning baggage at an airport and looking for a knife,’ [Prof. Simons] says. ‘And you get really, really good at spotting that knife.’
But there was less evidence that people got better at related tasks, like spotting other suspicious items, Simons says. And there was no strong evidence that practicing a narrow skill led to overall improvements in memory or thinking.
That’s disappointing, Simons says, because ‘what you want to do is be better able to function at work or at school.’”
Some scientists are holding out hope that a longer term use of brain training games, which hasn’t yet been studied in depth, may lead to overall improvement in brain functioning, and stave off age-related decline.
Until then, Lumosity and Learning Rx have been knocked back on their heels by fines levied by the U.S. Federal Trade commission, which found their advertising of general cognitive improvement through gameplay to be unsupported. We’ll just have to see how this shakes out. I will be playing Word Bubbles while I wait – because it’s fun.