Get more focus by playing games, having fun.
Or better yet, improve your overall cognitive abilities with games.
That’s what the proclamation of many popular brain game training sites is.
They promise that you get an increased focus, memory, and cognitive abilities by playing games specifically made for that purpose.
But is it that simple? Can you simply play games and get a brain boost which you can apply to other areas in your life?
Let’s find out what the current research says about the efficacy of brain games.
What is brain training
First, we have to have a clear picture as of what these brain training companies mean by brain training. In short, these sites try to promise that by using their products, you can counter the age-related cognitive decline, increase your overall cognitive abilities, including focus, and you can achieve all of this by playing certain games.
On top of that, the promise often is is that not only you become better at playing those games, but the improvement reflects back into your everyday life.
Brain training companies argue that by using their programs which they have specifically engineered to model real life cognitive demands build up your brain — through neuroplasticity — to get better at those real life situations. In other words, by playing a game, you for example, get better focus in all of your everyday activities.
But is such a transfer really realistic. Surely you get better at playing those games, but that’s not the reason why you’re playing them, you want to have an advantage to your real life.
Open letter from the Max Planck Institute
In October 2014 Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered a leading group of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists and collected their views on whether brain games really offer a boost to cognition.
They concluded that there is very little evidence that the training these games provide transfer to everyday life, and there are other proven methods for cognitive boost you could spend your time instead — physical exercise for example.
We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.
Counter-attack from the pro-brain game scientists
To counter-attack this, a group of 133 pro-brain game scientists made a counter-attack with their own open letter on a website called: Cognitive Training Data claiming that the evidence points that cognitive training games do indeed improve cognitive function significantly — and more importantly, in ways that project to everyday life.
So you had two public statements — each signed by many people, that came to the opposite conclusion. No wonder people don’t know what to think about brain games.
In January 2016 the US. Federal Trade Commission announced that it charged the creators of Lumosity called Lumos Labs with deceptive advertising for 50 million dollars. Ultimately Lumos Labs managed to settle the fine to 2 million dollars because of financial hardships. Because of the fine, Lumos Labs also had to change it’s advertising because US. FTC concluded that they had no scientific evidence to back up their claims that their service could counter the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
In 2016, Daniel Simons, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois and a group of scientists published a study in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.
They reviewed more than 130 brain games and cognitive training studies, trying to find the evidence for brain game efficiency. Most of the papers didn’t follow rigorous scientific practices with their research. Many studies lacked a proper control group or failed to take a placebo effect into account.
The studies that had proper practices did show improvement over the practiced task but didn’t provide any evidence whether the effect transfers to other areas of cognition.
Learning and transfer
Generally, brain training companies advertise their products on the notion that when you train specific tasks over and over again, results from the training transfer to broader areas of cognition, such as concentration, memory, and overall cognitive sharpness.
However, the study concluded that there’s little evidence to support such a transfer. Most likely you will get better at the game itself, and tasks closely related to the game’s task, but don’t get any improvement to broader areas of cognition.
Chess grandmasters can recall a mid-game chess position with remarkable accuracy after viewing it for only a few seconds (e.g., de Groot, 1946/1978), but they show little advantage when remembering other types of materials. In fact, their recall is barely better than that of an amateur for chess pieces that are positioned randomly on a board (Chase & Simon, 1973; Gobet & Simon, 1996).
The newest study in the journal of neuroscience was published just a couple of days ago where a group of scientists led by psychologist Joseph Kable from the University of Pennsylvania had 128 young adults (71 male and 57 female) participating in a 10 week period of either Lumosity training or web based games that did not specifically target cognitive functions and came to the conclusion that:
We found no evidence for relative benefits of cognitive training with respect to changes in decision-making behavior or brain response, or for cognitive task performance beyond those specifically trained.
So the gist of the latest study review is that making sudokus will make you a better Sudoku maker, and maybe it will help you with tasks that are closely related to the trained task. But to say that simply following a brain game routine will improve your academic score is a bit of a stretch, there is no clear evidence to suggest that you become an all-around smarter person after doing brain training.
However, as we can see, the jury is not clear on this. There may be certain games that will help, provided that you spend a good amount of time with them. Also, we have to take into account whether you are trying to alleviate symptoms of cognitive decline, or if you are a young healthy individual who only tries to get an edge with these games.
There are people such as George Rebok, a psychologist at John Hopkins University who think it’s possible to find a working program for brain training that will improve cognitive decline and improve overall mental functioning. He thinks that one of the reasons why we haven’t got enough evidence of the brain training efficacy is that it takes a long time for them to work, and we haven’t seen the results yet.
As I have said before, if you like doing these games, by all means, continue doing them. But if you spend money, and playing these games is a grind to you — meaning, you don’t enjoy playing them, you play to gain benefits from them, I suggest you think twice.
You have to think about the cost effectiveness of this type of intervention. If your preferred brain game costs you money, and of course time also — you should think whether you are getting value for your investment of money and time.