Brain training games might not benefit your grey matter

Seven psychologists from the University of Illinois reviewed 374 scientific reports that were cited by brain training companies in the marketing of their products. What they found might surprise you.

Brain training games and apps have been on the market for years, and have claimed to develop sharper listening, faster thinking, quicker reactions, productivity, and confidence. The games target the elderly and those with attention disorders to help train the ability to focus and memory retention.

However, a recent review conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Illinois has learned from all the studies and research into the benefits of brain training, there is no firm evidence suggesting a link between the use of these games and the transfer of skills to everyday life.

The theory behind brain training is that being able to remember a string of numbers soaring across the screen can increase your intelligence. Or by reacting to on-screen objects as fast as possible, your reflexes and reaction time improve. But there is no evidence that supports this ‘transfer’ effect – whereby playing these games, your mental abilities begin to improve.

Another issue cited by this recent review is that very few of the studies used to ‘prove’ the benefit of brain training games, account for ‘expectations’. People who play brain training games might expect to become smarter. This ‘expectation’ might cause them to do better in a later test due to motivation or confidence. While the reviewers admit it is incredibly difficult to remove the ‘expectation’ element from a case study, they argue that it could at least be measured or adjusted, something that every study failed to do.

Earlier this year the Federal Trade Commission ruled that brain training company, Lumos Lab had ‘deceived consumers with unfound claims’. The company, through extensive advertising and marketing, had told customers that their product would train their brain in ways that would be helpful in a variety of aspects of their everyday life, from improving their learning ability at school, to decreasing their chances of memory loss later in life. The Federal Trade Commission found that the company did not have enough evidence to back up this claim and Lumos Lab agreed to pay a two million dollar fine.

The official review conducted by the University of Illinois does not claim there are any problems or dangers associated with playing brain training games, but takes issue with the lack of evidence to support its benefits. However Dorothy Bishop, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, notes one disadvantage of brain training games is that these games might encourage people to stay home and “engage in solitary activity when they could be getting out and doing something that would not only stimulate the brain but would be fun and social.”