Brain training is a huge business. Books, computer games, and wearable devices vie for our attention, promising a better memory, improved focus, and a clearer mind. But do they actually work? As is often the case when it comes to the brain, the answer is yes and no.
Let’s start with the yes: our brain can change, and the more we practice something, the better we get at it. This is called neuroplasticity. If you learn a musical instrument, you are training your brain to play that instrument, and you will improve over time. If you do a crossword puzzle every day, your brain will learn to think like the clue writers, and you will get better at doing them. And if you do sudokus, your mental maths abilities are likely to improve. So far so good. But the games for brain training out there promise so much more- and this is where we run into problems. Because over and over again, scientists have found that the improvements seen in the task people are trained on just don’t seem to transfer to other tasks.
For example, one study looked at more than 11,000 people over six weeks, asking them to carry out online brain training several times a week. The tasks they focused on were designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention, but, as the authors put it:
“Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related"[i].
This isn’t to say that there is no benefit from giving your brain a workout. We know, for instance, that as we get older, keeping our brains active can help stave off cognitive impairments. And some studies have found small benefits for brain training programmes [ii]. But it doesn’t have to be an expensive ‘science-backed’ brain training game. Playing chess, bingo or cards can also be beneficial[iii]. In fact, one of the best things you can do later in life is to keep learning, whether that’s signing up for an online course in something you are interested in, picking up a foreign language you haven’t studied since school, or even figuring out a new app on your phone[iv].
But what about young people? Is there any evidence that games for brain training can be beneficial in the classroom? Well, again, it depends on what kind of benefit you are hoping for. Kids, like adults, get better at the things they practice. So a mental maths game may well improve their mental maths abilities. But when it comes to improving cognitive ability more generally, there is little to no evidence[v].
A team at the University of Cambridge, for example, has been investigating whether working memory games can help students with this vital skill. Unfortunately, they found that improvements were only seen in the tasks students were practicing, and didn’t transfer to even quite similar tasks[vi].
While this may all seem like bad news, and it is for those selling games for brain training that promise the world, I actually think it’s good news for teachers, children, and anyone looking to stave off the ravages of aging. Because what it means is that we don’t have to spend money to improve our brains. And we don’t have to do certain tasks, just because they are ‘good for us’. Instead, we can focus on spending time helping children to build the skills they need for the future, in any way that works for us and for them. And as adults, we can pick things we enjoy in order to keep our brains active. I don’t know about you, but going to a dance class, or reading a philosophy book sounds much more appealing to me than doing my daily dose of a set ‘brain workout’!
[i] Putting brain training to the test - PMC (nih.gov)
[ii] Computerized Cognitive Training with Older Adults: A Systematic Review | PLOS ONE
[iii] Playing board games, cognitive decline, and dementia: a French population-based cohort study | BMJ Open
[iv] Training Older Adults to Use Tablet Computers: Does It Enhance Cognitive Function? | The Gerontologist | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
[v] Frontiers | Brain Training in Children and Adolescents: Is It Scientifically Valid? (frontiersin.org)
[vi] Cognitive enhancement | Mysite (joniholmeslab.com)