Raise Your Hand if You Want a Better Brain

This post is written by some of our undergraduate students! In particular, Annalisa V. Sell, Jebediah Taylor and Lauren Sprague.

Who wouldn’t want a better brain? Who wouldn’t want to remember the meaning of “perspicuous” (which we have looked up repeatedly)? Who wouldn’t want to avoid that maddening “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon when we can't remember the name of our first teacher? Maybe there’s hope! Maybe computer brain games are the answer to better brains! Could we finally earn that promotion by spending time on brain games at home? Maybe children could focus more in school if they played brain games!

For the last decade, the brain training industry has promised to provide all these outcomes and more. The claim is that a broad range of simple, computer-based games designed to sharpen up our mental processes will improve our brains. Companies marketing such products boast that they can enhance a variety of cognitive abilities, slow or even reverse the effects of aging, combat degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s, and more. Cogmed, which sells its training programs to institutions like schools and health care providers, claims to sharpen attention and focus by increasing working memory. Lumosity, the most lucrative and well-known commercial brain training product, includes a package of games based on cognitive assessments commonly used in psychological research. But will practicing these games give us smarts that will allow us all to keep driving into our 90’s, or help children to overcome ADHD?

Scientists have found mixed results in their study of brain training and its effects. What has become increasingly clear is that brain training companies exaggerate in their advertising. In 2016, Lumos Labs, the company that owns Lumosity, was fined $50 million by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government agency focused on protecting consumers from unfair business practices. The FTC ruled that Lumosity did not provide sufficient scientific evidence to claim that its product improves academic and professional success, or that it helps ward off the effects of aging and Alzheimer’s. Although the fine was eventually reduced to $2 million, the company was required to provide refunds to customers who had spent over $239 on the product between 2009 and 2014.

Many brain training games are based on laboratory tasks used by psychologists to test cognition. While this is often touted as a strength, there is little evidence that playing these games does anything other than improving performance on the games themselves. In other words, playing these games might make a person good at these games. Period. Consider a high school student taking the SAT. She might practice specific skills relevant to the test, like tricks in reading the passages. But while these test tricks might allow her to receive a higher score, they might not actually improve her reading comprehension. Similarly, a brain training game that might claim to improve attention may do just that -- but only for paying attention in that game.

If you enjoy brain games, play on. But if you play solely to increase your intelligence or to stave off the effects of aging, think again. Getting a full night of sleep, going for a run, maintaining a healthy diet, and keeping up with family and friends all have well-documented and significant impacts on overall cognitive function.

As far as we know, brain games do no harm, and there are scientists who believe that brain training remains promising. We must, however, trust in the lengthy scientific process before investing our time and money in these products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently testing Akili, a video game designed to help children with ADHD. Akili is the first brain training program to undergo FDA evaluation, and with more research, maybe it will be on our Christmas lists next year.

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