Brain-training games don't transfer to real-world tasks

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 6, 2016

Key Takeaways

Computerized games meant to train your brain, improve your memory, or sharpen your mind really only improve your ability to play that game, researchers found. Very little evidence shows that brain-training games improve your ability to perform unrelated tasks or enhance your everyday cognition, according to a literature review published in the October 2016 issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

“The idea behind ‘brain training’ is that if you practice a task that taps a core component of cognitive ability, like memory, the training will improve your ability to perform other tasks that also rely on memory, not just in the lab, but also in the world,” said lead author Daniel Simons, PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL.

Although computerized brain training games are new, the transfer-of-training concept has been around for more than a century, Dr. Simons noted.

“If you practice remembering playing cards, you’ll get really good at remembering playing cards,” he explained. “But does that help you remember which medications to take, and when? Does it help you remember your friends’ names? Historically, there is not much evidence that practicing one task improves different tasks in other contexts, even if they seem to rely on the same ability.”

In 2014, an international group of more than 70 scientists issued a joint statement that brain games don’t provide a scientifically grounded way to improve cognitive functioning or to stave off cognitive decline. Several months later, an international group of 133 scientists and practitioners refuted that statement with their own letter, which asserted that “a substantial and growing body of evidence” demonstrates the benefits of brain training for a wide variety of cognitive and everyday activities.

In this study, Dr. Simons and colleagues the aimed to settle the argument.

They reviewed the 132 journal articles cited by the latter group of scientists in support of their claims. In addition, the researchers included all of the published articles cited on the websites of the leading brain-training companies.

Overall, the researchers found extensive evidence that brain-training interventions do improve performance on the trained tasks, but less evidence that brain-training games improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that such training improves everyday cognitive performance or enhances performance on distantly-related tasks.

The researchers also found that “many of the published intervention studies had major shortcomings in design or analysis that preclude definitive conclusions about the efficacy of training, and that none of the cited studies conformed to all of the best practices we identify as essential to drawing clear conclusions about the benefits of brain training for everyday activities.”

These shortcomings included small sample sizes and studies in which researchers reported only a handful of significant results from the many measures collected.

Most of the studies tested for cognitive improvement using simplified laboratory tasks rather than on measures of real-world performance. “There are relatively few studies in this literature that objectively measure improvements on the sorts of real-world tasks that users of the programs presumably want to improve—and that the programs’ marketing materials emphasize,” Dr. Simons noted.

One of the most glaring problems the researchers found was the inadequate use of control groups. Some of the studies had no control group. Some had a passive control group whose members took the same pre- and post-test as the intervention group, but were not engaged in any other way. Some studies attempted to give control groups an alternate task such as playing crossword puzzles, watching educational DVDs, or socializing with the experimenters in the lab.

“Based on our comprehensive review of the evidence cited by brain-training proponents and companies, we found little evidence for broad transfer from brain-training tasks to other tasks,” Dr. Simons said. “We hope future studies will adopt more rigorous methods and better control groups to assess possible benefits of brain training, but there is little evidence to date of real-world benefits from brain training.”

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