The app store on mobile devices have several “brain training” games that aim to increase mental sharpness and cognitive functions. They claim that a certain amount of time dedicated to playing these games can make you smarter. Some even claim to decrease the symptoms of brain aging.
These games consist of quick tasks that test memory, response time, math skills, and other intellectual aspects. Users usually solve timed problems, go through mazes, choose objects on the screen, or other similar activities. Each of the games usually take less than a minute, with the overall “exercise” taking less than 10 minutes.
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What their research says about brain training
The popular app Lumosity cites research that claims that these games can work, if they are a diverse set of tasks. The studies show that all the skills that improve through Lumosity improve important skills outside of the app.¹
Several studies conclude that people who use Lumosity for a certain amount of time show significant improvements in cognitive functions and even show signs of reduced aging.²
Braingymmer claims that their cognitive training exercises train concentration and memory. In their own website page “The science behind Braingymmer” they reference a few scientific studies that used their app for research. Some of the research conclusions don't support and even go against Braingymmer’s claims.³
One study concludes that this type of cognitive training did not improve the mental functioning of the study participants. Their verdict? “A game a day does not keep the doctor away.”⁴
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What other scientists have to say
In a review of many recent brain games research papers, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. The standards on what is considered “performance” and “improvement” are not standardized. In other words, researchers do not agree on whether brain-training games work. What looks like cognitive enhancement to one scientist may not look significantly impressive to another.
In one review, researchers used a common set of standards to measure cognitive improvement. They found that skills improved after training them using these games. However, similar skills were not improved as much. There was very little evidence showing improvement in distantly related skills outside of brain games (the kinds of skills used in everyday life).⁵ This means that the targeted skills improved, but it does not mean much for brain challenges off-screen.⁶
A study done on the virtual-reality game Cerevrum tests whether certain parts of cognition are improved. They concluded that it was not effective and claimed that Cerevrum, along with Lumosity, should not categorize themselves as “brain-training” games.⁷
Another study explores the possibility that people feel like they improved intellectually because of a placebo effect. There seemed to be a correlation between confidence that the brain-training games would work and feeling like they worked at the end of the study.⁸
So do these games actually train your brain to be smarter? Short answer: not really.
The skills that are built playing these games are only relevant to the games. They do not transfer to real-life problems. Challenging games may help people remember colorful shapes on the screen. They may train people to click on the right button at lightning-quick speed. However, research does not provide concrete evidence that brain-training games consistently improve cognitive functioning.
Research in brain-training games is still in the process of being explored. For now, there is not a clear consensus on whether they are significantly effective in training brains. It does not rule out the possibility that future brain-training games can strengthen the mind in ways that they promise.
Of course, there are the low-hanging fruit: study, exercise, sleep, therapy, and leading a healthy life. These are proven ways to improve cognitive function and mental capacities.
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Hardy, J. L., Nelson, R. A., Thomason, M. E., Sternberg, D. A., Katovich, K., Farzin, F., & Scanlon, M. (2015). Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial. PLOS ONE, 10(9), e0134467. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0134467
Brain Training Games Enhance Cognitive Function in Healthy Subjects. (2020, August 1). PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5930973/
Buitenweg, J. I. V. (2020). Cognitive flexibility training in healthy aging: A game a day does not keep the doctor away.
Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983
Kable, J. W., Caulfield, M. K., Falcone, M., McConnell, M., Bernardo, L., Parthasarathi, T., Cooper, N., Ashare, R., Audrain-McGovern, J., Hornik, R., Diefenbach, P., Lee, F. J., & Lerman, C. (2017). No Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Brain Activity, Choice Behavior, or Cognitive Performance. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(31), 7390–7402. https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.2832-16.2017
Parong, J., & Mayer, R. E. (2019). Cognitive consequences of playing brain‐training games in immersive virtual reality. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 34(1), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3582
Ng, N. F., Schafer, R. J., Simone, C. M., & Osman, A. M. (2020). Perceptions of Brain Training: Public Expectations of Cognitive Benefits From Popular Activities. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 14, 1. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2020.00015