Quirks and Quarks

Brain training apps won't make you smarter

A new study looking at popular "brain training" programs that are meant to improve cognition and decision skills suggests that they work no better than ordinary video games.

People tend to think video games will rot your brain. While they might be onto something if you were to spend hours sunk into a couch playing Pac-Man, Grand Theft Auto, or the Legend of Zelda. There's a different kind of video game out there meant to develop, rather than degrade, your brain.

Lumosity is one of a family of apps that suggests that by playing their games, they will make you smarter than you were before, and make your brain better, stronger, and faster

But is that really possible?

That's what a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania wanted to find out. Guest host Anthony Morgan talked to Dr. Joseph Kable, an associate professor of psychology, about his latest study looking into how effective Lumosity really is.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anthony Morgan: So what kinds of effects do these brain training apps promise?

Dr. Joseph Kable: The promise is that by engaging with fun video games that you can play on your phone or online that are specifically designed to tax your cognitive skills, that this will fundamentally change the way that your brain works, and lead you to think better, be smarter, and more intelligent.

We found that the brain games had no effects... over and above practice with everyday videogames.- Dr. Joseph Kable

What kinds of activities do these brain training apps have you do?

Well the most of them focus on a suite of things that psychologists will call "executive function." These are the kinds of things that they focus in on our ability to hold something in mind in the face of interference, so to remember a 10 digit phone number while someone else is talking to you. Or to focus in on some information and screen out irrelevant information. Or to multitask - to be able to go back and forth between two tasks without slowing down.

What did you compare this brain training app, Lumosity, to?

In our study, we had two comparison groups. The first comparison group was people who just played regular old video games that weren't designed to do anything more than be a fun way to spend five minutes. The second comparison group was a group of people who did nothing at all, so they just did our initial assessments and then came back and did our final assessments.

Now how would you know if those games were actually effective at increasing any of our cognitive abilities?

What we did to measure whether the brain training games and / or the video games were effective at improving your cognitive skills, was to give people a suite of assessments. So we assessed people's working memory, which is their ability to hold information in mind in the face of interference. We assessed their ability to focus their attention on one piece of information and screen out distracters. The other two things that we were looking at to look at their efficacy is brain activity, which we measured with functional MRI, and then the other thing that we looked at was decision making.

What did you find?

We found that the brain games had no effects on any of those three measures over and above practice with everyday videogames.

Did that surprise you at all?

It did. We we started the study with motivation that this would work and the expectation that if it didn't work, we could see at what step in the causal chain it was failing. With that said, I think there's enough controversy around the idea of brain training. I think anytime you test something that big, you have to expect there's some chance that it's not going to work out. Often the most exciting ideas in science unfortunately tend to not be true.

Paper in The Journal of NeuroscienceNo Effect of Commercial Cognitive Training on Neural Activity During Decision-Making