It was just a couple of years ago that “brain games” exploded in popularity, promising to help you completely train your brain to become smarter, to improve your memory, and to boost your cognitive abilities – oftentimes right through the roof – just by firing up an app on your phone or playing these games on your computer.
Games and software from operations like Lumosity and Elevate were particularly aggressive in their marketing and advertising, going so far as to promise a more youthful, powerful, and healthier mind just by playing their games for anywhere between 15 minutes a day and an hour or so.
A lot of these brain training solutions were peddled as a veritable mental Fountain of Youth, with marketing and advertising specifically pushed towards senior customers that were looking to protect themselves against the inevitable cognitive decline brought about by Father Time. These companies practically guaranteed that their older customers were able to stay mentally young and vigorous, pushing back against genetics (and other hard sciences) just by fiddling with these games.
Today we know that nothing could be further from the truth.
In a recent clinical study published just a few months ago in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers discovered that NONE of the popular brain training programs – including Lumosity and Elevate – had any discernible impact whatsoever on the brain, memory, or on overall cognitive performance.
Researchers Joseph Kable and Caryn Lerman (both of them neuroscientists with the University of Pennsylvania) did a deep dive into the many different brain training programs and applications out there over the course of this study. Kable was particularly interested in how these games would impact to decision-making, whereas Lerman was more interested in how they would impact habits, memory, and overall cognitive function.
Both went into this study excited at the possibility to find something that had the power to transform our brains. These researchers wanted to know if something really existed that could improve cognitive function and abilities, centrally acting as a fitness center for the brain.
Both unfortunately came away from the experience and the considerable research they conducted less than impressed with the popular brain training options available today.
Research Shows Little to No Improvement Whatsoever
In a 100% randomized, but controlled trial (universally considered to be the “gold standard” for research studies like this), 128 individuals were brought on to become a part of this test. The large test subject group was considered to be almost overkill for the research project, but the researchers wanted to make sure that they were going to be able to conclusively determine whether or not these training programs had any real merit.
A number of individuals from this study trained using the Lumosity program (with full cooperation from the company behind this brain training solution) over a stretch of 10 weeks. Control groups played a variety of other online video games that weren’t expressly targeted at improving the overall cognitive functions of humans.
Throughout the tests, both researchers were looking to see if “executive function” – the primary job of the prefrontal cortex – was going to see any changes whatsoever. This is the part of our brain that is most active when we are starting to tackle new things, when we are looking to create new habits, and when we are jogging our brains to recall memories from years past.
Proponents of brain training solutions (like the folks behind Lumosity) believe that it’s possible to generate “transfer” in the brain. By challenging people to work out the prefrontal cortex and strengthen its abilities through repetition created by the video games themselves, other areas of the brain would also “flex their muscles” through transfer in the brain and would improve.
Scientists and medical experts are more than a little bit suspicious about the concept of “transfer” in general, and it looks like this new research vindicates their preconceptions.
Comparing the two groups together by scanning their brain before, during, and after the clinical tests, the researchers were able to conclusively prove that there was absolutely zero impact on brain activity whatsoever across the board.
Participants that practiced with the 10 weeks of Lumosity training did see improvements on their overall cognitive tests and examinations, but the control group that played video games – and another control group that did absolutely nothing during the test period saw the same growth in cognitive function as well.
That’s right, no training whatsoever. To quote “Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. “
Dr. Barbara Hong, Professor of Education and a researcher in the cognitive science of teaching and learning had this to say: “…there is very little return on brain games in terms of increasing one’s intelligence, memory skills or learning strategies. Brain games may help a younger child to learn how to stay focused but they do not have any direct effects on one’s learning of math, reading, science, etc.
Is it worth the money? Probably not. Parents will be better off buying a decent puzzle and having the child develop perceptual abilities to learn to read and write, and at the same time develop persistence. “
However, Joseph Coulburn from Better Nutritional Science seems to think they’re better than browsing mindlessly on facebook.
“I am a Brain Game fanatic and have some opinions I would like to share with you. I have played Lumosity for about 6 months and still keep up to date with sudoku and crossword puzzles.
I don’t believe that playing these games helps all of your brain, but if the game is focused around one specific task then it can definitely make you better at that specific thing.
Therefore, one brain game is not sufficient. You would need to do a range of different games that focus on different areas of the brain. This is what apps like Lumosity do and are very effective and fun.
I’d say it’s worth investing your time in – especially if you just play it the odd 10 minutes here and there when you have the time. It is much more productive than refreshing your Facebook screen over and over.
The ultimate brain game for me is chess. I’ve always loved playing it and usually try to have at least 1 game a week, but often it is much higher.
Modern apps make it very easy to play wherever you are. “
The FTC Strikes Back
Shortly after the research was published, the FTC decided to fine the company behind Lumosity just over $2 million after they found them to have been publishing advertising and marketing that was outright deceptive.
Lumosity contends that they have never promised or guaranteed that people would be able to improve their overall decision-making, but nevertheless they were forced to pay out that $2 million settlement with the FTC to customers that had purchased their brain training games and applications in the past.
Other brain training companies are starting to come under heavy fire from consumers and consumer watchdogs alike, with many of them shifting and changing their advertising and marketing in the wake of the $2 million punishment handed down to Lumosity.
We’re seeing companies like Elevate shift into an entirely different direction altogether, and other companies that used to promise brain training solutions are now starting to market their games and software solutions as something to calm anxiety, control emotions, and practice mindfulness (as just a few examples).
Can You Actually Train Your Brain?
Interestingly enough, Australian researchers working with brain training software developers have come across a singular solution and approach to these kinds of games that might actually provide tangible results when it comes to improving your cognitive abilities and functions.
It turns out that games that aren’t interested in improving your memory or using your memory as a vehicle for change across your brain, but instead look to improve the “processing speed” and accuracy of your brain processing information at a breakneck pace are the ones you want to get into.
Games, like the ones from Brain HQ, that overload your mind with images both in the center of your vision as well as on your periphery (at the same time, and only for a fraction of a second before they are removed or replaced with new images) have the ability to dramatically improve the neural plasticity of your mind and actually train up your cognitive functions.
These kinds of games might show you a flash of a red truck in the center of your vision but also show you a white ambulance in the periphery, flashing these images on screen before they disappear inside of less than a single second. You are then asked whether or not you saw a particular vehicle or object in your central field-of-view or on your periphery before you advance to the next sequence, giving you an opportunity to practice quick recall and processing speeds that affect the neural plasticity of the mind.
Above all else, the human mind wants to do nothing more than to bring order to everything that you experience in the world today. The brain is a question and answer machine, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to resolve anything and everything it comes across.
By challenging your brain with this approach – and really working hard to improve its processing speed and your recall at the same time – you’re able to essentially “rewire” different neural pathways throughout the brain. It sounds almost fantastical at first blush, but the brain truly is plastic in its makeup. You have an opportunity to reshape and rewire it, and these kinds of games that focus on the neural plasticity of the mind have the best opportunity to do so.
At the end of the day, neuroscientists and researchers also recommend looking for new skills to develop outside of your comfort zone, regularly immersing yourself in new environments that you are unfamiliar with, eating right and getting plenty of sleep, and working out for at least 45 minutes a day will all have a dramatic impact on the health and vitality of your mind, too.
It seems almost impossible for human beings to have discovered the secrets of space travel, quite literally putting men on the moon, but we still understand very little about how the human mind works and what we may be able to do to improve and influence it through our actions and decisions.
Researchers are pouring billions of dollars into the study of the human mind, however, and major paradigm shifts are starting to happen in the world of brain research. It won’t be long until we start to see fantastic breakthroughs in this field of science, it’s likely that we are just now on the precipice of exploring the human brain in ways that simply weren’t ever possible before.
Buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride for sure!