Brain-Training App Impacts Vary

Apps that claim to 'train your brain' may only work in certain groups of individuals
28 June 2022

Interview with 

Anja Pahor, University of California Riverside


If you go onto an app store and type “brain training”, you are confronted with thousands of games to download. But while playing for fun is all well and good, devoting hours to a game under the misapprehension that you are boosting your brainpower means you might have been misled. Anja Pahor from the University of California Riverside set out to test who is really benefiting from brain training. And Julia Ravey gave the game designed for their experiments a go…

Julia - So, what I have to do is I'm a little astronaut that's running through the world and I've got to collect gems. I can only collect a gem if the gem that I've seen before it is identical to it, which requires me to keep in my mind what that first gem was. [PLAYS GAME] So now I've got to remember three gems in a row, which is a blue circle, a pink diamond, and a green triangle. So the next gem I come across, if it's not a blue circle, because that's three gems back, I'm not allowed to take it. So the next gem I need to pick up, if it's a blue one, I can pick it up. Yep, blue. The next one needs to be a pink gem. Blue, pink, green, pink. Yep. And if this is green - ah, it's yellow, not going to go for it. I completed the level! So I'm playing this memory recall game, and this is being used in a study to test if brain training games are actually impacting our transferable skills outside the game. Because it's important to differentiate if I'm just going to get really good at this one game, or is it that my memory is actually improving. At the minute, evidence for brain training games being able to increase cognitive skills is still lacking...

Anja - Almost everyone has an app that is mentally challenging. Some of them are for fun, but the claims that some of these apps have made are that you will not only improve on the game or on the app itself, but it might transfer to other areas of your life - so you might be able to focus better at work - this is what scientists call far transfer. This however is somewhat questionable and inconsistent findings have been reported in the literature. We need to be careful when evaluating these types of apps to see what they're promising.

Julia - How have you tried to better understand if these games train our brains?

Anja - We developed an app in our lab and we've been testing for years and we've been running participants in our lab and trying to figure out which features of our working memory training app work in which don't. And we conducted three experiments with almost 500 people and basically repeatedly showed that if someone improves on the main training task, but is not able to perform equally well on the same type of task, but with these different memory objects, then they are unlikely to show improvements in a different context or in a different task. This finding is fairly straightforward, but it can help resolve some of the controversies in the field, which has shown these inconsistent findings regarding the effectiveness of brain training. In our lab, instead of asking the question "does brain training work?" and just averaging over large groups of people, we are trying to figure out how brain training works and for whom.

Julia - And is the opposite of that true as well? So say if someone was good at a word game, and then they had this near transfer being good at another word game, they'd have better far transfer as well?

Anja - Yes, this is what our findings would support. So if they can apply what they've learned to a similar task, then they're more likely to show far transfer as well.

Julia - And do we know who these people are, who have these better transferable skills? Do they have anything in common?

Anja - So we haven't looked at that data yet, but we are planning to examine that in the future.

Julia - So how are you planning to expand your research into brain training games using bigger populations?

Anja - We have recently actually launched a large scale citizen science study that aims to recruit 30,000 individuals. We are including many different training conditions and games, and we will be trying to figure out which types of games work best for which groups of people. And we can only do this when we have a very large and a diverse sample of hopefully thousands of participants.

Julia - And so is the aim in the future to have brain training games that work more on a personalised level? So you can look at an individual and think about what games would work best for them?

Anja - Exactly. We think that that is the future for brain training because there is just no one type of game that will work for everyone. We know that there are substantial individual differences in responsiveness to training, and we really need to take that into account.

To take part in the citizen science study, visit


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