Mythconception - Does brain training actually work?

31 January 2017

Interview with

Ginny Smith


In our regular ‘mythconception’ Ginny Smith did some brain training…

Ginny - If you could improve your memory, attention and reaction time just by playing a few simple games for 15 minutes a day, wouldn’t you want to? Well that’s what the huge number of “brain training” games on the market for your phone or tablet computer are offering… but it seems their claims might be too good to be true.

Indeed, since the time brain-training games first went mainstream, the scientific community has been divided over whether these activities really can streamline your mind.

The premise seems to make sense. Connections between brain cells can be strengthened the more we use them, and we also know that the brain can change visibly in response to the way we use it: take the study of taxi drivers learning the layout of London for instance. The region of the brain called the hippocampus, which mentally maps out the world for us, was much bigger in the cabbies after they learned the London roadmap than before they began their taxi training.

So it doesn’t seem surprising that there are lots of studies that claim to show that brain training games have mind-sharpening benefits too. But, a more recent review suggests that in fact the evidence for any benefit is far too weak to back up the claims companies make. So you might want to save your cash and buy a book of crosswords instead!

Because writing in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a group of psychologists, led by Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois, and including researchers from Cambridge, Florida and Michigan, scrutinised the 374 studies cited by the leading brain training companies in support of their products.

The analysis showed that the majority of the studies didn’t measure up to the ‘best practice’ they had defined: they just weren’t good science! The sample sizes were small, or the studies lacked a control group or proper baseline, making the results at best dubious and more likely meaningless.

Many studies also failed to account for the placebo effect: if you are told that playing a game will make you better at something, you may get better at it just because you expect to, with no help from the game at all.

That said, there were a few solid studies amongst those the team reviewed. But, damningly, these didn’t show any substantial benefits for brain function across the board. Instead, people only tended to get better at the task being trained.

People often liken the brain to a muscle. And they say that, just as a weights session at the gym can boost your upper body strength and make it easier to carry your shopping home, gymnastics for the mind helps keep the brain in tip top condition too.

Unfortunately, the brain is not like a muscle and this doesn’t seem to work with brain training games. People who use them do become better at the specific games they are practising, but, unfortunately, this doesn’t carry over into other aspects of your every-day life.

That said, there are some people who might benefit. Barbara Sahakian, at Cambridge University, has built some brain training apps for patients with schizophrenia to help them improve their memories, and they have seen these benefits carry over into the patient’s daily lives. But just because something works in one sub-group of people with a specific illness, that doesn't mean it will necessarily benefit the rest of us, or that all brain training games will have the same effect.

So if brain training games don’t help keep you sharp, is there anything you can do to ensure your brain stays healthy? Luckily, the answer is yes, and it’s free! There is a lot of evidence that physical exercise has benefits for the brain as well as the body, as does a healthy diet and an active social life. So if you want to stave off the ravages of time, put down the computer game controller and grab someone to accompany you on a nice walk instead...