Oct 23 2014

A Brain-Training Update

Can playing video games or specifically designed computer games improve your cognitive function? There are many companies who claim that they can and who would like to sell you such games that they claim are “scientifically designed.”

So-called brain-training is a burgeoning business, with perhaps the best known product being Lumosity. Lumosity promises:

“Scientifically designed games: Lumosity scientists study many common neuropsychological tasks, design some new ones, and transform these tasks into fun, challenging games.”

They claim to be a “leader in the science of brain training,” and include a list of 13 studies that allegedly show Lumosity is effective. Many of the studies do not even test efficacy, and strangely the list does not include this recent study from August 2014 showing that Lumosity is not effective.

This new study involved 77 subjects randomly assigned to play 8 hours of Lumosity or Portal 2 (a popular video game). They found that the Portal 2 players outperformed the Lumosity players on all three cognitive evaluations: problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence. The only pre-test to post-test significant improvement was the Portal 2 group for spatial skills.

This is a relatively small and short term test, so by itself it is not definitive. The results, however, are devastating to the claims of Lumosity if they hold up – Lumosity is not as effective as regular video games, and does not appear to be effective at all.

For those who are not familiar with Portal 2, you should be. It is an incredible game, which essentially involves solving interesting three-dimensional physics puzzles. This was a good game to test, and it’s not surprising that it would show an improvement specifically in spatial skills.

But we don’t have to rely on one study to determine if brain-training games work. There is a fairly large body of research exploring the many aspects of this question. I have been writing about this topic for a while. Here are my bottom line thoughts and recommendations:

  • Brain-training is effective, whether designed as classic cognitive tasks, combined tasks, or video games.
  • Effects are mostly restricted to the specific tasks being trained and do not significantly generalize to other tasks or cognitive functions. Effects tend to be short lived, although evidence here is very mixed.
  • Computer-based brain-training does not appear to be significantly different in outcome from traditional pencil and paper-based training, but is less labor intensive.
  • I could find no published evidence to support any claims for individualized programs.
  • Engaging in various types of cognitively demanding tasks is probably a good thing.
  • Try to engage in novel and various different types of tasks. These do not have to be computer-based.
  • Find games that you genuinely find fun – don’t make it a chore, and don’t overdo it.
  • Don’t spend lots of money on fancy brain-training programs with dramatic claims.
  • Don’t believe the hype.

Essentially, engaging in any cognitive task will make you better at that cognitive task and perhaps closely related tasks. The benefits are modest and probably short lived. There is no reason to think from the evidence that any specific brain-training game can improve general cognitive abilities, or that there is a permanent or even long term benefit to brain function. The claims of companies selling such games, therefore, are overhyped and misleading.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. Recently the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development published a consensus statement on brain training games. They assembled relevant experts from around the world and then put together a consensus statement. Essentially, they agree with me, which is reassuring. Here is the summary:

In summary: We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.

I also pulled out some interesting details to add to what I have written on the topic previously. The experts specifically make the point that improvement in performance on cognitive tasks may not represent improvement in brain function, but rather learning new strategies for completing the tasks. In other words, playing games may teach subjects how to use their brain smarter rather than improving brain function itself.

While playing Portal 2, for example, you build your repertoire of the kinds of tactics you can use to solve the spatial problems you are presented with.

This does not mean there is no utility to engaging in cognitive games and puzzles. Engaging in mental activity is better than not engaging in mental activity. It’s also better to engage in a variety of activities, and specifically seek our novel challenges. This will be more interesting, if nothing else. The same goes for physical activity. It’s better to be physically active than not, but there is no magic exercise or machine. Just do something, do lots of things, and keep it fun and convenient. The experts also point out, as I have, that the evidence shows physical activity has a positive, but modest, benefit to brain health also.

Conclusion

Do stuff. Do mental and physical stuff. Do stuff that you find fun and engaging, and try new things. But there is no magical or special stuff, so don’t believe the hype, don’t spend lots of money you don’t have to, or feel you have to do stuff that is inconvenient or unpleasant.

And play Portal 2. It really is a fantastic game.

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