What? Brain exercises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? Bah, humbug. But indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s Gautam Naik in a recent article, “a large new study casts doubt on whether such programs can deliver what they promise.”
The hallmark of a good brain-training program isn’t whether it simply improves a person’s ability to do the specific mental tasks in the training, but whether it also boosts other cognitive skills. The latest study, published in the journal Nature, found no evidence for such cognitive transfers.
“Our brain-training groups got better at the tests they practiced, and the more they practiced, the better they got. But there was no translation to any improvements in general cognitive function,” said study co-author Jessica Grahn, a scientist at the Medical and Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England. The unit has close links to the University of Cambridge.
Full disclosure: Posit Science CEO Steven Aldrich (quoted below) provided this geezer-driver writer with his company’s DriveSharp program at no charge. Whenever I can snatch some time (unfortunately that is seldom in 30-minute segments) I work on brain-training computer exercises designed to make me a safer driver. This is anecdotal and unscientific, but I believe it has made a small improvement.
But back to the study.
The brain-training field has been boosted by studies suggesting that even adult brains are “plastic,” and cognitive ability can be improved with the right mental training. Another spur is an aging population, and the hope that cognitive exercises and lifestyle changes may help to forestall brain maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The authors of the Nature study point out that some modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players who outperform nonplayers on some tests of visual attention. But wider empirical support has been lacking, they said.
The six-week online study involved 11,430 healthy participants, all viewers of a BBC television science program. They were first tested for their existing “benchmark” cognitive abilities, and then randomly assigned to one of three groups, each with a different set of tasks.
One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.
The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.
This study may be in, but the jury is still out. Proponents cite other sources and other studies in this still-new field, most aimed at helping the aging population keep up memory function and stave off general decline. And sites maintaining that it’s possible to build new brain cells continue to proliferate. Critics of the new study weighed in:
Some critics said the study’s design was flawed. For example, the participants were asked to do brain workouts for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks. But that may not have been long enough.
“It’s not brain training,” said Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive officer of SharpBrains. Past studies, he said, indicate that proper cognition transfer “only happens after more than 15 hours of training and where each session lasts at least 30 minutes.”
Steven Aldrich, chief executive of Posit Science of San Francisco, which sells brain-training programs, said the “study overreaches in generalizing that since their methods did not work, all methods would not work.” Mr. Aldrich added that other randomized, peer-reviewed studies have shown that brain training improves some aspects of brain performance.
Given the growing aging population and its accompanying mental struggles, from Where did I leave the keys? to fears of Alzheimer’s, this space endorses all efforts to better the brain cells. I’m still working on my driving and in favor of giving a game a try.