In recent years, brain training has become a multimillion-pound business with companies such as Lumosity, Fitbrains and Nintendo developing a wide range of user-friendly ‘brain games’ that have been ‘developed by neuroscientists’. How effective are these more popular apps?
‘Brain games’ do not work
A large study published in the scientific journal Nature has recently shown that the more popular brain training apps such as Lumosity do not improve general cognitive ability. Skills on the specific exercises improve with practice, but these exercises do not result in general improvements in brain function. The study concluded:
There were absolutely no transfer effects…I think the expectation that practising a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported.
Dr Adrien Owen, University of Cambridge
1. Core brain training
To ensure broad cognitive transfer, the training must
“exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes, such as executive attention, working memory, speed of processing and emotional regulation”
Working memory training (e.g. IQ Mindware apps) is the most effective type of ‘core’ brain training.
2. Performance bottlenecks
The brain’s core neural circuits include working memory, IQ, emotion regulation, processing speed and decision making. Different brain training apps train different core functions. You need to identify which of these is your ‘cognitive bottleneck’ and choose an app that targets that bottleneck.
3. 15 hours in 8 weeks
This kind of time commitment is necessary for real improvement.
“Training only a few hours across a wide variety of brain functions…should not be expected to trigger real-world benefits, in the same way that going to the gym a couple times per month and doing an assortment of undirected exercises cannot be expected to result in increased muscle strength and physical fitness.”
4. Adaptive training
Training must adapt to performance and increase in difficulty with practice. This ensures that training is continually challenging as you improve with practice, absorbing your full attention. This is necessary for real neuroplasticity change.
5. Continued practice
Continued practice is required for continued benefits.
“While the minimum dose described above may act as a threshold to start seeing some benefits, continued practice, either at a reduced number of hours or as a periodic “booster,” is a final condition for transfer to real-world benefits over time.”
In practice Lumosity training does not target core brain circuits with ‘information bottlenecks’ (such as working memory), the training on a given exercise is not sustained or adaptive enough to result in real gains in IQ or other health, resilience and performance measures.
Failing to meet these basic conditions explains in large part why scientific reviews of Lumosity training fail to show transfer to general cognitive abilities like IQ, memory, decision making or emotional control.
Peer Reviewed Journals
The very small handful of peer reviewed studies of Lumosity brain training apps are single, unreplicated (unrepeated) studies. Before these are repeated we should be wary of them.
Moreover, the benefits reported are typically not for the general population but for specific groups such as cancer survivors or ‘girls with Turner syndrome’.
The evidence for other popular brain training providers is even less substantial.
Convincing journal evidence requires the following:
- Replication – that is, repeats of the study in different labs, published in different journal articles.
- Systematic reviews and meta-studies rather than individual studies – reviews of multiple studies looking at the same effect.
Popular brain training providers simply do not provide this quality of evidence.
IQ Mindware apps are based on this high grade evidence, and that is how we distinguish our products from the competition.