When Does Brain Training Work?
There are thousands of brain training apps and games on the market, and some multi-billion dollar brain training providers. The key problem is how to filter through them and commit to training with those that work. Here we review what criteria to look at to ensure that your brain training works.
An authoritative 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. Adrien Owen, Ph.D
Here we review the minimal conditions need to be met for brain training to be effective.
Brain Training Transfer
Does brain training work? Brain training only works when it results in transfer from the computer game to real cognitive benefits in daily life.
“The most critical factor in determining whether a brain training method or program works is the extent to which the training effects “transfer” to benefits in daily life.”
The evidence strongly indicates that most brain training apps merely develop skills in the game itself, like skills on any computer game, without transferring to general cognitive benefits such as IQ, emotional regulation or decision-making.
5 Criteria for Effective Brain Training
- 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”. Core brain capacities are the basis of wide-ranging cognitive health and performance outcomes in real life.
- 2. It must target a performance bottleneck. 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. A minimum “dose” of 15 hours total, performed over 8 weeks or less, 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. Training must adapt to performance and increase in difficulty. Like good games, training should be motivating, becoming more challenging as you improve with practice, absorbing your full attention.
- 5. 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.”
If you have had experience with any brain training apps, ask yourself whether these minimal conditions have been met. For many brain training providers, it is clear that one or more of these conditions are not met. Not even close.
IQ Mindware Apps Meet Sharpbrain’s 5 Criteria
IQ Mindware brain training apps meet the 5 minimal conditions for effective brain training, ensuring transfer to real world cognitive benefits.
1. Core Working Memory Training
All IQ Mindware apps train working memory. Working memory is a core neural circuit underlying multiple brain functions. Here is a BrainScanr graph showing just how central working memory is to attention, learning, memory and executive functioning – all of which underlie intelligence (IQ) (BrainScanr depicts relationships between neuroscience terms in peer reviewed publications – you can try different terms for yourself.)
IQ Mindware apps expand working memory capacity. Working memory can be understood as our ‘mental workspace’. The larger your mental workspace, the more you can process for comprehension, problem solving, reasoning, planning & decision-making. Working memory training can also help improve attention-related disorders such as ADHD, dyslexia & ASD.
Multiple peer-reviewed studies have confirmed the effective transfer of core working memory training for a wide range of cognitive functions.
An independent scientific review on the effectiveness of working memory training can be found here.
2. IQ & EQ ‘Core Circuit’ Bottlenecks
IQ Mindware apps train core brain circuit bottlenecks for IQ and EQ.
i3 Mindware is designed to train IQ (as measured on IQ tests). HighIQPro is designed to train general problem solving ability. Both these apps target the working memory’s fronto-parietal circuit. This is also known as the cognitive control network and is involved in a wide range of wide range of cognitive functions including general intelligence. The fronto-parietal circuit is shown in this brain scan.
i9-Health (one of the i9 games) is an emotional dual n-back. Emotional dual n-back training has the same effects as standard dual n-back training but in addition, it has benefits relating to emotion regulation and what is known as affective (e.g. emotion-based) cognitive control. These include improved decision making and learning under emotional stress (EQ) and reducing the impact of anxiety, depression and mood disorders on cognition.
EQ Pro targets the cortico-limbic circuit – shown in this diagram.
3. 10-15 Hours Basic Training
All IQ Mindware apps involve at least 20-30 minutes brain training a day over 20 daily Sessions spread out over 4-6 weeks. The training can be done all in one session or divided between morning and evening sessions. This is the basic training program and is required for the IQ gains guarantee. We find that in fact 10 hours is the minimum training required for transfer effects and long-term brain function gains – but many IQ Mindware users train for 15 hours or more.
This condition for effective brain training requires a serious commitment. Without this kind of time commitment, brain training is little more than an exercise in vanity – or at best, like playing computer games or game apps on your mobile device. Serious brain training is like going to the gym – it requires work over several weeks to lose weight and build core strength. But the long term benefits make it well worth the investment.
4. Adaptive Brain Training
All IQ Mindware apps utilize the adaptive training principle. This means that as you improve with practice, the game tracks your progress and increases the difficulty level. If you have an off-day, the game will adapt to this, and ensure the training is easier. This ensures that your training is always in ‘the zone’ – always challenging, absorbing your full attention, neither too easy nor too difficult.
5. Long term Neuroplasticity Change & Continued Practice
Your foundational 20 sessions of training results in long term neuroplasticity change in either your fronto-parietal working memory circuit, or your cortico-limbic emotional regulation circuit – depending on the app you train with. Your baseline IQ or EQ level will have changed.
There is evidence that the IQ gains can last six months after training, without any continued training. But just like when you build core strength at a gym over a more intensive month of training, to maintain the strength gains, you will need to either continue training at a lower intensity (e.g. 1-2 hours a week), or have a periodic “booster,” – say every 3-4 months. This is the final condition for transfer to permanent brain training benefits in real life.