Does Brain Training Work?

Brain training programs, usually in the form of mobile apps backed by subscription services, are all over the place these days. By challenging you with innocuous games, these programs claim to be able to improve specific cognitive abilities, increase intelligence, and even ward off serious afflictions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Brain training services typically toss around scientific studies and jargon to add legitimacy to their assertions as well. Sometimes, people in lab coats even show up in the commercials. That’s how you know they mean business.

But what’s the reality about these brain training games? Does brain training work?

It Makes Sense…

In theory, brain training makes sense. After all, we already know that people learn well through repetition and in environments that they enjoy. So, little games that focus on certain aspects of brain health should be the perfect tool.

It’s important to realize, though, that a skill practiced in a vacuum doesn’t always translate well to the real world. The same is true, in fact, when it comes to developing your muscles. Just because you can deadlift 300 lbs in the gym, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to lift a couch by yourself. Both the challenge itself and the environment that you’re working in all impact your performance.

So, while that brain training game might make you really phenomenal at popping numbered balloons on your couch, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be endowed with any practical ability through that same exercise. This was demonstrated in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, which found that while memory and specific skills might increase through brain training games, those same benefits don’t carry over to other tasks.

But What About The Studies?

Of course, while critics of brain training toss studies around to support their view, proponents are doing the same thing. What, then, should you believe?

When looking at any study, it’s always important to check on the source and methodology of the paper. Applying that lens to the pro-brain training studies out there, the first thing you’re likely to notice is that they are generally funded or conducted by a company that makes brain training programs. Not only that, but these studies are usually very small – observing only a handful of participants – and short in duration.

Generally speaking, these traits are considered markers of a low-quality study.

What Does Work?

Interestingly, one of the most commonly cited studies regarding the efficacy of brain training doesn’t just argue that the games have no benefit – it also shows what type of exercises do work. The study, published in PLOS Medicine in 2014, analyzed the findings of 52 studies, which included data from a total of 4,885 participants.

The study found no real world benefits to standard brain training – done on your own while drinking your morning coffee. The researchers did find evidence, however, that supervised training in a small group had some pronounced effects. Specifically, this type of training improved short-term memory and processing speed.

Related research has found that we learn new skills better – and increase our ability to learn – when physical exercise is paired with mental work. This sounds a little strange, I’ll admit. By doing a light activity, like walking, while performing a mental task, though, you help your brain create new connections and retain memories better.

Depending on the situation, then, brain training can work. Unfortunately, all of those games probably aren’t giving you what you need.