If you’re currently trying to improve your memory or other cognitive (thinking) skills with computer “brain training” programs, you may be wasting your money.
According to a study published in the April 20 online issue of the journal Nature, such programs do nothing to boost long-term reasoning, memory, planning, visuo-spatial skills or attention.
The study, a collaboration between British researchers and the BBC Lab UK website, recruited viewers of the BBC science programme Bang Goes the Theory to practise a series of online tasks for a minimum of ten minutes a day, three times a week, for six weeks. In one group, the tasks focused on reasoning, planning and problem-solving abilities — skills correlated with general intelligence. A second group was trained on mental functions targeted by commercial brain-training programs — short-term memory, attention, visuospatial abilities and maths. A third group, the control subjects, simply used the Internet to find answers to obscure questions. A total of 11,430 volunteers aged from 18 to 60 completed the study, and although they improved on the tasks, the researchers believe that none of the groups boosted their performance on tests measuring general cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning, and learning.
“There was absolutely no transfer effects” from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition, says Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who led the study. “I think the expectation that practicing a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported.”
These findings were disappointing, to say the least, to the rapidly growing brain-training industry. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its report on the study, the North American market for brain training and fitness products was $265 million in 2009, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. And the industry (undoubtedly spurred on by worried baby boomers) is expected to grow to at least $1 billion in five years.
This study, of course, has its flaws — as the manufacturers of brain-training products quickly pointed out. The study’s participants were self-selected, for example, and only used the programs for six weeks.
Owen himself admits that the study doesn’t prove that brain-training programs are worthless for all users. But, he adds, “the evidence is not strong, and someone needs to go and test it.”