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The Weak Evidence Behind Brain-Training Games

Stashed in: Brain, Awesome, Inside Out, Apps, Science Studies, Cognitive Bias

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"If you repeat a specific mental task—say, memorizing a string of numbers—you’ll obviously get better at it. But what if your recollection improved more generally? What if, by spending a few minutes a day on that simple task, you could also become better at remembering phone numbers, or recalling facts ahead of an exam, or bringing faces to mind?

This is the seductive logic of the brain-training industry. These companies offer brief, simple video games that are meant to boost mental abilities like memory, attention, and processing speed. By reacting to on-screen objects as quickly as possible, you could become better at spotting details in your environment, like approaching cars or pedestrians. Or by holding numbers in your mind as they flash by, you can increase your intelligence. The tasks vary but the idea is always the same: By playing these specific games, you secretly train deeper mental abilities, and so improve every aspect of your life that depends on those abilities—all while having fun.

One product, BrainHQ from Posit Science, promises everything from “2x faster visual processing speed” and “10+ years in memory” to “more happy days,” “lower medical costs,” “reversal of age-related slowing,” and “more self-confidence.” Another, Cogmed, claims to have improved “attention in many with ADHD,” as well as “learning outcomes in reading and math [for] underperforming students.” Lumosity by Lumos Labs, perhaps the most pervasively marketed of them all, ran ads that included characters from the Pixar film Inside Out.

People are certainly buying the hype—and the games. According to one set of estimates, consumers spent $715 million on these games in 2013, and are set to spend $3.38 billion by 2020.

And they might be wasting their money, according to a team of seven psychologists led by Daniel Simons at the University of Illinois. The team, most of whom have worked on brain-training themselves but have not received money from the industry, spent two years reviewing every single scientific paper cited by leading brain-training companies in support their products—374 in total.

Their review was published today, and it makes for stark reading. The studies, they concluded, suffer from a litany of important weaknesses, and provide little or no evidence that the games improve anything other than the specific tasks being trained. People get better at playing the games, but there are no convincing signs that those improvements transfer to general mental skills or to everyday life. “If you want to remember which drugs you have to take, or your schedule for the day, you’re better off training those instead,” says Simons.

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