Episode 128: Do Brain Training Games Work?

You’ve probably heard about these Brain Training games. While there is some evidence that such games can have positive effects (Brain training for babies actually works (short term, at least), do they really help you to keep your mind sharp? Will they prevent cognitive decline as you get older or will they slow the effects of alzheimer’s disease? In this episode I review some recent studies on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of these popular games.
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Brain Games Research

  • Training your brain with games: The “Brain Science” (BS) of Neuro-marketing.
  • A nice review of the brain training research can be found in this excellent book, The Invisible Gorilla.The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us
  • Owen, A.M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J.A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S. Burns, A. S., Howard and Ballard, C.G (2010). Putting brain training to the test, Nature, 465, 775-779.
  • In Defense of Working Memory Training
  • Colcombe, S. and Kramer, A.F. (2003). Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults. Psychological Science, 14(2), 125-130.
  • Debunking 10 Brain Fitness and Brain Training Myths during Brain Awareness Week 2013
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  • Papp, K.V., Walsh, S.J. and Snyder, P.J. (2009). Immediate and delayed effects of cognitive interventions in healthy elderly: A review of current literature and future directions. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 5, 50-60.
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  • Willis, S.L., Tennstedt, S.L., Marsiske, M. Ball, K., Elias, F., Koepke, K.M., Morris, J.N., Rebok, G.W., Unverzagt, F.W., Stoddard, A.M., and Wright, W. (2006). Long-term effects of cognitive training on everyday functional outcomes in older adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 296 (23).
  • Smith, G.E., Housen, P., Yaffe, K., Ruff, R., Kennison, R.F., Mahncke, H.W. and Zelinski, E.M. (2009). A cognitive training program based on principles of brain plasticity: Results from the improvement in memory with Plasticity-based adaptive cognitive training (IMPACT) Study. The American Geriatrics Society.

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Comments

  1. Egon Elbre says

    I’ve been thinking about brain training games and maybe you need a different way of exercising or a catalyst for transfer.

    Usually person would just train their normal way of thinking. But what if those games/exercises suggest another way of thinking.

    For example a game where you count birds. Usual approach would be to just estimate or count one-by-one. Eventually you’ll get faster and better but no significant improvement.
    If you change your technique to counting-by-groups there is an significant improvement. (That means you group birds into 10 or more and start counting 10, 24, 37 and so on.) This teaches you a new way of thinking and maybe now it transfers to other things like adding/subtracting numbers.

    Now a catalyst for a transfer would show how to apply this skill. For example 4*24 is same as counting 4 times group of 24 birds. So 24, 48, 72, 96.

    What do you think about this?

  2. Isabel says

    I might be in the minority, but I’d prefer having fewer, longer, more in-depth podcasts rather than more frequent, shorter ones. I appreciate hearing not only conclusions, but the reasons behind them.

    Just as an example, in this podcast you concluded that brain training games don’t work, and cited several studies. Then you went on to recommend physical exercise to improve mental abilities, without any cites. I would have appreciated hearing any research to support that recommendation.

    Thanks for letting me air my opinion. I love your podcast.

  3. Michael says

    Egon: I have to tell you that honestly I’m not following this idea of “catalyst for transfer”.

    Isabel: Yours is the first feedback on the length issue, so we’ll see what else I hear, but you make a good point. I did read a good article which showed the effectiveness of physical exercise on cognitive ability (see Colcombe and Kramer above) but I didn’t discuss it because I tried to keep the episode below 20 minutes.

    Maybe you’re right: I mean, if people want headlines they can get headlines – but where you can go these days to get some in-depth information? Maybe I should stick to the longer format.

    I’ll let you know what else I hear in the next episode.

  4. Egon Elbre says

    The usual approach of just playing the game would just strengthen the specific pathways needed to do the exercise. The different way of solving the exercise would develop new pathways. The catalyst would show how to use the new pathways for different tasks.

    When you learn how to count birds fast with grouping, it might not transfer to math skills. A catalyst would be needed for the transfer of skill. Basically it’s a method how to apply the newly acquired skill (counting groups) in a different field. So when I want to calculate
    36 * 3 i’ll count 36, 72, 108.

    An other example would be memory games. If you also show how to remember better and use mnemonics etc. and also how to use them in real life then the memory games should (just a guess) be just as effective as just learning mnemonics.

  5. Dorothy says

    You could call me an “aging parent” as I am a parent, actually a grandparent and great grandparent and I am 3 years away from orbiting the sun 90 times (90-3=87). I like to say I have orbited the sun so many times rather than I am so many years old. It makes me feel younger. I am interested in these brain training programs because I would like to make some money on the Internet promoting them. However, as far as my cognitive skills: I taught Anatomy and Physiology for 20 years. I maintain my interest in those topics. I watch courses by The Teaching Company. From time to time I try to learn calculus; I do some things with other math topics such as number theory. I think my cognitive skills are maintained or enhenced by these activities rather than the brain training games. And, for me, are much more interesting. Oh, forgot, another discipline that I try to learn more about is physics plus I do a lot with the computer (making money on the Internet, no luck so far, but fun designing web sites.
    So, just adding to your comments. Your mother is only a little older in years than I am. I hope she and your father do well.
    Interesting podcast.

  6. Michael says

    Dorothy: glad you like the podcast. That’s quite an impressive list of activities! You’re a busy person. I wish my mother were involved in all those cognitively stimulating activities. I have to wonder if all those activities aren’t keeping you sharp. Thanks again for your comment.

  7. Michael says

    Andy: I had never heard of the book Successful Aging so I checked it out in Amazon – looks really interesting and I found an inexpensive used copy so I bought it. I’ll definitely take a look and see if there’s some good info in it for a podcast. Thanks for the heads up!

  8. jbq says

    How about doing Sudokus and stationary bike while listening to classical music?
    More seriously I think that even ” 40 hours of brain training” may not be as relevant as a lifetime. A longitudinal study in this case would be more appropriate. Do people who practice sudokus and cross words since their young age grow older cognitively better than the others?
    The plasticity of the brain is very intriguing. Do you think as we are getting old we can still learn new things, however some of the neural connections seem to ” shut off” as we do not use them?

    Thank you for the pod-casts, they are very interesting and informative. You do a wonderful job

  9. Michael says

    jbq: excellent point about the need for a longitudinal study in this area. I definitely do think that plasticity is a key recent finding (gotta do an episode on that topic – can’t believe I haven’t done one yet) and yes, I’m certain that older folks can learn lots of new things (a little slower than they used to, but still…). I might mention your point about the need for a longitudinal study in the next episode.

  10. Simon Dirks says

    I think they really do work. Games like braintraining on the DS, I don’t think so. You’ll just get better at the games instead of improving your actual cognitive skills. The creators themselves admitted that. It’s for entertainment purposes.

    But, if you take a site like http://braingymmer.com with games all based upon neuroscientific research, I think you can actually achieve some nice results with daily training.

    At least I feel like it’s helping for me, and I train about 15 minutes a day.

  11. Sarah R. says

    Sir,

    I enjoyed this podcast! I am currently in pursuit of my bachelor’s in psychology, and your podcasts are a weekly requirement for a course I am taking this semester. I have listened to three so far, and this is the first one that I am replying to…probably because I finished Adult Development a semester back and I can still remember a small portion of what we covered. I also enjoyed the Jack Lalanne podcast! Cognitive decline is a huge concern in the aging process, and people should expect some decrease in mobility both physically and mentally as age progresses. My question is this: do you think that the impact of age is decreased in individuals that continue to challenge themselves both mentally and physically throughout their life as opposed to those who begin training in a later stage?

    v/r,
    Sarah R.

  12. Michael says

    Hi Sarah. Listening to the Psych Files is a requirement eh? Wow. Tell your professor that I’m flattered (and that he/she is a person of excellent taste obviously!). I enjoyed doing the Jack Lalanne podcast – I’m glad you liked that one as well. Regarding your question: I would guess that starting earlier in life would be better, although I haven’t seen any studies that directly address this. Most of the focus of the research I’ve seen lately is on the effectiveness of learning a new language because people who are bilingual seem to suffer less from cognitive decline. I’ll try to dig up that research because I don’t remember whether the researchers were studying people who were bilingual from an early age or whether they had learned a language later in life. Let me look this up.

  13. Sarah R. says

    I have not seen any comparisons, but your work in the field has been going on much longer than my research. Being bilingual is a plus, then? Hooray! I enlisted in 2000 as a linguist. I am hoping that 18 iwas still young enough to benefit. I certainly did not feel very grown up at the time. As a matter of fact, I only suffer from rare attacks of “grown up,” and most of that has to do with bill paying. Thank you for posting these podcasts, making them available free of charge, and putting the time and effort that you do into them.
    V/r,
    Sarah R.
    P.S. – The course is Careers in Psychology!

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