Do Brain Training Programs Work?

Ulrich Mayr is a neuroscience researcher and Lewis Professor of Psychology at University of Oregon. Recently, he spoke with Center on Longevity Mind Division director Amy Yotopoulos to discuss the latest research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Simons, et. al.)

Ulrich Mayr

Ulrich Mayr

Q: This recent article, Do Brain-Training Programs Work?, by Simons, goes into great detail in over almost 100 pages. Most of us won’t read the entire article, so what are the main take-aways from this research?

A: The article clearly lays out that so far there is no strong body of evidence that computerized training programs result in generalized effects aside from getting better at the practiced games. Despite what the providers of these games put on their websites (and they do make it very difficult to separate actual scientific evidence from false promises), there isn’t evidence that people get better in real life situations or increase functioning across the board from playing these games. With normal scientific exploration, we often have very honest disagreements about the criteria and rigor of the research, which is how science evolves over time. It is, however, problematic when game providers state something like “over 100 studies prove” that their product improves memory or cognitive functioning. One particularly important contribution the Simons paper is that it shows what is behind these “100 studies”. When you drill down you find only a small set of independent data sets and these results are then rehashed across papers. This is like making gold out of coal. It strongly indicates that at least for some game providers marketing concerns trump over a prudent scientific process.

Q: Since there is little evidence (yet) that these brain games improve everyday cognitive functioning, what should we be doing instead?

A: I say there are two things people can do: First, if there is something specific you want to get better at, like learning a language or remembering names, then practice those things. Just do what you want to get better at! And the other thing you can do is physical exercise. There is some evidence (again, not overwhelming evidence) that physical exercise could be as good for the brain as it is for the rest of our body.

Q: How can consumers make good decisions if/when these games are found to be helpful?

A: I would say to consumers to be careful, and wait for real evidence to be established over time. Don’t believe a single individual or company that is selling a product. Wait for broader review articles with a sufficient number of studies, or rely on an organization like the Stanford Center on Longevity to approve and validate the product findings.