I love games that are challenging and stimulating for the mind. My daughter loved playing them at every age. Finding other people who agreed was often difficult, so we were thrilled when the games became digitally available . We could play them anywhere, anytime, alone or in online groups. From increasingly difficult puzzles to rooms that required investigation and unique codes to enter and exit. And if they could help prevent a descent into Alzheimer’s or improve brain activity as well, what a incredible added benefit!
The promise of brain-changing games is hard to resist. Who doesn’t want to improve memory and thinking and have fun doing it? Especially as you grow older? That’s just what products like Lumosity and Elevate, the computer-based brain training programs, aim, and claim, to do. The games target skills like working memory and attention, and they get more difficult as you get better at them. But a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that such brain-training programs had no discernible effect on the brain, on cognitive performance, or anything else.
Because of this, games were studied that target executive function, the umbrella term for capacities controlled by the prefrontal cortex that help us delay gratification, plan for the future, and do other cognitively difficult things. It’s a set of brain regions that basically seem to be engaged whenever tasks are hard. One of the important questions about brain-training is whether improving the skills needed to master a particular game has any effect on other cognitive skills. That is a principle called “transfer.” Proponents of cognitive video games believe in transfer. The researchers reasoned that if brain-changing games increased activity in executive function areas or made those networks more efficient, people might also show signs of making better choices.
Some participants trained with Luminosity (with the company’s cooperation) for ten weeks. A control group played a variety of similarly stimulating online video games that aren’t aimed at improving thinking and memory. In addition to studying choice behavior, the researchers also looked for signs of basic improvement in cognitive performance. And for the first time in a study of brain-changing games, they included neural imaging to look at activity in relevant areas of the brains before and after training.
The results were disappointing. There was no effect on brain activity, no effect on cognitive performance, and no effect on decision-making. The participants who trained with Lumosity did improve on the cognitive assessment, but so did the control group and so did a group who played no games whatsoever. In other words, it wasn’t the game that was having an effect. These gains were attributed to the fact that everyone had taken the test once before.
Granted, this was just one study. As the folks at Lumosity stated after it was published, they never claimed their games would help with making better choices and it’s difficult to make grand claims from one piece of research. In 2016, however, the company behind Lumosity was fined 2 million dollars for deceptive advertising.
Since then, multiple other studies have found the same results -that the high scores in the first game did not boost the participant’s performance in the second game. Researchers hypothesized that if you get really, really good at one test by training for a very long time, maybe then you’ll get improvement on tests that are similar. Unfortunately, there was no evidence to support that claim.
Other studies showed that people who do a mere hour of brain training have a slight and temporary bump in their IQ by five points, but only if they believe the training will have an effect on their cognition. The researchers use the results to argue an alternative explanation for the brain games that were once so popular: That much of their value may simply be a matter of whether or not we believe they’ll work- the placebo effect. In other words, a lot of the benefit of these games may be all in our heads.
According to Bobby Stojanoski, a research scientist in the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University, the lead author of one of the papers published in the journal Neuropsychologia, “From a consumer perspective, if you hear a company or an advertisement saying, ‘do brain training, do this thing for half an hour and you’ll get a higher IQ’ – that’s very, very appealing. Unfortunately, there’s just no evidence to support that claim.”
I love playing these games, just as I love to read, play games in real life and watch a good movie. That hasn’t changed. As much fun as these games may be, and adding them to your regimen can’t hurt, in the end they’re just entertainment. There are better, more proven ways to stay mentally agile. That’s where our focus should be. If you’re looking to improve your cognitive self, instead of sitting in front of a TV or computer playing a video game or brain-training test for an hour, go for a walk, exercise, socialize with a friend, get outdoors and breath in the fresh air, sleep 7-9 hours a day, eat healthy, or learn something new. These are much better options we know can offer real help.