In recent years, there’s been a surge of ‘brain-training’ apps making it to market. With claims from ‘optimising your brain’s age’ to making you smarter, they’re very attractive to a population increasingly interested in self improvement and fighting the aging process. But do they really work?
As it turns out, their effects are controversial. Some studies for example tout their ability to ‘improve executive functions, working memory and processing speed’. Others claim that such games may help older citizens preserve their cognitive capacities. However, these findings do not match the general consensus in the scientific community.
In 2014, a group of neuroscientists and psychologists formed a consensus agreeing that the claims made by brain-training apps and games alike are largely false. They said, “We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”
More recent research continues to agree with this consensus. For example, in 2018, researchers from the University of Ontario, Canada, investigated whether the cognitive benefits of brain-training tasks were transferable to other tasks demanding usage of the same areas of the brain.
To do so, they split their participants into two- a test group and a control group. The test group was trained on a task involving working memory (the brain's ability to retain new information). Afterwards, their working memories were tested via the same task they were trained on, as well as another task for which they received no training, but demanded usage of the same area of the brain. The researchers then compared their results with those from the control group of whom received no training whatsoever before being tested on the second task alone.
In the end, the researchers found that scoring highly in the first game did not significantly influence scores in the second game. Lead author of the study, Bobby Stajonaski, said, “Despite hours of brain training on that one game, participants were no better at the second game than people who tested on the second game, but hadn’t trained on the first one.”
The researchers thus concluded that there is no evidence that playing brain-training games improves cognitive function in a meaningful way. Instead, they recommended going for a walk, run or socializing as better ways to improve cognitive abilities.