Disappointing news for anyone using a pricy brain-training app: They might not be working magic on our minds after all.
In the past, several studies and for-profit companies have claimed that brain-training games make us smarter overall and help us reel in our impulsive behaviors — which, if true, would be great news for addiction treatment.
Here’s the problem: “The literature [on brain training] is quite mixed. In fact, so is the quality of the papers and the literature,” Caryn Lerman, a John H. Glick professor in cancer research at the University of Pennyslvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said in a phone interview. Some studies use really small sample sizes or very specific populations, while others lack a control group to compare to, she said.
This inspired Lerman and her colleagues to put these claims to the test. In a recent study, they asked groups of test subjects to play brain-training games or regular video games over the course of 10 weeks.
What is brain training?
“Brain training” is a rising health trend that takes a bit more commitment than wearing a Fitbit or Instagramming an acaí bowl — trainees spend time playing games on a commercial software, in which they quickly answer questions such as, “Which one is larger? 3 x 7 or 19?”
It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, but consumers don’t seem to care — in fact, humans are forecast to spend $3.38 billion on brain-training games a year by 2020.
In the study, one group played a brain-training game called Lumosity for 30 minutes, five days a week. It’s a popular commercial brain-training software with an estimated revenue of $23.6 million as of 2013, and it’s arguably one of the most popular brands — though not a perfect one. In 2016, Lumosity had to pay $2 million in fines for making medical claims in ads without the proper science to back them up.
The other group in the study played good old-fashioned video games. A third group did nothing at all, and scientists tested the cognitive abilities and behavior of all three groups before and after the gaming period.
Sadly, the evidence just wasn’t there.
“If it had these effects on our general cognitive abilities and also on our impulsivity, it would really be one of the best things out there for helping to promote healthy behaviors and choices,” Joseph Kable, a Baird Term Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview.
Kable quickly followed up with a chuckle: “We didn’t see effects for either,” he said.
“Cognitive abilities” is a fancy way of saying how well the brain can do things like switch between tasks, focus or remember information while being inundated with distractions. In essence, they found no meaningful difference — “so, if you’re trying to make yourself smarter, [the] study suggests that there’s little effect,” Kable said.
But before you get upset about dropping money on Lumosity or its lookalikes for the last year, there is some good news: Though the study’s overall population didn’t benefit from brain training, Lerman stressed that some individuals technically could have.
“If people are engaged, enjoying it and they feel like it’s beneficial, then why not do it?” she said. “It’s certainly not going to hurt.”