Are Brain-Training Exercises Worthless?

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Gareth Cook has an important post on the website of the New Yorker, about how brain-training games and exercises that promise to make you smarter are “bogus”:

“Brain training has become a multi-million-dollar business, with companies like Lumosity, Jungle Memory, and CogniFit offering their own versions of neuroscience-you-can-use, and providing ambitious parents with new assignments for overworked but otherwise healthy children . . . The field has become a staple of popular writing. Last year, the New York Times Magazine published a glowing profile of the young guns of brain training called “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?”

The answer, however, now appears to be a pretty firm no—at least, not through brain training. A pair of scientists in Europe recently gathered all of the best research—twenty-three investigations of memory training by teams around the world—and employed a standard statistical technique (called meta-analysis) to settle this controversial issue.

The conclusion: the games may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, but this does not transfer to broader skills like the ability to read or do arithmetic, or to other measures of intelligence. Playing the games makes you better at the games, in other words, but not at anything anyone might care about in real life . . .

Over the last year, the idea that working-memory training has broad benefits has crumbled. One group of psychologists, lead by a team at Georgia Tech, set out to replicate the findings [by psychologist Susanne Jaeggi that IQ could be raised by brain training,] but with more careful controls and seventeen different cognitive-skills tests. Their subjects showed no evidence whatsoever for improvement in intelligence.

They also identified a pattern of methodological problems with experiments showing positive results, like poor controls and a reliance on a single measure of cognitive improvement. This failed replication was recently published in one of psychology’s top journals, and another, by a group at Case Western Reserve University, has been published since.

The recent meta-analysis, led by Monica Melby-Lervåg, of the University of Oslo, and also published in a top journal, is even more damning. Some studies are more convincing than others, because they include more subjects and show a larger effect. Melby-Lervåg’s paper laboriously accounts for this . . . The meta-analysis found that the training isn’t doing anyone much good.” (Read more here.)

Ads for Lumosity, CogMed and other brain training companies are ubiquitous on the web. Clearly, people want what these companies are claiming to sell—but in this case the buyer should beware.

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