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Brain Training Games Don’t Work, After All

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If you want to get smarter, software companies and app developers promise that it’s easy. Just install their brain training games and play them regularly. These games, which challenge memory, attention, and logic, were made to supposedly strengthen the mind, in the same way regular exercise develops muscles. A large-scale review of scientific evidence on the subject, however, proves that brain training games don’t help.

The basic premise on the line is that practicing something improves both a person’s aptitude on the task and general mental abilities. This was how teachers used to justify teaching Latin, on the principle that the dead language would improve memory and logic in children, New York Daily News reports.

But researchers found that this was untrue. While practice does develop skills in performing a task, it does nothing for broader mental acumen. In the 1970s, for example, a group of students practiced remembering random numbers. They excelled at it, recognizing over 70 digits in an instant. But when they were asked to remember letters, they could not name more than 10, the same as before they started training.

Then in 2008, a new experiment sought to contradict the 1970s findings. Scientists at the University of Michigan trained participants on working memory tasks. Working memory means a person’s ability to juggle information. The team found that people who practiced working memory tasks performed better at other working memory tasks.

The study suggested that perhaps researchers had jumped to conclusions in saying that brain training was impossible. Several studies followed, with many supporting brain training, while others contradicted the University of Michigan results. Soon, enterprising companies jumped on the opportunity to develop brain training games, promising big things.

Now, a new team reviewed 375 scientific studies and came to the conclusion that brain games, in fact, are not useful. Many of the studies they analyzed failed to account for the placebo effect, meaning some people who knew the brain games would make them smarter tried harder, not became more intelligent.

Daniel Simons, a co-author on the study and a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says they were disappointed that the evidence was weak.

It would be really nice if you could play some games and have it radically change your cognitive abilities. But the studies don’t show that on objectively measured real-world outcomes.

Earlier this year, researchers tested the placebo effect in brain training. They posted fliers around a college campus, all of which were recruiting participants in a study. Some of the fliers had the title “Brain Training & Cognitive Enhancement,” while others did not mention the purpose. All participants played brain games for an hour, which was too short a time to show any benefits. But the people who thought they were in a brain enhancement study showed improvement at the end of the hour, while those who had no idea did not.

According to this new study, this is the most significant flaw in brain game studies: failure to account for people’s expectations.

In the handful of studies that followed procedures and parameters, researchers consistently found that respondents improved at tasks with practice, and some even get better at similar tasks. But there has been no evidence of an across-the-board enhancement in intelligence from playing these games.

The study was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

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