The benefits of brain training are more marketing hype than good science.
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Brain training apps don’t improve brain power (cognition) in everyday life, finds a new systematic review.
The review looked at all 132 journal articles that brain training supporters say give evidence that brain training works.
The researchers also looked at all the published articles cited on the websites of leading brain training companies.
Lead researcher, Daniel Simons, professor of psychology at University of Illinois, said:
The idea behind ‘brain training’ is that if you practice a task that taps a core component of cognitive ability, like memory, the training will improve your ability to perform other tasks that also rely on memory, not just in the lab, but also in the world. That premise is known as ‘transfer-of-training.’
If you practice remembering playing cards, you’ll get really good at remembering playing cards. But does that help you remember which medications to take, and when? Does it help you remember your friends’ names?
Historically, there is not much evidence that practicing one task improves different tasks in other contexts, even if they seem to rely on the same ability.
The review found that brain training also lacks a ‘transfer-of training’ effect.
Based on our comprehensive review of the evidence cited by brain-training proponents and companies, we found little evidence for broad transfer from brain-training tasks to other tasks.
In particular, the review found problems with the design of many of the cited studies.
The problems included:
- Small sample sizes;
- No control group;
- Inadequate control groups as a baseline for measuring improvement; and
- A passive control group, whose members took the same pre- and post-test as the intervention group, but were not engaged in any other way.
The review also found issues with the reporting and interpretation of evidence in the cited studies.
- Most of the cited research tested for improvements on simplified, abstract laboratory tasks and not on measures of real-world performance;
- Studies where researchers reported only a handful of significant results from the many measures collected;
- Studies conducted with special groups (such as people diagnosed with schizophrenia, children with language delays, or older adults with dementia) then used as support for broad claims about the benefits of brain training for the general population.
Simons also noted:
Sometimes the effects of a single brain-training intervention are described in many separate papers without any acknowledgment that the results are from the same study.
That gives the misleading impression that there is more evidence than actually exists, and it makes it hard to evaluate whether the study provided any evidence at all.
We hope future studies will adopt more rigorous methods and better control groups to assess possible benefits of brain training, but there is little evidence to date of real-world benefits from brain training.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science In The Public Interest (Simons et al., 2016)
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