There is now a proliferation of products and services promising to “train your brain.” In the past we used to call this, “learning.” The term “brain training” has a certain connotation that implies something more is happening.
For example, on the website brainmetrix.com they claim:
“You will find some brain fitness workouts that can help your mind process information more quickly, and more efficiently, as well as the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time.”
The implication, if not explicit claim, is that brain training is somehow more than just practicing a particular task in order to become better at that task. Lumosity, for example, promises “scientifically designed training” with a “personalized training program.” The advertising is very clever – they say, “discover what your brain can do,” instead of simply, “discover what you can do.”
The advertising speaks as if your brain is somehow something different than just you – that “brain training” is more than learning or practice. It sounds like cutting edge neuroscience, rather than what people have been doing for thousands of years.
The core question, however, remains to be definitively determined by research – are there any particular tasks that “train the brain” to function better beyond the task itself? That is, as they say, the 64 thousand dollar question.
Psychologists state this question as, are trained abilities generalizable or transferable? If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?
The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.
In other words – practicing a word task will make you better at that particular word task, and to a lesser extent at other word tasks, but not at math. It seems the research is pretty clear on the extremes – improvement for the specific task, but not for general intellectual function (it won’t make you “smarter” in the general sense). The research becomes fuzzy when you try to focus in on the middle part – to what extent, exactly, do trained skills extend to “related” tasks? Does any word task make you better at all word tasks, or only those that resemble the one being trained? How specific vs transferable are these trained skills?
A recent study adds to the literature on this question with findings that support the overall pattern that is emerging. The researchers looked at a particular ability known as inhibitory control. This is, essentially, the ability to stop or inhibit a mental task, and is considered a fundamental and important cognitive ability. (Parent are all too familiar with the general lack of inhibitory control in children and the resulting behavior.) The study design, for example, had subjects press a button with a certain trigger, and then stop with another trigger, and measured how quickly they stopped.
Not surprisingly, the subjects who were trained on the inhibitory control task did better at that task than controls who were given a control task. The researchers also found, with fMRI scanning, that pathways in the brain associated with inhibitory control were primed for the particular triggers used in the study. The study did not look specifically at the transferability of the skill, but the fMRI results suggest that the effect is fairly specific.
For a more detailed review of the research, take a look at my previous article on the subject at Science-Based Medicine. Essentially, the research is complex because of all the variables involved – types of training, types of tasks and mental abilities, target populations, and types of studies (observational vs experimental). Because there are so many variables, existing research on any one particular question is fairly limited.
But overall the pattern is fairly consistent – training extends to the specific task and closely related tasks, but not much beyond that.
However, observational studies looking at populations that have had some type of specific training in the past, such as musicians, avid video game players, or those who are bilingual, generally show that there is some transferrable skills related to the task. Those who play video games, for example, that require visuospacial skills tend to be better at visuospacial tasks. But – do they play video games because they already have this ability, or did they develop the ability because they played video games?
What, then, is the bottom line recommendation for the average person? Should you expend time and money on brain training websites or products because they will enhance your life in some way? Those kinds of have actually not been done – the net effect on the lives of people who expend resources on brain training (are they more successful in life in some measure).
I think the best summary at this time is to say that it is better to do stuff than not to do stuff. The more stuff you do, the better at doing stuff you will become, mostly specific to the stuff you are doing. (This applies to the mental as well as physical.)
Overall there does seem to be an advantage to spending your time on cognitively demanding and interactive activities than passive activities (this may confer a decreased risk for dementia, for example). So – play games, do things that are fun, enjoy your life by doing stuff. I would not worry too much about exactly what your are doing – if it’s fun, at least you have that, and you are more likely to do it consistently.
There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.
But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.
This is one of those situations where years of detailed research is converging on an answer that we all kind of knew already by simple common sense.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.