Are ‘brain training’ apps a waste of time? There’s no denying that apps such as Lumosity and Peak are very popular – in fact they’re some of the most popular and most profitable apps around. Brain training apps can be a lot of fun, and there’s something addictive in seeing your scores going up with practice – but they make big claims for themselves, saying that they can improve cognitive function in working professionals or reduce it’s decline in people with dementia. In this post, we look at these claims in-depth and ask, is ‘Brain Training’ a waste of time?
Brain Training: Science, Marketing or Both?
We all have 24 hours in a day. That’s 1,440 minutes we need to spend that won’t be rolled over into tomorrow. Assuming that 8 hours are dedicated to sleeping, 3 to eating and just generally staying alive and 8 hours for working, this leaves the average person with about 5 hours of free time to spend on whatever they want: watching Game of Thrones, reading, spending time with loved ones and so on.
Businesses compete for this left over time and spend millions trying to get you to part with it. Brain training businesses have mastered the pitch to get you to part with your precious time and money by working on people’s anxieties about declining mental capability by using very bold claims. Most brain training platforms ask for no more than 10-15 minutes per day to improve cognitive function.
Lumosity, one of the most recognisable names in the brain training market, claim to work with a team of scientists and designers who work to “transform tasks into fun games that challenge core cognitive skills”. Similarly, Peak offer daily work outs that will “leave your mind feeling limber” and Cognito offer to “train your cognitive skills like never before”. These claims may sound good and they what do they actually mean?
A simple definition of cognitive function states that it is an intellectual process by which one becomes aware of, perceives or comprehends ideas. It involves all aspects of perception thinking and reasoning. This is such a broad definition because basically everything you do all the time means engaging your cognitive function. However Lumosity has over 75 million users which doesn’t happen by accident. many of their users must believe that there is something of value to doing brain training such as improving memory.
Brain training even get a mention on the Alzheimer’s Society page who say brain training is based on the concept of “use it or lose it” whereby the more regularly people challenge their brain the less likely they are to experience cognitive impairment and even dementia in their later years! Despite this initial bold claim, if you dig deeper, they go on to say that studies have not shown that brain training activities are directly responsible for lower rates of dementia.
In fact, there is no good conclusive study that backs up the claims made by brain training companies, in 2008 Jaeggi et al conducted a study for the University of Michigan looking at improving fluid intelligence with training. Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve problems with out practicing them before hand. They found that more brain training improved fluid intelligence. This is another huge claim and it provided brain training businesses with the opportunity to use the “scientifically proven” label to describe their products. However, Jaeggi et al’s findings were not replicated under tighter controls, suggesting that these initial findings should be taken with a pinch of salt.
In 2010 brain training was again put to the test in a study by Owen et al involving over 11,000 participants who trained several times a week on cognitive tasks designed to improve reasoning. They found that there was no transfer effects between trained and untrained tasks. which basically means that people got better at the tasks they practiced, but this skill didn’t transfer to tasks they were untrained in. Other studies claim commercial brain training apps are simple convenient means to improving cognitive functions which was the conclusion of Nouchi et al 2013 who note that their results do not imply that everyone should play brain training games as they found there were only beneficial effects on healthy young adults.
There is no good conclusive study that backs up the claims made by brain training companies
Brain training businesses like Luminosity, Cognifit and Peak don’t really have the scientific backing to make the bold claims that they are making, but they are businesses and with clever wording of course they are going to capitalise on the marketing opportunity that certain studies have enabled them to do. Luminosity however haven’t used enough clever wording and have recently been fined $2 million for false advertising. According to the Federal Trade Commission Luminosity falsely claimed that their program would “sharpen performance in everyday life and protect against cognitive decline”. T
The brain training mantra does sound good but the industry is still motivated by profits and brain training is big business. Luminosity has an estimated annual revenue of $23.6 million, Cognifit have recently secured $9.2 million in investment and Peak have raised $7 million in a recent investment round. The market for cognitive assessment which the brain training market it is apart of is expected to grow from its 2016 level of $1.98bn to $8.06 in 2021 which is a huge compound growth of 32.3 according to one market research report.
Does Brain Training Improve Brain Function?
So is Brain Training a waste of time? The answer depends on what you want to achieve. If you enjoy spending 10 minutes playing a simple game and it relaxes you, makes you happy and you gain some utility out of it then brain training isn’t a waste of your time. But if you’re dedicating your time to brain training with the goal of improving your core cognitive functions then, unfortunately, you probably are wasting your time. Or at the very least, the science is inconclusive. That’s not necessarily to say that brain training as a concept is without merit. For example, Project: Evo is a game specifically designed to improve multitasking and to reward individuals who improve measurably over time. The game has applications in the treatment of ADHD, Autism, and even Alzheimers.
Adam Gazzaley a University of California San Francisco neuroscientist does a great Ted Talk about the possible applications of technology for the brain. My argument is that there are many possible avenues for improving cognitive function and you don’t need to buy into expensive brain training programs. One of the best things you can do for your mind and general wellbeing is learning. It isn’t new ground breaking science we’ve known it to be true for hundreds of years and there is a very strong correlation between life expectancy and educational attainment.
Learning increases the individuals level of human capital which makes you more employable and therefore helps you to earn more . Learning new information literally changes your brain, a 2006 study for the Journal of Neuroscience looked at the brains of medical students both before and after they’d taken an exam to see the effect of extensive learning on the brain. They found that after studying students had increased the grey matter in their brain as the direct result of a large acquisition of new information.
So if learning is one of the best things you can do for your mind then the next question is: What is the best way to learn? Anyone who has wandered through a university campus around exam season will see it littered with tired stressed out students desperately trying to cram vast quantities of information into their brains in a short period of time and though this may work for some there is an easier less stressful way to learn called Spaced Repetition and its explained elegantly in this short video:
Whilst the advent of technology, and mobile revision apps in particular, has made it easier to stick to a spaced repetition programme, the idea itself isn’t new. It was explained by a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1800’s who pioneered experimental studies in memory. Spaced Repetition states that learning should be spaced out and repeated to mitigate the effects of forgetting. This little but often approach to learning is perfect for modern day life because if you want to revise or learn something new then you still only need that 10 minutes/ 3% of free time.
In some sense, this technique of repeating something frequently and in short bursts, aided by technology, is exactly what Brain Training apps are doing. However, the fundamental difference is that the brain training apps claim to be able to improve core cognitive function by repeating a specific task over and over again, and whilst this is a reasonable hypothesis, it is not backed up by the available scientific data. On the other hand, there is a vast array of research into Spaced Repetition to aid memorisation of specific knowledge. In other words, repeating something regularly makes you better at doing that task. But that in itself doesn’t correlate with an overall improvement in one’s cognitive function.
Conclusion: Is Brain Training All Hype?
October 20th 2014 a group of around 70 of the worlds leading neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists came together to give a consensus on brain training games for the Stanford Centre on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development. They note that as the baby boomers approach their late 60’s/early 70’s, their anxiety about memory loss and cognitive decline increase and brain training companies have capitalised on this anxiety. People were promised that brain training games would make them better and less susceptible to the declines in cognitive ability.
After studying students had increased the grey matter in their brain as the direct result of a large acquisition of new information
The consensus of this group was that: “Claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading”. They go on to explain how studies that promote brain training games produce statistically significant results because they use small sample sizes and only look at improvements in a certain task, as I mention earlier if someone trains in one task alone they are obviously going to get better at that task, but the idea that this creates “fluid intelligence” and can be passed onto other non practiced tasks is simply untrue.
The last conclusion of the group of scientists was about what they describe as the most pernicious claim of brain games which is that they can prevent or reverse Alzheimers disease which they describe as being “devoid of any scientifically credible evidence”. For the consensus on brain training games the scientists and psychologists offered up recommendations which are easily integrated into modern life through technology.
So, in summary:
- Think about opportunity costs: which means think about the next best alternative foregone. If your time is going to be spent on these games instead of walking your dog or learning a new skill then it may not be worth it. Meditation is one thing that you can do for a few minutes a day and that many people find very beneficial, Headspace is a good free app that guides you through the methods of mediation aimed at beginners.
- Physical exercise: increases blood flow to the brain and helps to support formation of new neural and vascular connections and it just improves overall physical and mental health. There are a tonne of apps on the app store things like Map My Walk is a fun way to check out new walking trails and monitor your progress. There’s even an app to make running more interesting/motivating which makes you think there is a zombie apocalypse behind you!
- Consistency is key: bare in mind that improving cognitive function is not a one off treatment like a vaccine and that consistency over a long period of time is essential for progress.
Time is your most precious resource and how you choose to spend it is entirely up to you. If you’re conscious about your brains health you don’t need to spend a penny to improve it. We’re never to old to try to learn someone so what little free time we all have can’t be wasted if we are learning and growing.
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