Jump on the Brain training expressway! Toot toot!

Can you really train your brain to be bigger, brighter, faster and younger?

This is what some companies like Lumosity and Nintendo believe. They claim their brain training programs can help improve our overall intelligence, brain function and health, through regularly exercising the brain with tests and puzzles, like these ones shown below: (Will post answers at the end of the blog, no cheating!!)

1. Fill in the blank Box?

2. Which is the odd flower out?

Lumosity have made some pretty bold claims that their brain training software “‘will give you the power to improve your brain and achieve your goals for a much better life!” They further state, “users are to see a 92% improvement rate within 3 months and those users who train daily improve the most, which means quicker thinking, better memory, increased confidence and a more fulfilling life for those dedicated few!”. These claims are pretty out there… i personally don’t believe them. I have played such games like Brain academy and Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and i can say from experience, the daily tasks they gave me  i obviously got better at  through practice, but it didn’t give me a more ‘fulfilling life’ and i didn’t see any beneficial effects in my working memory capacity or attention levels during my daily activities, but that could just be my own personal experience. However, many scientists and psychologists in brain research also believe these statements to be ’empty promises’, they feel the theories backing up these claims are seriously flawed and there is yet to be any concrete evidence that suggests these brain training games actually work.

Psychologists have been interested in the idea of improving human intelligence for over a century now, but it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the phenomena of brain training came about. A study conducted by Jaeggi, Buschkuehi, Jonides & Perrig (2008) suggested that intelligence, more specifically reasoning ability could be dramatically improved through a type of brain training called ‘dual-n-back’.  The dual-n-back task involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking them to respond if that cue has occurred. Subjects were split into five groups after being given a reasoning test. The first group received 8 sessions of training, the second received 12 sessions,  the third 17 sessions, the fourth 19 sessions, and the final group was a control group, meaning they didn’t receive any training after taking the reasoning test. They found that the subjects in the training groups showed a much greater increase in reasoning test scores than the control subjects. They also found that the training groups that received more hours of training showed a bigger gain in reasoning test scores.Thus Jaeggi and colleges concluded that this was an increase in intelligence, more specifically an increase in fluid intelligence.

However, more recent research in the field has revealed there to be significant flaws within the design and methodology of Jaeggi’s dual-n-back study. Shipstead, Redick, and Engle (2012) pointed out that fluid intelligence can not be measured by one single test, it must be measured with multiple tests.  If you find that people get better in one test of reasoning it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re smarter in general, it just means that they’re better at that one particular reasoning test, anyone can get better at a task if they practice enough. Another striking downfall of the study was the differences in received treatment between the control group and the training groups. The control group who received no training, went home and did whatever. But the training groups came in regularly for training, which raises possibility of motivation being an explanation as to why the training groups improved so much more than the control group.

Redick, Shipstead, Harrison, Hicks, Fried, Hambrick, Kane, & Engle (2012) improved and replicated Jaeggi’s study, to see whether intelligence could be improved after working memory training. The results revealed little significance in terms of improvements in intelligence. Subjects did improve in the given dual-n-back tasks administered, but this was purely down to practice. The improvements seen did not give any positive transfer to other cognitive abilities, so it did not improve fluid intelligence, crystalline intelligence, ability to multitask, perceptual speed and working memory capacity. Therefore suggesting brain training (working memory training) does not increase intelligence.

In order for Lumosity to back up their claim that their training program really does make you smarter, they  have conducted and published their own clinical trials in the ‘lumos lab’ (see images). It all looks very professional, well cited and referenced in empirical psychological journals, BUT if you dig a little deeper some of Lumosity studies have been found to be seriously lacking in reliability, validity and statistical significance. In one of Lumosity’s early studies they took 23 subjects and split them into 2 two groups; The first group (control group – 9 people) performed simple visual and memory tests without playing Lumosity games. The second group (training group – 14 people) performed the same visual and memory tests but whilst playing Lumosity games. It was found that memory span was significantly increased in the training group after playing Lumosity games in comparison to the control group (see graph below).

So whats so wrong with this study??.. Well one major concern is the lack of participants. Lumosity only tested 23 people, this is a tiny number to make up a scientific study. All psychologist know in order to get a significant result for any empirical study you need a huge number of participants. Furthermore, the lack of participants means that the results can not be generalized to the whole public.  Another looming concern is the lack of control between the two groups, which affected the interpretation of the final results. The control group were told to go off and do nothing in between the pre and post memory span test. So how could the researchers really be sure that it is the Lumosity games themselves giving benefit. It would have been best for the researches to give the control group a separate task like a crossword or tetrus to do, so they could then really determine which games have a beneficial effect on memory span.

In another more recent Lumosity study conducted by Kesler, Sheau, Koovakattu, and Reiss (2011) they claim their number/ math games can help improve math performance and problem-solving abilities. To further stress their claim they show FMRI scans of participants brain function pre and post training.  However, Lumosity didn’t mention on their website this improvement was only observed in individuals with ‘Turners syndrome’. Turners is a chromosome abnormality characterized by physical abnormalities and neurodevelopmental difficulties, such as maths, language, and social skills. Their research primarily focused on individuals with Turners syndrome, these individuals did show an increased in maths performance after completing number sense training. But the problem is Turners is a rate condition and just because these individuals improve with this type of training, it doesn’t mean the rest of the public who are healthy will improve in the same way.

Recently the BBC Bang goes the theory conducted one of the biggest ever brain training studies.

They tested 11,430 people over a six week period to see what effect, if any playing brain training games would have on our intelligence and brain power. All participants were asked to do brain training “workouts” for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a week for a minimum of six weeks. Participants were then assigned to one of three possible brain training groups:

1) Group 1 – sessions were designed to train their reasoning powers, planning and problem-solving skills.

2) Group 2 – games designed to train short-term memory, attention, mathematical abilities and visuospatial skills

3) Group 3 – given web-browsing tasks that didn’t target any specific cognitive skills.

The results showed none of the interventions (training sessions/ games) boosted people’s ability to do everyday thinking tasks, although subjects did get progressively better at playing the individual games and the specific cognitive tasks they were given, the gains were not transferable to real world situations. Statistically there are no significant differences between the improvements seen in participants who played our brain training games, and those in the third group who just went on the internet for the same length of time. Essentially players gained little, if anything in terms of general reasoning, memory, planning or visuospatial skills, thus indicating brain training programs are not effective in boosting our brain power and intelligence.

If anything, there is more evidence out there  to suggest exercising daily significantly enhances brain function (Cotman and Engesser, 2002; Cotman, Berchtold, and Christie, 2007).

Answers to questions:

1. fill in the blank square – Answer = A

2. Which is the odd flower out? Answer = square  

By undercoverconsumer

2 comments on “Jump on the Brain training expressway! Toot toot!

  1. Pingback: Spécial anti (neuro)mythes (1) | Le Webinet des Curiosités

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