Are you curious about those mind-stretching games featured on websites and TV ads, hoping to take your mental faculties up a notch? The advertisements say their programs act as personal trainers for the brain and boast of being empirically tested.
Ooh, science! Right? Who doesn't want to be smarter? These exercises are said to improve cognitive function and have been touted as a means of staving off dementia and Alzheimer's disease later in life.
But as with everything else that makes amazing claims, they might not be exactly what they seem.
What The Experts Say
"Sensational claims of large increases in what we call fluid intelligence have been made. It's measured by tests where you have to solve a problem and where prior experience is not of much benefit. A study published in 2008 reported very large training-related gains in fluid intelligence. We set out to replicate that result and found that we couldn't. We don't know enough to be making claims that lead people to buy these programs. There is a difference between fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence, knowledge acquired through experience. We can increase crystallized intelligence through things like reading. The jury is still out on whether we can increase fluid intelligence."
ZACHARY HAMBRICK, professor, department of psychology,
Michigan State University, East Lansing
"When asking yourself whether brain training works, you have to be clear about what it is and what ‘works' means. It can include challenging games, cognitive exercises, meditation, neurofeedback. And ‘work' is not about preventing or curing Alzheimer's; it is about helping you stay sharp longer. Just do something new and challenging. Write an ebook, learn a language. And brain training can definitely work. We have 10 questions you should ask before choosing a brain training technique. These include, ‘Was it peer reviewed?' Meditation has been shown to be helpful with as little as 15 hours. It can build attention and improve how we deal with stress."
ALVARO FERNANDEZ, CEO of SharpBrains.com, Washington, DC
"I was involved with a project in which we benchmarked the efficacy of brain training. The question was not whether people improved on tasks they practised. To constitute a general gain, they also had improve on other similar tasks. We found that while people improved on the trained tasks, they showed almost no ‘transfer effects'. It was quite discouraging. Recently, I observed in a sample of 44,600 that those who regularly brain train showed no advantage in three factors of intelligence. The story doesn't end there. In the same study, those who played computer games regularly showed significantly better performances in short-term memory and reasoning. We have to be careful making inferences about cause and effect, but it is a more encouraging result.''
ADAM HAMPSHIRE, the Brain and Mind Institute, department of psychology,
University of Western Ontario, London
"The research on intelligence for the last hundred years suggests that the general factor of intelligence is relatively stable over a person's lifetime. You can predict a person's IQ when they're elderly from their IQ score when they're a child. There have been attempts to improve intelligence in disadvantaged children, and those show positive effects on motivation, study habits, even college admission, but they don't show any effect on intelligence. There are claims for [brain training] games for which there is no real evidence. Intelligence tests only estimate intelligence. If you take a test when you're sick, your score will be a bad estimate of your ability. Just because your score went up doesn't mean you're smarter. When you do brain training, you may see effects on certain tests, but the evidence that any effect generalizes to different abilities is weak or negative."
RICHARD HAIER, psychologist, professor emeritus,
University of California, Irvine
"Brain training games have the potential to work, but we don't have evidence that the way they're offered online at sites like Lumosity or Posit Science indeed works. The science behind them is only loosely connected with the implementation. There are interesting findings suggesting that some degree of appropriately guided meditation will lead to improvements in performance on specific tasks. My own view of this, having spent years studying expert meditators from the Buddhist tradition, is that whatever effects there are are fragile and small."
JASON CHEIN, professor, department of psychology,
Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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