Are brain games benefiting the brain

By Brittany Gregg, Opinion Editor

Do you think that you can become a genius with brain-training software on your smartphone? Recent studies suggest that brain games don’t improve players’ thinking or IQ, they just make you better at playing the games, as reported by the New Yorker last spring 2013.

These studies come after a decade of research suggesting that brain games are effective and the launch of companies such as Cogmed, Lumosity, Jungle Memory and CogniFit that sell brain games for kids, older adults and everyone in between. The New Yorker spoke with executives from Cogmed who insisted that the new research was flawed. Alongside these studies, researchers became skeptical, saying that it is unethical to sell software that doesn’t work, especially to vulnerable adolescents with learning disorders or older adults concerned about their cognitive decline.

These studies included:

  1. A study comparing dual n-back training –a favorite training program among avid self-improvers in Silicon Valley – with a placebo game and with not playing any games at all in healthy young adults. Three researchers from different U.S. universities found that the games improved people’s ability in the games, but not in independent tests of fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, multitasking or other capabilities.
  2. A study that attempted to replicate previous research showing that certain mental exercises improved fluid intelligence, which is important to learning and is associated with professional success. The newer study wasn’t able to reproduce the effects of the previous experiments.
  3. A “meta-analysis” that reviewed 23 previous studies of brain games, weighting the studies by how rigorous they were and how many studies participants they included. Like the other studies, the meta-analysis found that people just got better at the games they played, but their skills didn’t transfer to people’s verbal and nonverbal ability, arithmetic, or attention.

The New Yorker covered the objections Cogmed had with the studies’ conclusions. Neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, who led a brain-games study in 2002 showed that the games did work for children, is now a paid Cogmed consultant. He also said that the meta-analysis was poorly done.

Needless to say, the New Yorker didn’t distinguish between how brain games work for average developing kids and kids with learning disabilities, along with average developing adults and adults with diagnosed cognitive decline. It would be interesting to see how each groups results would vary. It would also be helpful to know if these differences even exist in the first place. Maybe the science doesn’t exist, simply because the studies mentioned in the New Yorker were performed in average developing adults, while the third study about brain games was performed on people from all kinds of backgrounds.

In the meantime, instead of downloading game apps that are free up until a certain level or need to be purchased prior to play, take a trip to Bierce or the Akron Public Library. Seek out a book that could set the stage for new activities and passions. It’s apparent that thoughts become words and words become actions. Reading books isn’t bogus for the brain, it is the ultimate brain exercise.