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Can "Brain-Training" Games Sharpen Your Mind?

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Originally posted on February 2, 2016.

You’ve likely heard the NPR ads for brain fitness games offered by Lumosity. “70 Million brain trainers in 182 countries challenge their brains with Lumosity,” declares its website. The hoped-for results range from enhanced cognitive powers to increased school and work performance to decreased late-life cognitive decline or dementia.

But do brain-training games really makes us smarter or enlarge our memory capacity? In our just-released Exploring Psychology, 10th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I suggest “that brain training can produce short-term gains, but mostly on the trained tasks and not for cognitive ability in general.” As an earlier TalkPsych blog essay reported, Zachary Hambrick and Randall Engle have “published studies and research reviews that question the popular idea that brain-training games enhance older adults’ intelligence and memory. Despite the claims of companies marketing brain exercises, brain training appears to produce gains only on the trained tasks (without generalizing to other tasks).”

And that is also the recently announced conclusion of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), when fining Lumosity’s maker, Lumos Labs, $2 million for false advertising. As FTC spokesperson Michelle Rusk reported to Science, “The most that they have shown is that with enough practice you get better on these games, or on similar cognitive tasks...There’s no evidence that training transfers to any real-world setting.”

Although this leaves open the possibility that certain other brain-training programs might have cognitive benefits, the settlement affirms skeptics who doubt that brain games have broad cognitive benefits.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).