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Brain training games and wishful thinking

July 1, 2010

You may have read recently that  a BBC UK study of about 12,ooo people practicing brain training games demonstrated that games don’t work. This study was published in Nature (that most prestigious of journals).

No change in cognitive function in areas such as memory, planning or problem-solving was evident after 6 weeks of practice with the games. “They don’t make you smarter” said the Cambridge director.

Does that mean that we are all wasting our time if we continue to use brain training software? Dr Adrian Owen said: “The result is crystal clear. Brain training is only as good as spending six weeks using the Internet. There is no meaningful difference.”

Brain Test Britain found that people who play brain training games do get better at those specific brain training games. “But this really only proves the old adage of ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is no evidence that this transfers to the brain skills measured by our benchmarking tests.” Adrian Owen says,” Learning to play the violin doesn’t transfer to learning to play the trumpet.”

However, results from the study  do suggest that further research into brain trainers aged 60 and over may prove more interesting. You can try some of their brain exercises here.

Brain Plasticity

But there are games and there are games….and some researchers demand systematic longer term practice. You don’t get change through wishful thinking! Some brain training systems undoubtedly tap the plasticity of the brain: but it is my view that older people probably need considerable practice in a simulated or referenced context which approximates real life (cognitive fidelity).  AND you need to be engaged with a behaviour. The work of Daniel Gopher on pilot training which I have discussed previously and the Posit Science Insight program referring to simulated real-life pictorial contexts both demonstrate some important criteria which research indicates will tap brain plasticity and have some transfer effects.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 1, 2010 10:14 pm

    Your post about the BBC study is on-the-money in pointing out that while the BBC games did not produce an impact, other studies have shown real-world benefit. As the CEO at Posit Science, I know how hard it is to create brain fitness training that creates a meaningful difference in the real world.

    Dr. Mike Merzenich, a co-founder of Posit, has been studying the effects of brain training for more than 30 years and have developed effective, non-invasive tools that engage the brain’s natural plasticity to improve brain health. Based on published studies from institutions like the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and USC with many studies funded by the NIH, the data is clear that our programs do drive generalized cognitive gains.

  2. June 24, 2011 3:45 pm

    Or maybe the games people are playing aren’t the right kinds. At you’ll find a series of word games that are designed to develop creative thinking ability. It could be that these types of games have a different type of impact on our minds. They are more open and instead of trying to solve a specific problem involve forming links in our memories.

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