Mind games: Can you really train your brain?

Illustration of transparent human head in profile, displaying the brainImprove your memory, become better at problem-solving, and sharpen your ability to focus. Apparently, all these functions and more can be enhanced with just the device in the palm of one’s hand. Brain training apps have gained popularity over the years and have become part of a multibillion-dollar industry, as they claim to exercise and improve one’s cognitive capabilities through games and activities which are tailored to the individual user. However, are these claims actually backed by science, or are they just playing another kind of mind game?

Brain training apps entice users with claims of significant and measurable improvements to cognition. They promote personalized plans that cater to the individual’s unique brain and goals, and they promise trackable progress over time with continued use of the app. Although these programs are quite persuasive—using scientific-sounding buzzwords such as neuroplasticity and sometimes even linking to published studies that investigate their efficacy—there is certainly room for skepticism.

Looking at the scientific evidence, the claims presented by brain training apps should be received with caution. In a review of the literature on brain training programs, Simons et al. (2016) state that there is “. . . extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks . . . and little evidence that training enhances distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.” It is more likely that brain training programs are improving the skills used in the games within the apps themselves rather than improving general cognition used to perform everyday functions.

This research does not mean that brain training apps are entirely useless, however. They are probably providing some sort of benefit compared to doing nothing or participating in idle activities such as watching television. If nothing else, they can still be a fun hobby or pastime. But for those really looking to train their brain and enhance cognition, they are better off participating in activities with evidence-based support of benefits.

Neuroscientist and health psychologist Sabina Brennan explains, “In my opinion people would be far better engaging in activities that have a strong body of evidence supporting their benefits—this includes socializing, taking exercise, learning new things, and having new experiences. Far better to invest your energy in learning a new skill that will benefit you in everyday life than become proficient at a task in a brain-training game that adds little or no real life value” (Harvey, 2021).

Improving brain function and enhancing cognition are worthwhile endeavors. While brain training apps seem like easily accessible and effective options to accomplish one’s goals, there is little evidence of the efficacy of these programs. Rather, taking part in activities that provide social, mental, or physical benefits is probably the best way to go. So, forget about the mind games and try taking up that new hobby or learning a new skill instead!

 

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “brain-training” programs work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983

Harvey, G. (2021, January 1). “Brain training apps: Do they really work?” https://patient.info/news-and-features/brain-training-apps-do-they-really-work

 

—Keeza Hameed, science librarian for biology and neuroscience