Zero evidence brain-training games make you smarter, review finds

Reviewer finds rampant methodological flaws in previous studies

A recent research review suggests playing brain games with the intention of making yourself smarter could be a waste of time, Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post. 

To reach this conclusion, Daniel Simons, the author of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked with his colleagues to analyze 132 past studies about brain games. Many of these past studies claimed to have found a consensus view—which directly contradicted each other—despite relying on the same literature.

Some past studies have claimed brain games cause cognitive skills to "vertically transfer" and improve overall intelligence, but Simons says they often suffer from methodological flaws, such as failing to:

  • Assign the control group to a task that is comparable to brain training;
  • Use a large enough sample size to eliminate the possibility of statistical flukes; and
  • Account for any placebo effect of expecting to get smarter by playing the games.

The review concludes that since the past research fails to meet these standards, it really only suggests that brain training makes the players "better at the specific task being tested," Kaplan writes.

So when you spend hours working on a brain-training puzzle, you only really get better at, well, solving that particular brain-training puzzle.

Recent criticism of brain games has already had consequences for brain game companies such as Lumosity, which was recently fined $2 million for deceptive advertisements claiming that the games improve players' overall intelligence.

Simons and his colleagues have received backlash for the study from researchers and companies who claim the team went into the investigation with bias.

Simons responds that he's also disappointed by the results.

"It would be really nice if you could play some games and have it radically change your cognitive abilities. But the studies don't show that on objectively measured real-world outcomes," he says (Kaplan, Washington Post, 10/4).

Related: How your reading choices affect your brain

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