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Description: You have no doubt noticed some of the many claims in the media about the possibility that playing brain-training games can improve your general cognitive functioning. Many of these claims include statements to the effect that research has proven that their game or games do in fact have a positive influence on people’s cognitive functioning in some fairly general areas. Are these claims valid? That’s a good question. To be valid the claims would have to be supported by research that was properly designed. To be properly designed the research would have to be set up to appropriately assess both the specific claims being made about improvement in certain areas of cognitive functioning and most importantly to assess the claims about the generalizability of any possible improvements to other cognitive functions and to real life cognitive tasks. Think for a minute or two about the sorts of things you would need to take into account to design solid research studies to evaluate the effects of some of the brain training activities. After you’ve come up with a few concerns or ideas read through the article linked below which reports upon a large-scale meta-analytic study of 132 individual studies claiming support for one brain training technique or another.

Source: Brain-Training Claims Not Backed by Science, Report Shows, Association For Psychological Science.

Date: October 21, 2016


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The results of the meta-analytic study described in the article linked above are fairly straightforward. Basically, brain training exercises seem to improve performance in the specific areas of cognitive ability that are drawn upon by the specific brain exercises but, those improvements do not generalize to even closely related cognitive skills. According to the researchers, the bottom line seems to be in if you practice memorizing playing cards you will become very good at memorizing playing cards but your general memory abilities will not likely change. They point to a large number of methodological flaws in the studies of the reviewed including small sample sizes, inadequate control groups, and the tendency to report on a small number of significant findings strategically chosen from a fairly large number of non-significant findings. The general conclusion is that most brain training games and exercises do not have a general impact on mental functioning. A commentary published alongside their main meta-analytic study talked very specifically about learning strategies that have been supported by decades of scientific research and have been shown to be effective. You may well have heard about these in your psychology courses. They include the value of elaborating on material that you’re trying to learn, linking it to information already in memory, repeated testing, and spacing your practice out over time as all being particularly effective in improving memory. All good things to know when preparing for midterm exams and certainly better ways to spend your time than playing any of the multitude of brain training games available free or for a price today.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What sorts of claims are being made by people and companies marketing brain training games?
  2. What are some of the methodological concerns raised by the article linked above in relation to the studies claiming to show support for the general impact of brain training games on cognitive functioning?
  3. What sort of marketing wariness do we need to adopt when assessing claims like those made by the developers of brain training games and what sort of things should we do if we actually want to move towards having our brain function more effectively and efficiently?

References (Read Further):

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103-186.

Melby-Lervåg, M., & Hulme, C. (2013). Is working memory training effective? A meta-analytic review. Developmental psychology, 49(2), 270.

Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., … & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature, 465(7299), 775-778.

McCabe, J. A., Redick, T. S., & Engle, R. W. (2016). Brain-Training Pessimism, but Applied-Memory Optimism. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 187-191.