Should you believe the hype around brain training apps?

Should you believe the hype around brain training apps?


Everything you do changes your brain in some way. Reading, listening to music, writing, talking to people, all of that is shaping and modifying the connections between neurons inside your head. This ongoing process is fundamental to our ability to learn new skills, keep hold of old ones, and form new memories. And it has a name – neuroplasticity.

You know this process as involuntary, but what if I told you we could actually control it, by targeting specific skills and cognitive processes? That’s what brain training is all about. And there’s quite a lot of hype surrounding it.

The basic idea behind brain training apps (e.g. Elevate) is that by playing different types of puzzles that require you to, for instance, remember sequences of numbers, or concentrate on finding the odd one out in a group of objects, we will enhance our general memory abilities and improve our concentration on everyday tasks.

That sounds very impressive and helpful and would certainly be very useful in a variety of situations, such as studying for an exam. But is science really backing up the claims these apps make about training your brain?

Well, the key question here is whether or not we see transfer effects after engaging in such brain training games, in other words, if our improvement at these games go beyond the game itself and helps us in real-life situation that require increased attention or enhanced memory skills.

In 2010, a team of researchers led by Dr. Adrian Owen (Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute, Western University, Canada), conducted a study in an attempt to answer that question. Over 11, 000 people took part in a massive online study for six weeks, in which they had to practice a range of different brain training tasks for a minimum of 10 minutes per day, three times per week.

The tasks covered the full range of cognitive abilities that brain training apps claim to target for improvement – everything from planning and problem – solving abilities to short-term memory, attention, and maths skills. The participants were also asked to complete a “benchmarking” set of tasks before and after the six-week training program.

If brain training games do result in a general improvement in cognitive skills, then you would expect the performance on the benchmarking tasks to show an increase after the six-week training program. But Owen’s team found no evidence of transfer effects while examining the results of the study.