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Achieving Your Intellectual Potential

Brain Training: Is It All Snake Oil?

Let’s not confuse bad marketing for bad science.

It’s one of the most controversial of developments in modern psychology; the development of software tools that claim to improve our brain health or level of intelligence. To put this in context, we are talking here about the development of low cost software products that claim to be able to increase our intelligence, something that psychologists like to think of as an “invariant”, or a trait that cannot be improved.

Researchers (such as Chancellor and Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania) have argued that the increasingly cozy relationship between neuroscience research and the marketing of brain training products has become too close for comfort, raising ethical questions about how academic research is related to commercial gain. Probably in no other area of psychological research have we seen such a use and abuse of neuroscience terminology for marketing purposes. This is all notwithstanding promises that cannot be delivered upon and claims regarding neural processes that brain training tool developers cannot support, sometimes based on spurious theories and poor scientific reasoning.

 

Bad Marketing Logic

Here is an example of “neuro-logic” that is persuasive to the public but fairly poor as scientific reasoning goes.

  • Companies that offer brain training online often point to the healthy state of the evidence that brain stimulation has been shown to increase the growth of neural pathways between brain cells, or “neurogenesis”. This is true.
  • They also point to the fact that learning and memory improvements are associated with neurogenesis. This is also true. 
  • They then go on to argue that therefore, brain training will improve learning and memory. This does not follow. 

Even given the entirely flawed logic that correlations can serve as grounds for causality in any direction we choose, it is not fair to say that any brain training at all will have these positive effects, just because it “stimulates the brain.” The almost conscious marketing lie is to suggest that not everything stimulates the brain. But everything stimulates the brain. The issue for brain trainers is to find those very specific tasks that stimulate the brain in such a way that the correct forms and levels of neurogenesis occur, and that also lead to improvements in general brain health and intellectual functioning. Evidence for this has not been so easy to come by.

 

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

We have all heard of the various reviews of brain training programs, that most often conclude that the effects are not worth getting too excited over. The main finding is that while brain training improves skills in the precise domain being targeted, the effects do not generalize to related skills or everyday life. In other words, brain training games simply make you better at brain training games. These reviews are welcome and an important part of the scientific process, and in many cases they are well conducted. However, there is an important point that can be easily missed when particular programs are assessed in large randomized controlled trials. That is, that the effectiveness or otherwise of a particular tool, does not inform us about the principles involved in brain training. The real question is; in principle, can forms of intellectual stimulation lead to generalized improvements in other related but dissimilar areas of intellectual functioning? One series of studies that answer a resounding YES to this question are those conducted by John Jonides and colleagues at the University of Michigan. Their research has found improvements in objective measures of fluid intelligence (one important aspect of intelligence) resulting from training on a free and easily obtainable task called the n-back task. There is no commercial interest held by these researchers in the n-back task, which is in the public domain. These effects on intelligence have even been found to last over the longer term (several months at least). While we do not yet fully understand how the n-back tasks serves to improve fluid intelligence, the finding now offers the opportunity for more focused empirical and conceptual work to understand the processes involved. 

My own research into intellectual improvements does not fit easily into a neuroscience paradigm, but it nevertheless represents another example of basic bottom-up research, done on fundamental cognitive processes (specifically, skills known as relational framing skills), that appear to underlie intellectual ability. I am concerned about whether or not intelligence does rely on the fluency of these particular skills sets, and how to best train those skills.

The concern over the effectiveness or otherwise of particular brain training products, could easily obscure the great advances being made in our basic understanding of intelligence and how to increase it. Missing the bigger questions in this arena, would be as disastrous as giving up on cancer research just because a bunch of maverick pharmaceutical companies made premature promises about particular commercially available treatments for cancer. Let’s not mistake the commerce for the science, and let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Bryan Roche, Ph.D. is a behavioral psychologist at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
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