The Truth About Brain Training Games

What should you expect from playing brain training games?

Posted Jan 14, 2016

Julien Tromeur/Shutterstock
Source: Julien Tromeur/Shutterstock

In the last few years, brain fitness has become an essential component of a holistic wellness package.  And to fill that need, several companies have been developing apps and software designed to train your brain for health, wealth, and happiness.

One of these brain-training companies was recently found culpable by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for making bigger promises than it could keep.  Lumosity of Lumos Labs had to pay the FTC a $2 million dollar settlement for claiming that playing their brain-training games improves performance at work, school and sports, delays cognitive decline related to aging or dementia, and reverses cognitive deficits resulting from brain injuries.  While their advertising campaign was awash with such messages, unfortunately, there wasn’t enough research to back their claims. 

If you are one of the 70 million Lumosity subscribers, you may feel cheated on.  But to understand better what is going on and why this is a big deal, you need to know a little more about what cognitive training (the more appropriate term for brain training) is and what it aims to accomplish.

Cognitive training is an intervention used to enhance a person’s cognitive functions.  Cognitive functions refer to patterns of brain activity involved in acquiring, processing, storing, and using information.  Cognitive functions are the micro-skills that facilitate success.  They enable us to achieve goals of all kinds, ranging from survival all the way to self-actualization.  Some examples of cognitive functions include attention, memory, visual perception, reading comprehension, and language production.

The output of a cognitive function can be affected by many factors, some of which are known and some unknown.  Cognitive impairments could be temporary or permanent.  Alcohol consumption, for example, could affect cognition for a brief amount of time.  A concussion could affect cognition for up to a few months, and a stroke could, in most cases, cause permanent deficits.

Cognitive training is the deliberate activation of these cognitive functions in a structured and controlled environment in order to improve their capacity.  For example, training in attention could involve intentional concentration on one and only one stimulus for an extended amount of time, in order to increase the ability to focus and ignore distractions.  Training in reading comprehension could involve pre-planned reading of select written text of increased complexity repeatedly, in order to enhance understanding of written language.

Cognitive training is used mostly in clinical, and sometimes academic, settings, to improve cognitive functions that appear compromised (e.g. they are lower than expected for a particular person). 

Currently, the most common and objective way of measuring a person’s cognitive function is by measuring performance on a behavioral task that is theoretically linked to that ability.  For example, to measure a person’s attention span, the person is asked to listen to and repeat a sequence of numbers of increasing size.

There are two goals to cognitive training.  The primary goal is to improve a cognitive function per se.  For example, the goal of cognitive training could be to decrease reaction time or to improve retention of information.

The second goal of cognitive training is to improve a person’s ability to apply their cognitive functions to meet the demands of daily life more successfully.  To take their “smarts” out of their heads and into the real world, so to speak.  This is a more ecologically valuable outcome, because the goal is no longer to merely have good attention for the sake of it, but to put that improved attention to good use in order to perform better at work, in school, or in any other activity that requires good attention.

This second goal is the holy grail of cognitive training.  Scoring high on a test of attention is rewarding, but if it doesn’t translate into being able to stay focused during a long lecture or during a boring conversation with your spouse, then the high score is useless. 

And that’s what Lumosity failed to demonstrate.  There is no question that regularly playing their “brain-training” games will improve a person’s scores on those games over time.  But Lumosity overreached by promising that good scores on the screen will lead to good results in life.  These promised outcomes were more wishful thinking than they were confirmed by research. 

In all fairness, real world outcomes like these are the most challenging to demonstrate in research.  This is why the language of academics sounds very different from the language of advertisers.  Academics tend to make small, tentative claims limited to the findings of one study.  Advertisers tend to combine, extrapolate, and translate such findings more freely.

However, we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Lumosity has agreed to tone down their language and sound more humble.  They are also putting forth good effort to generate more research to test the effectiveness of their programs. 

Moreover, in the hands of a good clinician, Lumosity could be a useful tool.  I have used it in my practice, and probably will continue to use it in the future.  Let me clarify that I have no financial or other interest in Lumosity.  I have been as vexed by their claims and as gratified with the FTC decision as everyone else.  But as a cognitive training specialist, and I know exactly when, how, and with whom to use it.  And that makes a huge difference in the outcomes of cognitive training.