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Should You Play Brain Games?

Is there any evidence that cognitive training provides broad benefits?

Sterling Publishers used with permission
Source: Sterling Publishers used with permission

Companies that market brain games do so with the assumption that if people play the games, they will improve in the skill that the game tests. They further assume that improving these core cognitive skills will have a broader influence on mental agility. These assumptions, however, are based on shaky evidence.

A fantastic review paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Daniel Simons, Walter Boot, Neil Charness, Susan Gathercole, Christopher Chabris, David Hambrick, and Elizabeth Stine-Morrow reviewed every published paper they could find on the effects of playing “brain games.”

These authors define brain games as games that help people to practice aspects of cognitive processing. As they point out, there is little or nothing about these games that is focused on the brain directly, but presumably any cognitive enhancement affects the brain in some way. For example, games have been developed to help people remember items, to respond to items in the world more quickly, and to do logical reasoning tasks.

The authors of this paper point out that there is some reason to be skeptical of this claim. At the dawn of the scientific study of psychology (way back at the start of the 20th century), researchers were interested in how learning on one task would transfer to another. Edward Thorndike published a paper in 1906 suggesting that learning one task would improve performance on another to the extent that the two tasks shared common “elements.” Studies of transfer have corroborated this finding ever since.

The authors examine each of the papers on brain games that were published. They evaluate whether the study is a good one methodologically. That is, does it have a sample that is sufficiently large to detect an effect of games, and does it have an active control group in which control participants might also believe they were doing something that would improve their cognitive abilities. They then examine the results of the studies.

Overall, the results fit with Thorndike’s work from 110 years ago. People who play brain games get better at the game itself. They also seem to get better at highly related tasks. So, a memory game improves memory. A reasoning game improves reasoning. There is no strong evidence, though, that these games lead to a general improvement in cognitive performance.

As "Two Guys on Your Head" co-host Bob Duke and I discuss in my latest book, Brain Briefs, a lot of mental agility is really about having good knowledge and good social skills. Brain games tend to focus people on very simple types of memory, reasoning, and speed to respond. But, real-world problem solving involves finding knowledge you have that is relevant to the task at hand and adapting that knowledge (often in collaboration with other people) in order to achieve a complex outcome.

This analysis suggests that there is a lot you can do to keep yourself mentally agile, but little of it is captured by the games that are marketed to improve your performance. Read a book. Watch a documentary. Have an extended conversation with a friend. Engage with the world. The more you to do improve the state of your knowledge, the more agile your thinking is likely to be in the future.

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