First power posing, and now this: Those “brain training” products that promise a variety of happy outcomes — better memory, an improved attention span, even greater well-being — with just a few minutes spent per day playing a simple game likely, alas, do not deliver on that promise. In an impressive and comprehensive new paper published today, seven psychologists report their findings after reviewing every existing study (374 total) on brain training. Their results do not exactly suggest positive things for the estimated $3.38 billion industry.
Essentially, as cognitive scientist Tom Stafford explains for the Conversation, the idea on trial here is the notion of “transfer effects”: If you spend time practicing one brainy task, like completing a crossword puzzle, the cognitive benefits you gain from that will then spill over into other, ostensibly unrelated areas, such as an improved memory. This forms the foundation for many, if not most, of the claims made in these products’ advertisements, and yet these researchers found scant evidence to back the efficacy of transfer effects in their review. Practicing crossword puzzles makes you better at solving crossword puzzles, sure. But beyond that, the benefits are much less clear.
The message here is not that brain training doesn’t work — not exactly, anyway. For one, Stafford notes that this review was completed before the publication of a more promising study on cognitive training published last fall. For another, there are a number of things you can do to “train your brain,” many of which are free and have the added bonus of being more fun than poking at your smartphone: learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, and exercising have all been shown to improve cognitive functioning.