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Brain-Training Apps Won’t Make You Smarter …

… unless you measure intelligence in terms of your ability to play brain-training games.
October 4, 2016

Brain-training apps promise to give your mind a workout over fun and frivolous activities, while also giving rise to deeper-seated improvements in your cognitive abilities. But there’s always been a nagging question hovering over them: do they really work?

Now NPR reports that seven psychologists have spent two years sifting through 374 scientific studies cited by companies like Lumos Labs and Posit Science, which make the world’s leading brain-training products.

The results? According to the researchers, brain-training games certainly make people better at playing brain-training games. But the study, published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, found “little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance.”

Lumos Labs's game, Lumosity, includes tests designed to measure your attention.

The research also found problems with the studies themselves, with many investigations designed in such a way that definitive conclusions should not be drawn from them. Its ultimate conclusion is fairly clear: “There does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition.”

The study has been well-received by other academic psychologists. Talking to the Atlantic, Michael Kane from the University of North Carolina called it “a tour de force,” while Ulrich Mayr, from the University of Oregon, thinks that it “leaves nothing out—and the evidence is unimpressive.”

Makers of the apps are, predictably, a little more defensive. Speaking to USA Today,  Erica Perng from Lumos Labs said that the brain-training software “draws on research that has developed over decades, but ... at the forefront of a new and rapidly innovating field ... there is a lot we don't yet know.”

Writing for the Daily News, Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, summed up the findings neatly for regular folks. “What should you tell your elderly father who worries that he’s thinking a little slower?” he asks. “Staying mentally active is always a good idea, and if they enjoy the games, playing them can’t hurt. But simple tasks that make you smarter remain a hope, not a reality.”

(Read more: NPR, The Atlantic, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, “Brain Training May Help Clear Cognitive Fog Caused by Chemotherapy”)

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