The debate continues: Review finds weak evidence standards behind commercially-available brain training programs

balance_scaleBrain Game Claims Fail A Big Sci­en­tif­ic Test (NPR):

In Octo­ber 2014, more than 70 sci­en­tists pub­lished an open let­ter object­ing to mar­ket­ing claims made by brain train­ing com­pa­nies. Pret­ty soon, anoth­er group, with more than 100 sci­en­tists, pub­lished a rebut­tal say­ing brain train­ing has a sol­id sci­en­tif­ic base.

So you had two con­sen­sus state­ments, each signed by many, many peo­ple, that came to essen­tial­ly oppo­site con­clu­sions,” Simons says.

In an effort to clar­i­fy the issue, Simons and six oth­er sci­en­tists reviewed more than 130 stud­ies of brain games and oth­er forms of cog­ni­tive training…The sci­en­tists found that “many of the stud­ies did not real­ly adhere to what we think of as the best prac­tices,” Simons says…“The eval­u­a­tion was very even-hand­ed and raised many excel­lent points,” says George Rebok, a psy­chol­o­gist at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty who has been involved in brain train­ing research for the past 20 years. “It real­ly helped raise the bar in terms of the lev­el of sci­ence that we must aspire to.”

StudyDo “Brain-Train­ing” Pro­grams Work? (Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence in the Pub­lic Interest)

  • From the abstract: This arti­cle pro­vides such a review, focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on the use of cog­ni­tive tasks or games as a means to enhance per­for­mance on oth­er tasks…Based on this exam­i­na­tion, we find exten­sive evi­dence that brain-train­ing inter­ven­tions improve per­for­mance on the trained tasks, less evi­dence that such inter­ven­tions improve per­for­mance on close­ly relat­ed tasks, and lit­tle evi­dence that train­ing enhances per­for­mance on dis­tant­ly relat­ed tasks or that train­ing improves every­day cog­ni­tive per­for­mance. We also find that many of the pub­lished inter­ven­tion stud­ies had major short­com­ings in design or analy­sis that pre­clude defin­i­tive con­clu­sions about the effi­ca­cy of train­ing, and that none of the cit­ed stud­ies con­formed to all of the best prac­tices we iden­ti­fy as essen­tial to draw­ing clear con­clu­sions about the ben­e­fits of brain train­ing for every­day activ­i­ties. We con­clude with detailed rec­om­men­da­tions for sci­en­tists, fund­ing agen­cies, and pol­i­cy­mak­ers that, if adopt­ed, would lead to bet­ter evi­dence regard­ing the effi­ca­cy of brain-train­ing interventions.

To learn more:


  1. Steve Zanon on October 4, 2016 at 12:10

    The paper’s con­clu­sion — “Prac­tic­ing a cog­ni­tive task con­sis­tent­ly improves per­for­mance on that task and close­ly relat­ed tasks, but the avail­able evi­dence that such train­ing gen­er­al­izes to oth­er tasks or to real-world per­for­mance is not compelling”. 

    Since the evi­dence for “far trans­fer” or some form of “pas­sive trans­fer” to more dis­tant cog­ni­tive domains is absent, a bet­ter (or next gen­er­a­tion) solu­tion might be to active­ly train a series of (broad­er) cog­ni­tive func­tions toward and includ­ing an end goal. I pro­pose a dis­tinc­tion in “far trans­fer” effect between (1) “pas­sive trans­fer” — hop­ing untrained cog­ni­tive func­tions will ben­e­fit and (2) “active trans­fer” — a high­ly per­son­alised plan to train as many relat­ed cog­ni­tive func­tions as prac­ti­cal over time and in some log­i­cal order towards an iden­ti­fied end goal. 

    We have been talk­ing about cog­ni­tive train­ing as a “gym equip­ment” for years but have failed to walk the talk, still rely­ing on high­ly unpre­dictable trans­fer effects (even in the cel­lu­lar biol­o­gist camp). Gym equip­ment is fan­tas­tic as an aid to phys­i­cal capac­i­ty build­ing with­out the need to sell far down­stream effects. It is ful­ly accept­ed in the fit­ness mar­ket. With the right train­ing regime and coach­ing strat­e­gy toward your end goal, it gets you to your objec­tive sig­nif­i­cant­ly faster. 

    Cog­ni­tive train­ing is great as an aid to men­tal capac­i­ty build­ing with­out the need to sell far down­stream effects. Con­sis­tent­ly being able to improve on a dis­crete cog­ni­tive func­tion is a rea­son­able claim, that hope­ful­ly every­one can agree on, which estab­lish­es both use­ful­ness and credibility. 

    My hope is that more sci­en­tists and com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions can work on extend­ing their train­ing deploy­ment strate­gies toward high­ly per­son­alised plans. This will be a sig­nif­i­cant dis­tinc­tion from the first gen­er­a­tion of pri­ma­ry effect “off-the-shelf” prod­ucts that we have today.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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