You may already have read the hundreds of media articles today titled “brain training doesn’t work” and similar, based on the BBC “Brain Test Britain” experiment.
Once more, claims seem to go beyond the science backing them up … except that in this case it is the researchers, not the developers, who are responsible.
Let’s recap what we learned today.
The Good Science
The study showed that putting together a variety of brain games in one website and asking people who happen to show up to play around for a grand total of 3–4 hours over 6 weeks (10 minutes 3 times a week for 6 weeks) didn’t result in meaningful improvements in cognitive functioning. This is useful information for consumers to know, because in fact there are websites and companies making claims based on similar approaches without supporting evidence. And this is precisely the reason SharpBrains exists, to help both consumers (through our book) and organizations (through our report) to make informed decisions. The paper only included people under 60, which is surprising, but, still, this is useful information to know.
A TIME article summarizes the lack of transfer well:
“But the improvement had nothing to do with the interim brain-training, says study co-author Jessica Grahn of the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Grahn says the results confirm what she and other neuroscientists have long suspected: people who practice a certain mental task — for instance, remembering a series of numbers in sequence, a popular brain-teaser used by many video games — improve dramatically on that task, but the improvement does not carry over to cognitive function in general.”
The Bad Science
The study, which was not a gold standard clinical trial, contained obvious flaws both in methodology and in interpretation, as some neuroscientists have started to point out. Back to the TIME article:
“Klingberg (note: Torkel Klingberg is a cognitive neuroscientist who has published multiple scientific studies on the benefits of brain training, and founded a company on the basis of that published work)…criticizes the design of the study and points to two factors that may have skewed the results.
On average the study volunteers completed 24 training sessions, each about 10 minutes long — for a total of three hours spent on different tasks over six weeks. “The amount of training was low,” says Klingberg. “Ours and others’ research suggests that 8 to 12 hours of training on one specific test is needed to get a [general improvement in cognition].”