Thursday, 22 April 2010

Brain training improves your ability...

Brain training improves your ability... to do brain training.

There has been a huge market for software that aims to claims to improve our cognitive ability by 'training' the brain to be more effective. Apparently Dr Something-or-other's Brain Trainy Thing (I may not have got the title quite right) is the most popular game on the Nintendo DS in the UK.

I have always found something slightly sinister about this kind of software. First there's the pseudo-medical/scientific implication of it being Dr Something-or-other's. The only products I'm used to being labelled Doctor Something's are quack medicine, sandals and bovver boots. Then there's the idea that by doing some basic maths and a few puzzles you can somehow train your brain. To be fair, going on the research recently carried out, it does train your brain - but only to do this particular application. It makes you better at playing this game. The 'training' isn't transferable to other cognitive activities.

This is one of the things that has always worried me about Susan Greenfield over and above the mess of the Royal Institution - she endorses quite an expensive computer brain training product called MindFit, but I have not seen any good evidence for it working, only unconvincing reports that weren't published in reputable journals.

I'm not saying you can't improve the effectiveness of your brain. Practising most things will get you better at that particular thing - this is totally proven. Being in good physical condition, with enough sleep, will help brain function (as anyone who has tried to work with a hangover can testify.) Also, you can use techniques, for instance, to help you generate new ideas more effectively - these don't boost cognitive ability, they just give you new starting points and routes to ideas. But I am always highly dubious of any claims that using some computer program will enhance your general ability to think. It's the brain equivalent of a crash diet - a supposed short cut to something that really needs a much broader, longhaul approach.


  1. Did you see this myth debunked on BBC last night? Participants were so disappointed to hear the training had made no appreciable difference to their brain power whatsoever.

    The main thing that makes a genuine difference is exercise ... so I'm just going to have to settle for being stoopid.

  2. People would be much better off learning to play chess properly. It can be a thing of beauty, like music. It can make people happy, or at least console them.

  3. The premise of Brain Test Britain was quite flawed and ignored prior studies that have shown general benefits from brain training. (Most significantly Jaeggi / Buschkuehl - PNAS 2008 - Working Memory Training Improves Fluid Intelligence.) The team that produced the study have done a disservice to the 11,000 participants and to the millions who will read the reports and dismiss brain training as rot.

    The participants trained for just 10 minutes three times per week. And the training exercises weren't diffuse and not particularly intensive. The Jaeggi / Buschkuehl showed that intensive training on a demanding working memory task for 30 minutes per day five days per week improved intelligence. Why did Dr. Owen ignore the work of his peers when he designed his study?

    I'd invite anyone to try a proven brain training program and witness for themselves the cognitive benefits.

    Martin Walker
    Mind Sparke
    Brain Training Software

  4. Martin, that commment is perilously close to advertising, but I'll leave it in as the reference is interesting. I would have been more impressed if you'd linked to the paper here than your company.

    However I ought to stress that this paper in no way proves that a particular product, like Martin's or the one endorsed by Baroness Greenfield (or Dr Thingy's Whatsit) have any benefit.

    Note also the conclusion: 'There will be a need for follow-up on these interesting results because of several limitations of Jaeggi et al.'s study (10), none of them calling into question the obtained results. Eight are of some concern. '