While many of us are enthusiastic about computer-based brain training, studies of how well it works in the real world have been uninspiring. It’s possible to train people to do better on cognitive tasks, but it’s not clear that the training carries over into the real world. Does brain training really work? A new study of more than 10,000 people says: Maybe not.
The study, reported in the journal Nature, highlights the problem called generalization. Most studies of computer-based brain training have shown, for example, that people can readily learn to do better on the tasks on which they train, People who work on learning how to remember a list of words will usually get better at it. If you train at solving mazes, you will probably get better at solving a maze puzzle.
What’s not clear, though, is that the training you do will help you on other things. You can learn a list of words and that may help you memorize a grocery list, but all that work probably won’t help you remember where you put your keys, or help you do better on a test for your job. In the same way, you may get pretty good at solving a maze, but it not likely that will help you be a better driver.
In the study reported in Nature, viewers of a popular BBC television show names “Bang Goes the Theory” participated in six weeks of online brain training. Participants completed baseline measure of reasoning, working memory, and paired associates learning and were randomly assigned to different training groups. Participants were aged 18 to 60 years, and 11,430 completed enough of the training to contribute data.
What did the study show? Consistent with a great deal of other research, the study showed that people who trained got better on the tasks they trained on, but there was essentially no evidence that they got better on the baseline tasks. The authors of the study give an illustration: people in the memory training group improved in their ability to remember numbers by about 3/100 (three hundredths) of a digit. They suggest that it would take almost four years of training to remember just one extra digit. Further, the control group in the study got better by 2/100 (two hundredths), and they didn’t even get memory training.
There are a number of legitimate criticisms of the study.Researchers could argue about the selection of tests, how participants were trained, and the small amount of training completed by some of the participants. Including a large age range may have masked improvements in some groups, such as older adults.
As always, more research is needed. But this study shows that at least short-term computer-based brain training may not make a big difference in daily life.
Owen AM et al. Putting brain training to the test. Nature near-final version, 20 April 2010 (doi:10.1038/nature09042). Click here to go to the report.