Does brain training work?
No. As I’ve covered before, research shows that it does not work.
“But my scores go up on brain training games every time I play.”
That’s more accurately referred to as practice or learning, not training. Training implies that there will be more general benefits, so that getting better at one game will make you better at other games.
“But those are just games. Does brain training work for improving real-life skills, like making better decisions?”
A new study, just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, put people through a 10-week commercial brain training program, then evaluated their ability to make rational decisions with tests that involved delaying rewards and accurately assessing risk. For good measure, they also did these tasks in an fMRI machine to see if their brains looked any different, and took tests of overall cognitive performance.
The results were similar to past brain training studies. Neural activity was no different for people who participated in brain training, they didn’t make better decisions, and their overall cognition was no better.*
“So does that mean efforts to improve my brain are useless?”
No! Plenty of behaviours and habits have actually been shown to improve brain health and cognitive performance. Sleep, exercise, and stress, for example, have clear effects on the brain. It’s lifestyle changes, rather than simple practice of specific tasks, that have the biggest effects on the brain.
That’s why we recommend tracking your cognitive performance using scientifically-valid tests. The tests are the outcome, not the treatment. Track lifestyle factors alongside cognition, and you can discover what steps really work for you.
* A brief caveat: this study was done with healthy young adults, with pretty simple brain training software. More promising results have been found with older or cognitively-impaired adults, and some more complex games (especially when combined with physical activity). I don’t believe it’s hopeless; a more involved brain training program could work. But until one of them is validated by strong science, it’s best to remain skeptical of commercial brain training.