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The Brain Training Hype

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I pull into the parking lot of my local market and take out my phone to review the shopping list. Bread, milk, eggs, 10 pounds of coffee, you know — the usual.

Walking into the store, however, is like entering a magic memory-wiping vortex. It’s all gone. I remember nothing. What did I need? How much of it? I’m useless. I pull out my phone again to check the list. Apparently the 20-second walk from the car was too long for my brain to retain the information.

Could it just be that I’m getting older? The old noggin has taken a beating over the last quarter century and then some. But wait, shouldn’t I at least be around my mental prime? I’m not even 30 yet and I’ve kept myself fairly mentally active over the years.  I write. I read. I research. I’m working on a doctorate.

My memory certainly isn’t going, but my inability to retain certain information has become less endearing and amusing over the years. I’m teetering on the “Is she alright?” territory.

A friend and I chatted about our “brain drain” over a cup of coffee. (Maybe it’s all the coffee? No. No. I refuse to believe that.) “Sometimes I just can’t focus,” she said. “It’s like my brain refuses to lock onto one concept. I feel tired, not because my brain is hard at work, but because it’s overworking itself for easy tasks.”

That got me thinking. I’d seen the commercials. “It’s like a personal trainer for your brain,” said a nice-sounding man on TV. So, knowing that everything on TV is true, I checked out the website it directed me to.

I was going to brain train. Games on my computer were going to make my brain the Arnold Schwarzenegger of brains. As it turns out, tens of millions of other people had the same idea, solidifying a behemoth multimillion-dollar industry of online “brain games.”

As I read the background on my brain “trainer,” I began to notice some shaky science. Still, I wanted to interact with it a little more. So, I tried it.

Everyday, I would get a little reminder in my inbox to play that day’s set of games.

Some days I would be speeding around highway hazards trying to keep track of the trajectory of a little blue pinball, reorganizing train paths and making sure little penguins get their fish, or matching patterned and colored tiles.

For a time, it was amusing enough. Some of the games threw me for a loop and I found myself playing them over and over to perfect my skill. Undoubtedly, I was becoming better at the game, but I still wasn’t sure if it was actually making any discernable difference where my brain was concerned.

As it turns out, it wasn’t.

“It’s very difficult to change how the body works,” said Dr. Arthur Lavin, a clinical associate professor at Case Western University with an expertise in cognitive training programs. “A lot of things that promise change don’t deliver.”

Lavin keyed me into an important distinction. “I like the idea of cognitive training. I’m not too enamored with the concept of brain games,” he said.

The difference is a significant one. But many brain training game companies fail to make this clear to consumers. In January, the Federal Trade Commission released an article titled “Brain training” with Lumosity – does it really work? In the article, Aditi Jhaveri, a consumer education specialist with the FTC, wrote that “the FTC charged that there isn’t solid science showing that Lumosity’s ‘brain training’ games work the way they say they would.”

In a settlement with the FTC, Lumosity promised to “not make false claims or use testimonials in a deceptive way,” according to the article. Lumosity is only one of a handful of companies selling subscriptions to the masses for popular online brain training games.

However, neuroscientists have been looking for solid science that supports the claims made by companies like Lumosity. There are plenty of websites, apps and activities that suggest they can improve cognition, but whether they really work remains a question to many neuroscientists.

“There is no measurable change in cognitive function,” Lavin said. The online brain training games “are more in an entertainment domain than a science domain.”

Personally, Lavin said, he has no problem with that. He harkened back to the days of Simon, a disc-shaped game with large colored button lights that required the player to mimic the exact pattern of lights by pushing the buttons. The game steadily increased the complexity and duration of the patterns as the player advanced.

“It [was aimed at the] working memory task and sold as a fun thing to do,” Lavin said. “That’s a lot easier to produce than a program that will actually measurably change how your mind works enough to change your life in a sustained fashion.”

Generalizability. That’s the key, Lavin said, and most online brain training games marketed at the masses fail in this area. Generalizability is the extension of research findings on a small sample to a large population.

Most popular online brain training games simply don’t have the ability to responsibly suggest that all users of the game will see particular results. The large range of games and a lack of focus on targeted areas of cognitive training play a role in this.

For example, Lumosity is at its heart a working memory training program, Lavin said.

“It merges game and cognitive training. [It] doesn’t have very in-depth literature on how much a person’s brain is actually altered or how long the change is,” he said.

The FTC, in its charges against Lumosity, also noted that consumers may feel as though they are benefiting merely because they are becoming better at the games themselves, not because there is any scientifically supported change to their cognitive abilities.

“If there is a set of exercises that you do that not only improve your ability to do the intervention but that translated to more success at school, at work, or in your life, that’s really the Holy Grail of cognitive training,” Lavin said. “It doesn’t do any good if you boost your cognitive skills for six weeks and then it disappears.”

So where is this Holy Grail? For decades, neuroscientists have been searching for scientifically supported ways to improve brain function. After all, the basic science on which all these brain games are based is sound science.

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change over a lifetime. The training for that change, however, is more complex than a series of fun online games.

“If you want a serious cognitive training program versus a game, [it is a] good idea to have an idea of which cognitive activity you’re trying to change — working memory, process speed, auditory processing, etc.,” Lavin said. “The best programs focus in on a function and then have impact on life. All the serious interventions are united by the fact that they tell you exactly what function they’re going after.”

These programs are available but are often far more expensive and complex. An expert must first determine the needs of the user and then follow up on the progress of the intervention.

While popular online brain training games aren’t harmful to the individual beyond wasted money, they do have the potential to harm the industry itself, something Lavin finds particularly concerning.

“There are serious efforts out there to actually develop interventions based on very firm science that could open the door to a pretty bold new world, but if a million people try a product that didn’t do a lot, it could be like the boy who cried ‘wolf,’ ” Lavin said.

So, to all of us who are looking for ways to remember our grocery lists, keep track of our colleagues’ names and just generally feel like we’re not in a perpetual state of brain drain, know this: You’re right to look for a way to improve your cognitive function. It’s great to explore ways to improve your ability to think and slow down any loss of brain function. It’s possible. Just because some popularized brain games on the web are unable to provide scientifically sound results, that doesn’t mean more focused and reliable interventions are not available. They just might not be available on your mobile device. Science has proven that the brain can change.

Buyer beware. There’s a difference between a game and a cognitive training program. It’s unlikely you’ll see any real change from a brain training game produced by a gaming company. In fact, many brain games are still in a product development stage and are essentially being tested in the market.

It is important to research how the training can improve your daily life and how long the results are sustained. Look for research from peer-reviewed studies or reputable academic journals before spending your time and money.

If you’re turned off to brain training games but still want to improve your cognitive abilities, many scientists suggest getting plenty of sleep, exercising regularly and doing something new routinely. Online brain training programs may simply prolong your sedentary lifestyle without making a lasting improvement on real-life function.

I did enjoy playing games on my computer and feeling like I was doing something that was “good” for me. At times, I felt as though I was getting “smarter” when it was really just me getting better at repeatedly leading penguins to food (a skill I’m sure many would envy). In the meantime, I’ll have to let my phone lead me to food at the grocery store.

Full Disclosure: Dr. Arthur Lavin is a licensee of CogMed, a cognitive training program.

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This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

The magazine can now be purchased with print on demand! Click on this link to purchase a single issue.

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  • About the autor
    Wafa Unus

    Wafa Unus is a third year PhD candidate, owner of a small local Arizona Newspaper Association member newspaper and Reviews Editor for the Journal of Radio and Audio Media. Unus received her M.A. in science reporting from the University of Southern California and worked as a science reporter prior to pursuing her doctorate. She also owns a media consulting and publishing company, UNUS LLC.
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