We say that the brain is a muscle. Something use it or just atrophied. It is useful to understand that much of the cognitive and emotional abilities can “improved” metaphor. If we train a specific task (such as mental arithmetic), we become better at it. In this an entire industry, the call is based brain training and brain training.
But all metaphors have their limits and this has bottomed. We suspected that the industry brain training was a huge, colossal bluff, but if there was any doubt, a group of psychologists have reviewed each and every one of the published studies on the effectiveness of these programs and the conclusions are emphatic: so we know so far this type of training does not improve our cognitive abilities.
The debate surrounding the brain training
The work we talked about was coordinated by Daniel Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois and the bete noire of brain training industry. Simmons is one of the best known and respected psychologists of the moment thanks to the experiment of the Invisible Gorilla (which earned to win the Ig Nobel in 2004) and their struggle for a psychology of better quality.
Simons takes years denouncing malpractices industry and researchers in his blog. Without going any further, it is well known his criticism of the work of a research group that forced the UNED correct the study were published on precisely brain training.
He has not been alone. In 2014, a group of more than 70 scientists wrote an open letter in which they denounced that ” brain games did not provide evidence that would improve overall cognitive performance.” The problem turned out, it was not the only opinion on the subject. Months after that letter, some 133 scientists published a statement defending that, on the contrary, there was ample evidence of the positive effects of brain training.
With this open debate, and after the fine of 2 million the Federal Trade Commission imposed on Lumosity (one of the most popular programs), Simons and his team was clear that the solution to the problem was going to revise systematically all that he had published about these training programs.
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Do the brain training programs?
And that’s what we have now: a very extensive study of the actual effects of brain training programs. Researchers have reviewed everything that has been published on the subject and found that ample evidence that these games actually improve performance in those games. But only that. So it seems we have much less evidence to help improve similar tasks that are trained directly and very little to show improvements in everyday cognitive development.
Precisely for this reason, users of these programs experience cognitive improvements. As the use, improve the program in games and that effect expands to other tasks. The data show little evidence of these applications, but also the mechanism that convinces us that work (but do not).
But perhaps most troubling is the quality of research. The team did not find any items that follow the practices of research expect able. All research field presents methodological problems that call into question or the studies themselves or, in any case, prevent conclusions on the effect of brain training on the day.
Companies, laboratories and vice versa
Companies dedicated to brain training are a textbook example of what happens when the industry has a key role in the development of science. Because yes, this industry also tries to deceive us.
The work of Simons just full of recommendations for scientists, companies and institutions who want to take this area seriously. The truth is that today’s technology can do amazing things and if there is any chance help stop neurodegenerative disease or cognitive decline, we must seize it. But if we do not curb the dust cloud raised the murky relations between industry and academia, we will never be able to separate the wheat from the chaff.