New technologies have gifted humanity with exciting, dynamic new ways to grow. There are apps for tracking your exercise, for balancing your diet, for becoming more spiritual. One genre of improvement application came to prominence in the last decade. Brain training games have cornered the market on allegedly educational products for users on the go. Do they work as well as companies say they do? Are these exercises really just a big scam?
The Science Behind “Brain Training”
Since the mid-2000s, companies have marketed their applications as ways to improve mental acuity, as ways to stay sharp. Whether couples in their golden years, single parents, or high school dropouts, these brands catered to every demographic. Lumosity, the most well-known of these brain trainers, claimed that they could help you in less than an hour a day. Their applications use challenging activities to target key areas of the brain and encourage neuroplasticity. Most importantly, these app developers speak to people’s fears about mental decline in the face of aging.
Behind the scenes, companies like Lumosity claim to work with hundreds of researchers in an attempt to fine tune their assessments of cognition. These research teams compare different groups trying to flex their cerebral muscles. One group trains with games offered by a brain training app while the other trains with puzzles such as sudoku and crosswords. Over weeks at a time, researchers claim that those using Lumosity and other apps test higher on IQ tests than others.
Companies regularly offer evidence of these studies to the public. They delve into the intricate methodologies involved in testing the development of an adult brain. No small task, but many experts claim that it does not prove anything and merely serves as mental window dressing.
Why is “Brain Training” a Scam?
In the last few years, cognitive scientists have argued that the industry itself holds little water. For all the supposed research and financial resources that go into these applications, experts say it all amounts to little more than amusing games.
Many scientists point to the placebo effect. Studies carried out on a college campus placed subjects into self-selected groups. Members of one group were told they would be playing games specifically to improve cognitive abilities. The other group played the same games without the promise of mental reward. In the study, members of the former group scored consistently higher on IQ tests than did their no-hype counterparts.
Researchers even used brain scans to measure the effects of the games. No striking data came about as a result. Subjects engaging in any mental task had similar levels of brain activity. Despite the claims made by Lumosity, there were not any particular parts of the targeted to maximize mental gains.
The United States government weighed in on the claims made by these companies. In 2016, Lumos Labs, the company behind Lumosity, had to pay $2 million for misleading advertising. The Federal Trade Commission argued that the advertisements by Lumos preyed on fears about dementia and other degenerative brain disorders.
Simply put, the science is not there to support companies selling mental miracles through smartphone applications. Having a quick, challenging distraction on the go may help stave off boredom. That does not mean playing a game staves off dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.