Study challenges brain training businesses

A look into what  stimulates your neurons or not.

A new study by researchers at Florida State University, set for publication in Computers & Education early next year, claims to have increased improvement in the cognitive skills of test subjects by getting them to play the popular 2011 hit game Portal 2, when compared to subjects using the brain training service Lumosity, which uses a variety of games to sharpen cognitive skills.

The researchers recruited 77 undergraduate students to randomly play one of the two games for a total of eight hours over a period of two weeks, while also being subjected to pre- and post-tests to evaluate changes in cognition. Portal 2 was chosen for its physics-centric, first-person puzzle theme, whereas Lumosity was used as a “conservative comparison” tool due to its commercial success as a cognitive training program. Their findings concluded that while both games seemed to improve a player’s spatial skills, Portal 2 improved results more efficiently than Lumosity in those areas. They also noted that their tests seemed to indicate that Portal 2 had a significant positive effect on problem solving, whereas Lumosity had a negative effect in that area.

Although Popular Science magazine indicates that this study is too small to draw many conclusions from, they do seem to emphasize that we may still be off-track in our recent focus on “brain training.” As psychologist C. Shawn Green, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it, “If entertainment games actually do a better job than games designed for neuroplasticity, what that suggests is that we are clearly missing something important about neuroplasticity.” If this is the case, it could have sweeping implications for commercial “brain games.” The industry has a market upwards of US $1 billion in revenue annually, according to research firm SharpBrains.

Part of the issue, according to psychologist Ulman Lindenberger of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany is that currently, these games only target improvement in the completion of individual tasks, which does not guarantee a real-world application.

“[There is] little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” he told the journal Science. Lindenberger was one of 72 psychologists who signed an open letter arguing that there’s little evidence to support the marketing claims of brain-training companies.

“Our biggest concern here is that older people are making choices […] based on this kind of information that we feel is not well-grounded,” said Laura Carstensen, another of the letter’s signatories, who works at the Stanford Center on Longevity. “It’s a serious concern for us, and it can feel like people are being exploited.”

However, Carstensen said that the open letter is not meant to discourage research in the field of cognitive plasticity. There is no doubt that the advent of the brain training products came as a result of promising research in this area. It is just a matter of being “still in our infancy; there is much more work that needs to be done to make the strongest prescriptive claims,” states Dr. Adam Gazzaley of the University of California San Francisco.

Where does that leave those of us trying to improve cognitive skills? For older people, a lot of research seems to center around the restoration of lost cognitive skills, such as multitasking. In a 2013 study conducted by the University of California, 46 participants over the age of 60 were instructed to play a three-dimensional racing game with a multitasking component. The results showed a major improvement in blocking out distractions after 12 hours of play over a month, and these results remained consistent when the same participants were tested six months later, almost on par with results from an earlier test among a younger test group.

As for improving current cognitive skills, researchers have plenty of work ahead. The Portal 2 study brings an interesting perspective, but perhaps it is not something we should be focusing on too much, according to Roberto Cabeza, a psychologist at  Duke University: there are plenty of activities we can do in our everyday lives to stimulate our minds, like playing one’s favorite instrument, or just plain old exercise. “If you’re doing [brain training exercises] like a chore … you also have to compare it to what you could have done during those hours.”

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