Outside of a Small Circle of Friends
Lady Astor's Theory of Aging

Does Brain Training Work?

[PERSONAL NOTE:] Summer break. Mental health week. Vacation. Breather. Whatever you call it, it means time away and I'm putting some distance between me and this blog for a week.

Posts here will be a combination of new that I've written ahead and golden oldies. Note that everything at The Elder Storytelling Place linked at the bottom of each post on this blog are new so please go read them.

I'll check in here occasionally to see how it goes.

In the July 29 issue of The New Yorker (subscription required), Patricia Marx writes of her odyssey through testing several of the nation's brain training programs while also interviewing some of the experts who have invented them.

”Do I seem smarter than I did a few weeks ago?” she begins. “Since then, I’ve spent many hours in front of my computer, challenged by crucially important questions, like which two butterflies of the five that flickered onscreen for seventy-nine milliseconds were the matching pair...

“Remember when we called these sorts of activity video games and yelled at our kids for playing them? Now we refer to them as brain exercises...”

From the first appearance of brain training games about a decade ago, I've been suspicious of them. I'm no scientist, but the sales materials and websites don't offer evidence beyond assuring that “actual” neuroscientists developed the games along with such fuzzy declarations as X number of users “improved significantly” from those who didn't play the games.

I have no idea what that means and so, because many of these games are more expensive than one would imagine, when publicists have contacted me to promote the wares of various brain exercise programs on TGB, I have declined.

Ms. Marx appears to be a skeptic too. As she explains after being told by the founder and medical director of one brain fitness program clinic that she had aced the tests, she tells us

”I think you would, too, if for instance, you know the answer to the question, 'What city are we in?,' can figure out what a banana and an orange have in common, copy a drawing of a cube, and have no trouble recognizing a rhinoceros.”

At another brain health center, the “clinical neuropsychologist and (god help me, yes) brain coach”

”...hypothesized that, while I don't have a recall problem, I could brush up on focusing my attention...

“The act of remembering, she said, has three stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. The second we can't control, and the third, barring a stroke or a neurological disease, depends on the first. If proper information isn't inputted into the machine, as it were, then good luck getting it outputted.

“[The coach] recommends mindfulness training.”

There is nothing wrong with mindfulness if that interests you but it has any scientific unpinning for memory improvement.

Last April, in an article title Brain Games are Bogus, also published in The New Yorker (paid subscription required), Gareth Cook wrote about the more scientific-sounding brain exercise programs and the evidence there is or is not to support the companies' assertions. Most of the them, writes Cook,

”...stake their claims on 'working memory,' the ability to keep information the focus of conscious attention, despite distractions – mental juggling, in other worlds...”

Cook then recounts one researcher's experiments that suggest “working memory could be markedly increased through training” and another researcher who, astoundingly, reports that

“...working memory training definitively increased intelligence...Her data implied that a person could boost their I.Q. by a full point per hour of training.”

According to Cook, all this is bull. He writes that over the past year, the benefits of working-memory training has “crumbled.” The results companies and researchers claim could not be replicated and there was “no evidence whatsoever for improvement in intelligence.”

Further meta-analysis published via the National Institutes of Health (abstract only) found that the training isn't doing anyone much good.

”...there was no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills (nonverbal and verbal ability, inhibitory processes in attention, word decoding, and arithmetic). ”

But brain fitness programs are games, after all. If people want to play them what harm is there? In response to the question, Gareth Cook quotes Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University who was involved in one of the studies that refutes the brain training companies:

”If you are doing brain training for ten hours a week, that is ten hours a week you are not doing something else, like exercising,” Hambrick said. “It also gives people false hope, especially older adults for whom this is a big concern.

“What if they do this and they don't see any benefits? What do you think? You think, 'There must be something wrong with me,' or 'I am a lost cause.'”

And Patricia Marx, at the end of her New Yorker story, remains a skeptic:

”I'm not sure I noticed my newfound cognitive abilities in my everyday life. It's hard to be both scientist and lab rat.

“On the positive side, I am slightly less troubled about the size of my hippocampus. On the negative side, why did I sprinkle NutraSweet on my broiled salmon last night?”

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: On the Meaning of Life


I, too, am skeptical. The only thing I have found that helps my short term memory loss is to pay strict attention when someone tells me something. If I concentrate I am able to retain the information, but if I listen with half an ear I forget the entire thing. I do think that trying to focus on a book, puzzle or whatever requires cognitive skills is helpful, but it certainly does not raise my IQ.

Doesn't sound like there is much independent support of the brain training, especially in terms of raising IQ. That wasn't the reason I decided to try Lumosity anyway. Not sure how much it helps, but it does give me a few short concentrated exercises that might help me with focus and concentration. Word and number games are probably as good, but I enjoy variety. As for memory, who knows? It's only a few minutes a day to do. And it does end so I don't get hooked for hours playing video games which tend to tie you to the computer. For now, I see no harm in it, but couldn't honestly recommend it to anyone as a "fix" for anything. And there are plenty of free games to play out there if that is all you are looking to do. So for now, no harm, no foul with no false expectations. Thanks, Ronni for all you do. Enjoy your week!

Fixing what ain't broke?

I bet simply using the Web has 'raised' IQs and quickened memory recall all over the planet; and those effects will continue, too.

All that other stuff harkens back to the old comic book days of "You too can look like Charles Atlas."

Who needs it? My 2¢ worth....

I think it's fascinating that activities, such as soduku, crossword puzzles and now Luminosity and other video games, have been recommended on the grounds that they "may" ward off Alzheimer's disease.

Since we don't know for sure what causes Alzheimer's or how to diagnose it in people while they're living or how to treat it, it's a huge leap to suggest that using those games helps anyone increase or maintain her cognitive abilities. And to me the "it can't hurt" argument is not the least persuasive.

Recently, I started taking piano lessons, never having had any music lessons before. Now there's a satisfying cognitive challenge.

During the years that I was dancing with a senior age performance troupe, I had to memorize dance routines... since you aren't allowed to dance with a memo sheet in your hand. It was more memory exercise than I'd had since long-ago Latin classes. During that time, I found that it was easier for me to remember other things as well such as grocery lists, piano pieces and phone numbers.

Alas the troupe disbanded and not long after my memorization capability reverted to its former creaky level. Practice... frequent practice helps with so many things.

Sure, one has to keep a brain busy, otherwise it will fade.

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