Does Brain Training Work?

You don’t need to be a physiologist to know that you can train your body to get stronger, faster, and more agile with training and exercise. But can we do the same thing for our brains? Does brain training work? If you consider your brain a muscle, it certainly makes sense that brain training and exercises might result in a stronger, faster, and more agile mind.

The past decade has seen rapid advances in the quality and quantity of technologies purported to enhance our brains. Many of these technologies are backed by studies that demonstrate improved processing speed, more fluid reasoning, increased executive functioning skills, and stronger working memory. But there’s also pushback from brain scientists who warn that many of the claims for brain training have been vastly overblown and that most brain training products are not living up to expectations. A major concern is that brain training helps with particular tasks that are used in the programs, but that they don’t help generalize and translate these skills for use in the real world.

Are the critics right?

So does brain training work? It can, though in the debate over brain training, there are three major arguments that really hold weight for me.

First, there are claims that may be overstated as to how effectively the current generation of brain training tools actually improve brain function. As well, our capacity to measure the effectiveness of these claims across many settings may be limited. Speaking as a neuropsychologist, our assessment devices are, admittedly, often better suited for the laboratory than for daily life.

Secondly, brain training really is in its infancy. We are just learning to use games, apps, and other technologies to advance cognitive functioning. Despite this fact, there is absolutely no question in my mind that playing games, using specific apps, and directed technologies can improve brain functions. We have conclusive evidence that many other activities — playing chess and other board games, engaging in regular thoughtful conversations, exercise, yoga, meditation, or simply reading the newspaper — improve cognitive function.  Brain training technologies do not have to be more effective than other strategies, they simply have to be helpful, and there is compelling evidence that they are. What makes directed technologies particularly compelling tools is that they are able to target specific brain functions, are often very engaging because of the challenge and mastery, and are so easily accessible.

Third, most brain training tools are used  alone and may not be designed to maximize generalization and real world application. Think about it in terms of bodybuilding; if we only exercise one part of the body, don’t have a trainer, and don’t bother to eat right or get enough sleep, we might not see optimal or lasting results.

SharpBrains.com works to answer the question, "Does brain training work?"

SharpBrains.com helps take the guesswork out of brain training.

So how can we know what works?

What is really needed in the world of brain training is a set of guidelines that help us identify the technologies that improve brain functioning and assist in transferring those “brain gains” to daily life. One of the best resources I’ve found so far is the thoughtful and objective SharpBrains.com. A website focused on the science of brain training, SharpBrains describes itself as “an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of neuroscience.” SharpBrains evaluates how brain training tools are used to improve brain function and offers useful information about the most effective brain training tools and techniques. SharpBrains has identified five conditions that must be met in order for these technologies to have their optimal effect:

  1. Brain training must engage a core function of the brain that connects to real life situations, such as attention, memory, processing speed, and emotional regulation.
  2. Brain training should be directed at an area of weakness, building something that needs to be developed rather than something that is already in place.
  3. Dosage is crucial in order to achieve results. SharpBrains suggests a minimum of 15 hours of training for each identified concern.
  4. Training must be adaptive, easier at the beginning and becoming increasingly challenging, in order to promote brain growth.
  5. Maintenance is necessary. Brain training can only be sustained with continued practice. Essentially, use it or lose it.

And that’s exactly how we work.

These five principles are helpful guidelines for any type of brain training. And it’s exactly how we approach the recommendations in our video game prescriptions, Playbooks, and app guides. First, we locate and review games and apps that practice or support a specific executive function or academic skill. Secondly, our Test of Executive and Academic Skills (TEAS) helps parents, educators, and child care professionals identify a child’s specific areas of need if they are not already known. Next, we provide directions about how to use these technologies with specific dosages and goals to achieve. The games and technologies we use are adaptive, increase in difficulty, and, most importantly, are fun. Finally, we go beyond simple maintenance of a skill; the games and apps we choose are fun, meaning kids will want to keep practicing, and the metacognitive and generalization activities we include in every recommendation help kids reflect and connect their new skills to the real world.

This last detail may well be the most important step in the LW4K model. In fact, there is strong research data, indicating that simply using activities and generalization strategies is enough to promote some development of these executive functioning and academic skills. Games and technologies greatly enhance generalization strategies because kids are engaged with the activity, remain focused and attentive during gameplay, and persist in the face of frustration over the course of the brain training. That’s what games are all about.To keep up with SharpBrains, check them out on YouTube and Facebook. Then read more about the science behind LearningWorks for Kids, what we have to say about a balanced Play Diet, and the kinds of brain training apps we recommend. Leave a comment to let us know what kind of brain training apps and games you’ve found helpful.

Featured image: Flickr user fdecomite

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2 thoughts on “Does Brain Training Work?

  1. Thank you for this article. I am confused by one of the sentences you wrote, “Next, we provide directions about how to use these technologies with specific dosages and goals to achieve.” Could you direct me to where within your program you provide this direction? I haven’t seen it. Thank you!

    • Hi Courtney,

      Dosages and goals are included in the personalized prescriptions parents are provided through their children’s personal LW4K profiles. As well, we provide less formal dosages and goals in the Play Together and Make it Work sections of our Playbooks and App reviews, which you can find by clicking the “Find Games and Apps” link on the homepage.

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