How many of you out there have ever bought computer software designed to stimulate your brain, and boost your mental skills? According to a study just published, you are likely wasting your time. The study was a collaboration between British researchers and the BBC Lab UK website. They recruited people who watch the BBC science show Bang Goes the Theory. The 11,430 test subjects ranged in age from 18 to 60.
In one group, the tasks focused on reasoning, planning and problem-solving abilities — skills correlated with general intelligence. A second group was trained on mental functions targeted by commercial brain-training programs — short-term memory, attention, visuospatial abilities and maths. A third group, the control subjects, simply used the Internet to find answers to obscure questions. A total of 11,430 volunteers aged from 18 to 60 completed the study, and although they improved on the tasks, the researchers believe that none of the groups boosted their performance on tests measuring general cognitive abilities such as memory, reasoning and learning.
According to Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit in Cambridge, the study showed that there was no conclusive proof that all of the mental training had any effect on the outcome of cognitive testing. “There were absolutely no transfer effects. “I think the expectation that practicing a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported.”
Critics aren’t convinced that the training period was long enough to give any real results, though. The total training time was only four hours. That likely isn’t enough to create meaningful or measurable change. Brain-training exercises such as treatments for lazy eye or some post-stroke training regimens require more time to work.
Owen concedes that his findings don’t necessarily mean that training in young children or elderly patients is pointless. But “the evidence is not strong”, he says. “And someone needs to go and test it.”