Brain training apps hold the promise that with just a few minutes a day of playing simple games, people can improve cognitive skills like memory. However, is that anything more than a promise?
Most evidence on this topic is contradictory, with some studies reporting benefits and others no effects, but a recent real-word study 1 published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology seemed to find no benefits of brain training in what’s probably the biggest sample to date. The researchers recruited more than 1000 regular users of such brain-training programs and around 7500 people who did not ever use such devices and compared their performance on a series of cognitive tests.
First, users were asked to report on questions on their brain training habits and programs used. The average use of such programs was about 18 months, although some had been training for more than 5 years.
Then, all volunteers (users and non-users) were asked to complete 12 cognitive tests assessing memory, reasoning and verbal skills, including mentally rotating objects, strategy exercises, pattern-finding and memory exercises.
In none of these evaluations did users achieve better results than non-users, and that was regardless of time of training (either one week of training or 18 months), nor because the initial capacities of users was lower, as novel brain training methods users (who had started only one week prior) who could not have improved their mental status that much due to training, had similar scores as non-users.
It seems from this real-world data, that, at least in healthy people, brain training does not deliver on its promise of brain boosting capacities and that to keep our brains young and healthy engaging with the real world would be a better training than sitting a few minutes a day in front of a digital device.