A team of researchers from the UK set out to test how well brain training works. They teamed up with a popular science show on television and recruited over 11,000 healthy participants. The participants completed a general initial assessment of cognitive function (the “benchmarking” assessment), then started a regimen of 10-minute training session three times a week for six weeks. The online training sessions tested a broad range of cognitive functions: short-term memory, attention, math skills, and so on. These tests were designed to be similar to those found in commercial brain training programs. The researchers followed the progress of the participants over the six weeks of training and concluded the study with a final general benchmarking test similar to the initial one.
The good news is that the researchers saw a significant improvement on the specific tasks the participants trained on. The bad news is that this improvement did not extend to general cognitive function. These results mean that while you can improve at, say, a specific memory game that involves remembering the items in a scene, this won’t necessarily translate to better memory in your everyday life (where did I put my keys again?).
As can be expected, the study was criticized, especially by individuals with a commercial interest in brain training. Some suggested that the participants didn’t train long enough or often enough to see an improvement in general cognition. Others said that it’s not because these researchers didn’t observe an improvement that it’s impossible to achieve cognitive enhancement through computer games. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the study also scores some good points: the researchers looked at a very, very large number of participants, and the games used for brain training mimicked those that are commercially available.
Personally, the last thing I need is a reason to spend more time in front of the computer, and I like to think that fresh air is a terrific cognitive enhancer. What do you use to maximize your brain power? Coffee? Naps? Share in the comments!
Reference: Putting brain training to the test. (2010) Owen, AM et al. Nature 465:775-8.