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Brain games: are they a waste of time?

23 October 2014

We are often told: use it or lose it. But scientists in the US are now questioning the benefit of computer-based 'brain games' for older adults.

Nearly 70 scientists have issued a statement saying they’re sceptical about claims that computer-based 'brain games actually help older adults sharpen their mental powers.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford University psychology professor and the director of the university's Centre for Longevity, says that as baby boomers enter their golden years, commercial companies are all too often promising quick fixes for cognition problems through products that are unlikely to produce broad improvements in everyday functioning.

“It is customary for advertising to highlight the benefits and overstate potential advantages of their products,” she says. “But in the case of brain games, companies also assert that the products are based on solid scientific evidence developed by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists.  So we felt compelled to issue a statement directly to the public.”

One problem is that while brain games may target very specific cognitive abilities, there is very little evidence that improvements transfer to more complex skills that really matter, like thinking, problem solving and planning, according to those academics who have carried out studies in these fields.

While it is true that the human mind is malleable throughout a lifetime, improvement on a single task, like playing computer-based brain games, does not imply a general, all-around and deeper improvement in cognition beyond performing better on just a particular game.

“According to Carstensen, the cited research is often only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell. Agreeing with this view were the experts who signed the Stanford-Planck consensus statement, which reads in part:

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. ......The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”

Lifestyle matters more
As the researchers point out, the time spent on computer games takes away from other activities like reading, socialising, gardening, and exercising that may benefit cognitive functions. As the statement reads:

When researchers follow people across their lives, they find that those who live cognitively active, socially connected lives and maintain healthy lifestyles are less likely to suffer debilitating illness and early cognitive decline....In psychology, it is good scientific practice to combine information provided by many tasks to generate an overall index representing a given ability.”

The same standards should be applied to the brain game industry, the experts maintain. But they suggest this has not been the case, saying there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.

One reason is the so-called 'file drawer effect', which refers to the practice of researchers filing away studies with negative outcomes. For example, brain game studies proclaiming even modest positive results are more likely to be published, cited, and publicised than ones that do not produce those affirming results.

In the statement, Carstensen and her fellow scientists offer recommendations for how people should view older adult life and issues like brain games:

- Legitimate research on brain games needs to be replicated and confirmed scientifically across multiple studies in different settings.
- Physical exercise is beneficial to both general and cognitive health.
- No studies have shown that brain games prevent diseases like Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
- Brain games are not like "one shot" vaccines – the gains won't last long after the end of the activity.
- People can cultivate their cognitive powers by leading physically active, intellectually challenging and socially engaged lives.

You can read the full statement here.

Les Hunt
Editor


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