In 2019, 44 percent of older Americans reported playing video games at least once a month. Part of this trend is seen in the rising popularity of game-like brain training programs such as Lumosity (which alone boasts over 75 million users), which promise improvements in memory, attention, and decision-making skills. But are these claims backed up by research?
One early study found effects of working memory training on intelligence, sparking a field of research focused on potential training benefits. After initial promising results, subsequent studies failed to replicate these findings. Often studies find some evidence of “near transfer”, or a training boost to specific skills, but fail to see “far transfer”, or benefits to general cognitive performance.
A 2021 study set out to determine the effectiveness of brain training programs in over 8,000 online participants, including 1,000 people who reported being active users of a brain training program. If these programs are as effective as they claim, then these active users should outperform the other participants on tests of memory, verbal ability, and reasoning skills. The participants came from a variety of countries, education levels, genders, and ages, a major strength of this study. The self-reported brain trainers actively used at least one program, and had used programs for anywhere between two weeks and five years.
The researchers found no evidence of an effect of brain training. Active brain trainers did not perform better on any cognitive measure than people who do not use these programs. Furthermore, no effect was found for any demographic group, such as age, education or socioeconomic status, or specific brain training program, further bolstering the conclusion that these programs are not effective.
The researchers found one significant result: people who believed that brain training was effective, regardless of whether they actually used them or not, counterintuitively performed worse on cognitive tests compared to people who didn’t believe these programs are effective. Whether or not people believe these games work, they seem to have little benefit to general cognitive function. Play games for enjoyment, not with any expectation of a major cognitive boost.