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August 2, 2018

You know that brain-training app you downloaded? It’s probably worthless

by John_A

The idea of brain-training apps able to improve our cognitive abilities by playing games seemed like the perfect middle finger to everyone who ever told us to stop playing Sega and get on with some homework. Sadly, a new piece of research suggests that maybe we should have listened to our parents after all. According to a recent study from neuroscientists at Canada’s Western University, brain-training apps are great at … making you good at playing that particular brain-training app.

The researchers in the study examined whether playing one brain-training app for a period of several hours would make someone good at another brain-training app, utilizing the same part of the brain. Should this be the case, they theorized it would show that such apps can indeed improve a person’s working memory, which is crucial for countering memory loss and helping us better retain information.

This isn’t what they found, though. Instead, high scores racked up in the first game had no impact whatsoever on performance in the second game. In fact, scores were pretty much identical to those attained by a control group who hadn’t had the benefit of training on the first app.

“We hypothesized that if you get really, really good at one test by training for a very long time, maybe then you’ll get improvement on tests that are quite similar,” Bobby Stojanoski, a research scientist in the Owen Lab at Western’s Brain and Mind Institute and lead author of the paper, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we found no evidence to support that claim. Despite hours of brain training on that one game, participants were no better at the second game than people who tested on the second game, but hadn’t trained on the first one.”

This doesn’t conclusively prove brain-training apps are useless, of course. It doesn’t act as a qualitative study of all brain-training apps, for one thing. It would also be interesting to see a follow-up which examines whether these apps could play a role in stopping the decline of neural function in older groups of people, similar to how people report doing crosswords or sudokus to keep their mind active.

For most of us, though, it seems that *sigh* we’re better off eating healthier, exercising regularly, and doing our homework on time in order to really train our brains.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

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