Brain Training. Should you pay for it?

i-75fa6f7cebb4145668724f37f5a52b36-steve_icon_medium.jpgEveryone and their mother is getting into the brain training game - researchers, the health care industry, video game companies, you name it! But... Every single one of them is a huckster trying to rip the elderly off (whether they realize it or not). Nearly every single one of these brain training systems simply takes established psychology experiments that we normally pay people to do since they are so damn boring and repackages them in a slightly glizier way to make you feel better for spending $299.95.

It is very very important to keep your brain active but there is no evidence whatsoever that these training programs are any better than doing things freely available, like learning a new hobby, doing sudoku or crossword puzzles, and generally keeping your mind active. But for goodness sake do something you enjoy! Don't do psychology experiments!

However, there is something much much more important than any of these mind games you are playing - being physically active. Any positive effects that a mind game can produce is dwarfed by the amazing and all encompassing improvements that taking a walk around the block and lifting a few light weights 3-5 times a week can do.

The take home message... Don't pay for anything (except a gym membership) you can keep your mind active for free and enjoy yourself more. And if you really want a bunch of boring psychology experiments to keep your mind active I'll sell you some of mine for $299.95.

Here's a video I was emailed about keeping your mind active that some of you might find interesting:

More like this

I agree with you about the brain training, but why pay for the gym? The argument is pretty much the same - you can get the same benefit for free by going for a walk or a run, or by lifting weights (or bottles of water) at home, or you could play a sport you enjoy. Paying $600 a month gym membership seems just as pointless as paying $300 for brain training.

I think the best of them are not hucksters and are fairly upfront about what they are selling. There is no question that high quality memory and concentration games help slow mental degradation with aging. Physical activity also helps in a different way. If a 70 year-old takes a 60min brisk walk every day, lifts weights for 20 minutes, and sits passively in front of the TV for the rest of the day, there is no question mental acuity will decline.

As for what mental stimulation is best, the real issue is what the person want so keep doing. If the person dislikes Soduko and crossword puzzles but can play various psych experiment games for hours, all the better. I also don't know where you get this $300 measure. If video games with a large memory component are good fine. If blogging works fine. My point is simply that these people aren't hucksters. Just like any other video game, if their products keep people interested, it's worth the money. If not, they'll go out of business.

Hi Steve,

Perhaps many, but likely not all are "hucksters" for brain training.

The same may apply to therapists of various types.

Psych-: many in -ology or -iatry and social workers engage in a form of brain training.

Sometimes it is difficult to separate various cognitive distortions from cognitive therapies ... emotional reasoning as an example.


I blogged an interesting study, which showed that social interaction is equally effective as "brain training" tasks, when compared to doing nothing (well, watching Seinfeld, actually - strange control condition). The link is in my name.

Also, I have to respond to this:

"My point is simply that these people aren't hucksters. Just like any other video game, if their products keep people interested, it's worth the money."

So by that standard, astrologists, scientologists, and homeopaths are not hucksters, because people buy and enjoy their products and services. I'm sorry, but there is a fundamental difference between whether something is true or valuable, and whether people are willing to spend money on it. It is unwise to equate profit with truth.

Also: "There is no question that high quality memory and concentration games help slow mental degradation with aging." Source, please.

Personally, I think future generations will look back on the whole brain training craze the same way we look back to those crazy electricity therapies that were all the rage in the late 19th century. It's not that brain training categorically cannot work - the problem is that you have to establish your control condition. Brain training is probably better than sitting quiet in a dark closet, but that's hardly the alternative that people face when choosing, say, whether to spend 45 minutes talking to their neighbour, going for a walk, or sitting in front of the computer doing visual search tasks. When those are the alternatives, the evidence for brain training is practically non-existent.

I read a few years ago that taking a different way to work every few days helped to keep your brain active. I haven't performed a double blind study on it, but it has at least helped me learn more of the streets in my city...

Re: "Nearly every single one of these brain training systems simply takes established psychology experiments that we normally pay people to do since they are so damn boring and repackages them in a slightly glizier way to make you feel better for spending $299.95."

It's not right to stereotype the whole "brain training" industry in this way. It's a diverse field now, and there's some good stuff out there among the crap. The best games I've seen are at Lumosity, where the games are very fun and addictive (not just "slightly glitzier"), and they're cheap too--something like $7 per month. And you can start with a 2 week free trial...definitely worth it.

Are you suggesting that psychology experiments are meaningless? How should one go about understanding human behavior?

Sure, this field is short on quantitative evidence regarding the impact on real life. However, the combination of generalization to cognitive tests, and a wealth of subjective reports on real-world outcomes is compelling that there is value. And at the price point of a casual gaming site, why not play games that might make you smarter?

By the way, I work at Lumosity, so I'm not exactly impartial!

I agree with Steve. Many psychology experiments are meant to isolate some component of a process, such as attention or memory, while controlling for other factors. Consequently the tasks we use do not mirror anything that we do in the real world.
The creators of brain games take these tasks, add some color and more interesting stimuli, and claim that by practicing you will improve your memory or attention skills or whatever. What really happens is that you DO improve on that particular task because you practice it. But that task has nothing to do with memory or attention in the real world, so you won't see improvement on things that matter.

The bottom line is that by playing these brain games, you might get really good at memorizing fifty four letter words presented for 200 ms on a computer screen but you will still have a difficult time remembering your doctor's appointment or friend's phone number.

I'm not suggesting that psych experiments are meaningless but most are of questionable ecological validity.

You've set up a critique that no one can respond to. You're asking for scientific proof that these games (or any mentally taxing activities) help, but you're saying that the generally accepted metrics for showing improvements are meaningless. I'll try to pull some studies tomorrow, but it would help to know what type of study would convince you.

Since cognitive tests are "meaningless metrics, how about this study:
"Mental stimulation increases circulating CD4-positive T lymphocytes: a preliminary study"
Marian C. Diamond, Jeanne Weidner, Peter Schow, Stanley Grell, and Marian Everett
Cognitive Brain Research
Volume 12, Issue 2, October 2001, Pages 329-33

Is a blood immunity improvement also meaningless?

Also note, I am not arguing that the branded brain fitness systems are necessary, but that actively using memory, concentration, attention, language, etc. is necessary. This is beneficial whether it comes from a video game or socializing with others (socializing is probably better, but depending on the situation, it isn't always practical as often as someone might want)

Also to Johan, I'm not saying customers is the sign that the product works. I'm saying that a product that keeps the mind active that people buy and regularly use is good. (Though I guess if someone spends hours doing calculations by hand to plot astrology charts, that is probably also mentally useful and less a waste of time than playing video games. :) )

Again, I will try to pull some literature showing mental activity slows cognitive degeneration, but it would help to know what types of results people wouldn't find meaningless.

I keep in shape by playing competitve chess and cycling.
Since the bicycle doubles as commuter transport, most of the time I save money both coming and going!

By The Doctor (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

Wow, people sure do like their brain-trainers here! If you really enjoy playing these things go to town. You absolutely are not getting anything better out of them than you would from reading a book or newspaper, doing a crossword, etc.

I mean, training on the stroop task (hi, Brain Age!)?? That's all you have to say to throw the damn thing out the window!

"Soooo the cerebellum is part of the 50% of the brain that we don't use?" - John
John, I think you have your stats wrong, people only use 10% of their brains.

I had to restrain myself from banging my head against the wall when I saw the jpg from Luminosity of how they say the brain is organised.....the occipital lobe is processing speed?The Parietal lobe is attention?

Whoever drew that should be taken outside and shot I say.

One concern I have with the brain training use of psychological tests is for issues of testing-people who have had exposure to some of these tests,will subsequently score better if they go to a clinican for a neuro/psychological assessment due to practise effect. So someone may present with a mild cognitive deficit but this may not show reliably after testing.

Also while there's lots of research out htere about cognitive reserve and so on, like Steve says, there is no need to buy software-reading a book, taking a class, exercise and healthy diet, learning new skills, doing a crossword, work just as well if not better.

"There is no question that high quality memory and concentration games help slow mental degradation with aging."
There is actually only very little evidence this is true.

Mental Activity is wonderful for slowing cognitive decline - YOU JUST SHOULD NOT PAY FOR IT - especially silly psychology tests.

I don't get it. You agree that mental activity slows cognitive decline (so what references would you want anyway) but you believe that somehow if the mental activity requires paying money for a video game you are skeptical. Do you disapprove if "The Doctor" needs to pay money to enter competitive chess competitions? How about if he bought one of the chess training program that is now used at most levels of competition? Can he only used freeware? Can you buy a newspaper to get the Soduku and crossword puzzles? Can someone pay to enroll in a class? Some of these things are significantly more expensive than these computer programs.

Mental activity isn't the issue and paying isn't the issue.
I suspect your biggest complain is false advertising (i.e. saying this is THE way to keep your brain fit as opposed to saying this is one of many things that work).
Besides some handwaving science, Luminosity doesn't claim this. Positscience doesn't claim this. Why are they hucksters again?