If you’re one of the 76 million baby boomers in the United States, you might be considering ways to stay sharp cognitively. If you’re one of the 37 million high-school and college students in the United States, you likely want to keep your mental processing clear to stay ahead in your courses.
Whatever your age, a brain-fitness product exists that supposedly is tailored to you.
Brain-fitness marketers sell programs that they claim will enhance users’ quality of life by improving their concentration, memory, problem-solving and reaction time.
For $8–$15 per month, you can play an online brain-fitness game on a computer or a mobile device. For $250–$300, you can take a 6-week course and play brain-fitness games in person. About 130 companies now offer brain-fitness programs, compared with fewer than 50 in 2005. Alvaro Fernandez of SharpBrains, which is a market-research company, tells us that the worldwide brain-fitness market in 2013—the most recent data that are available—totaled about $650 million, which is up 24 percent from 2012.
We found that almost all brain-fitness marketers have in-house research-and-development teams that employ neuroscientists (and sometimes cognitive psychologists) to develop and test their programs. The companies use these teams as a marketing tool on their website to promote the idea that their games are proven scientifically to improve your cognitive abilities.
Although brain-fitness marketers say their virtual games make you sharper mentally, the 10 cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists whom we interviewed are skeptical. Only one of the 10 experts believes that any cognitive abilities can be improved through mental training, and he doesn’t believe that these improvements can be achieved through a brain-fitness program.
“There is no compelling evidence for generalizable benefits of brain-fitness programs,” says Zach Hambrick, who is a professor of psychology who studies memory function and intelligence at Michigan State University.
We played brain-fitness games from six companies. The games certainly were fun, and we earned better scores the more that we played, but we agree with the experts: We don’t believe that our improvement in the games translated into benefits in our everyday life.
Flexing Your Brain? A Look at Typical Brain-Fitness Games
SAME OLD TESTS. Ten experts tell us that most of the games that are in brain-fitness programs are digital versions of established and well-researched academic tests of cognitive functions. The tests have been used by cognitive psychologists since the 1950s. For example, one of Lumosity’s exercises is the Trail Making test, which is merely a version of connect-the-dots, in which the player must connect an alternating series of numbers and letters in sequential order—from one to A to two to B and so on. (For more examples of brain-fitness games, see “Flexing Your Brain? A Look at Typical Brain-Fitness Games.”)
We found that all of the companies have games that are tailored to a range of cognitive abilities. For example, a typical 30-minute brain-fitness training session provides six 2- to 5-minute games, and each game claims to target a different cognitive ability. We found that most companies target five cognitive abilities: brain speed, language, logic, memory and visuospatial orientation. CogniFit claims to target 24 cognitive abilities, which is the most that we found among brain-fitness marketers’ claims. Experts tell us that CogniFit’s list doesn’t mean that it tests a broader range of cognitive skills. Instead, it’s just a matter of marketing. For example, the company includes six memory subcategories: auditory short-term, contextual, nonverbal, short-term, visual short-term and working.
Most brain-fitness marketers track your progress and tell you how many times that you performed each game, the ones at which you’re best and the ones that require more practice. The companies also claim that they personalize your training based on the cognitive areas in which you require more practice. However, David Meyer, who is a cognitive scientist and psychologist at University of Michigan, tells us that the personalization is trivial. We found that the companies don’t personalize the games per se; they just change the level of difficulty as you improve.