By John Kerr 01/12/2017

If you think that a few bucks spent on a braining training app is a solid investment in your intellectual future, think again.

Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time on the internet has probably heard of the brain training app Lumosity. The San Francisco-based company has spent millions on advertising and claims to have 85 million users. Their app is free to download but to use it on an ongoing basis requires a subscription, starting at US$11.99 a month.

Lumosity is just one of many braintraining apps on the market; there are dozens of competitors claiming their methods are ‘scientifically proven’ to improve intelligence and cognitive functioning. Most of the apps involve users repeatedly completing small puzzle-like tasks such as quickly matching symbols based on shape or colour (a version of the Stroop task), memorising patterns, or rotating and shifting objects, à la Tetris.

One of the brain training exercises from the NeuroNation app.

Having played about with the free version of one of these apps (NeuroNation) for a few weeks, I can definitely say that regularly using the app makes you better at completing the tasks. This particular app tracked my progress over time and I could see that I had made massive gains in my ability to quickly match a blue triangle to pink triangle when prompted to match pictures based on shape.

But I had a sneaking suspicion that these newly acquired skills wouldn’t spill over into my daily life (unless I had a job sorting coloured triangles down at the shape factory).

Do they make you smarter?

To varying degrees, brain training apps make the claim that using the apps will improve your cognitive abilities. For example, the app Elevate claims:

The more you train with Elevate, the more you’ll improve critical cognitive skills that are proven to boost productivity, earning power, and self-confidence.

Sounds great right? But a comprehensive review of the available research has found little evidence that using brain training apps will do anything other than make you good at using brain training apps.

At the heart of the issues is one word: transfer. If the training on a particular task also helps you in another task, it can be considered to transfer. Most people purchase brain training apps on the promise that the skills they develop using the app tasks will transfer to real-world tasks, such as better general memory or problem-solving ability.

Show me the evidence!

There have been dozens of studies published examining how well brain training apps improve mental ability. Unfortunately, not all studies are of a high quality and there is a great deal of inconsistency between them, making comparisons difficult. Reviewing all these studies to a draw a sensible conclusion would take a lot of time and effort. Lucky for us, someone has already done it!

Prof Daniel Simons, University of Illinois.

A team of seven scientists, led by Prof Daniel Simons (of Invisible Gorilla fame), trawled through all available research put forward by brain training companies as evidence. Their review was published last year in Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

Simons’ team evaluated the studies results as well as their scientific rigour – did the study have large enough sample size? Was there a control group?

Ultimately the evidence was underwhelming, say the researchers. Despite the large number of published papers they say that the evidence that training with commercial brain training software can enhance cognition outside the laboratory is “limited and inconsistent.”

The inconsistency of the results and the pervasive shortcomings in research design and analysis in the published literature undermine scientific backing for some of the claims made by brain training companies. …

Practicing a cognitive task consistently improves performance on that task and closely related tasks, but the available evidence that such training generalizes to other tasks or to real-world performance is not compelling.

Their advice for the consumer:

…if your hope is to stave off the cognitive losses that sometimes accompany aging or to enhance your performance at school or in your profession, you should be skeptical of the value of any quick fixes; the evidence largely does not support claims of broad cognitive benefits from practicing the sorts of cognitive tasks used in most brain-training software.

Want to know more about the studies reviewed? You can check out the full list and the researchers’ notes on each study here.

Speaking to NPR at the time the study was published, Simons said he was disappointed by the result.

“It would be really nice if you could play some games and have it radically change your cognitive abilities,” Simons says. “But the studies don’t show that on objectively measured real-world outcomes.”

So the verdict is in: there isn’t any good evidence that brain training apps will stop you from losing your car keys, help win you the pub quiz or ace that test.


This post is part of the Sciblogs Consuming Science series, exploring the science behind everyday consumer items and services. Read more here