We’re currently in an era where we have mobile applications for almost everything. There are apps claiming to improve your cognitive functions such as concentration, learning, memory, and even reduce the decline of such functions in people with dementia. These apps are called “brain training” mobile apps, which are said to put the “smart” in smartphones.
But do they really work or are they actually negatively affecting our brain’s development? Let’s find out.
The most popular apps for your brain are Lumosity, CogniFit Brain Fitness, and Peak. Now, they all come with a free basic membership, but for something making such big claims for your body and mind, why are they offered at no cost?
Well, here’s the catch, their free offer can only get you limited games and features but if you want the “full effectiveness” of the program, you have to pay. For Lumosity, for example, the subscription prices are $11.99 per month and $59.99 per year.
So let’s say you’re already paying for the application, and it’s helping you in perceiving and comprehending ideas. That’s great news! But, what if there are no noticeable changes? Wouldn’t it be such a waste if it weren’t improving your cognitive skills at all? Or worse, what if it’s affecting your brain development the wrong way?
How Brain Mobile Apps Should Be Helping You
Before we can determine whether or not brain training applications work, let’s first find out what they’re supposed to do with regards to our well-being.
Lumosity claims to help with problem solving, memory, processing speed, flexibility of thinking, and attention. It also says that one session a day develops mental skills. This is very similar to what CogniFit Brain Fitness aims to help you with: improve your cognitive abilities through fun and addictive games.
Cognitive abilities are the skills based on your brain which you need to carry out any task; from the simplest to the most complicated. They are the mechanisms of how we are able to learn, pay attention, solve problems, and remember.
Aside from these, some mobile apps are also said to help fight stress and anxiety and promote mental health. In fact, Nadine Kaslow, vice chair and professor at Emory University’s Department of Psychiatry and the American Psychological Association’s president, says: “Keeping your mind is as important as physical exercise and these apps can help you stay fit mentally.”
How fascinating, right?
To be able to have fun and still keep a healthy mind through the simple games you play on your smartphones. However, is it true? These scientific studies may be able to give us that answer.
What Does Research Say So Far?
There have been a lot of studies in the past concerning the effectiveness of brain mobile apps in improving the brain’s processing speed, executive functions, and working memory.
For one, a research was presented during the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2016 and it found that older adults who were a part of brain training sessions in the span of 5 weeks were unlikely to develop dementia or cognitive decline over a 10-year period.
A study was also published in 2013 and they found that young adults who play brain training games showed improvement in their processing speed, executive function, and working memory.
In addition, Jaeggi et al did a study for the University of Michigan in 2008 where they looked at fluid intelligence improvement with training. (Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve a problem without practicing it beforehand). Their study showed that more brain training improved fluid intelligence.
Now, these are all amazing findings but there seem to be more studies contradicting them. For one, Thomas Redick and his colleagues at Georgia Tech attempted to replicate Jaeggi’s findings.
Testing 17 different cognitive tasks and two control groups, where one group underwent placebo training and the other with no testing at all; they found that while participants did indeed improve their performance on the tasks at hand, they didn’t actually transfer these new abilities to any measure of cognition or intelligence.
In 2010, another study was conducted by Owen et al which found no transferred effects between trained and untrained tasks. This means people got better at the tasks they practiced but can’t use these skills in other tasks they haven’t tried before.
These task improvements, according to him, were simply because of familiarity and are not a true change in cognitive ability.
This was later confirmed by Charles Hulme and Monica Melby-Lervag who concluded that brain training applications did produce short-term, highly specific improvements. However, there are no generalized improvements to a person’s overall memory, attention, intelligence, and other cognitive functions.
So, where does this put us? Well, based on these studies, it can be said that there is no good, conclusive study which can back up the claims of brain training mobile applications. Study author Cyrus Foroughi said regarding the topic, “If you do find a way to actually increase intelligence, it’s a fantastic finding. I just don’t think the science is quite there yet.”
Additionally, as much as 70 of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists worked together to provide a general agreement on brain training games for the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Stanford Centre on Longevity. The consensus of this group was: “Claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.”
They also noted that since baby boomers are near their late 60’s or early 70’s, their anxiety about cognitive decline and memory loss increases – which brain training companies capitalize on to sell their product. They described the brain games’ claim on preventing or reversing Alzheimer’s disease as “devoid of any scientifically credible evidence.”
The scientific community on the brain training industry has also stated, “Much more research is needed before firm conclusions on brain training can be drawn.”
But, just because there isn’t enough evidence of brain mobile programs working, it doesn’t mean it’s not working for you… personally. There was an experiment from George Mason University where researchers cleverly set up two kinds of posters around a campus: one poster invited students to take part in training where they would be given credits and the other invited students to join a study which aimed to train their brains.
So, the first group of students believed the training was doing nothing for them and the other thought it would help their cognition. Both groups did the same tasks but the only difference was their belief on why they were there.
The result? They found that people who engage in an hour of braining training can bump their IQ by as much as five to 10 points – only if they believed the training can affect them. Surprising, right?
They explained that the effect of brain mobile applications depends on the matter of whether or not you believe they can work. This is also known as the placebo effect. Therefore, much of the benefits of brain mobile games are all in your head.
Just don’t expect too big of a result from playing these games as they are no magic bullet and they will certainly not provide quick gains in intelligence.
Do brain mobile applications work? Well, it can but not the way most companies claim.
Remembering which shape came before the triangle in the sequence does not help you remember the last item you need to buy from your grocery list. But it can, however, help you respond faster to a time-limited question. And that’s not too bad.
If you enjoy these brain training games, do continue. But if you’re actually spending money and time to truly improve your intelligence and memory in the long term, it will be best to look elsewhere.
The good thing is, there has not been any mention of brain apps negatively affecting a person’s development. So, even if their effect isn’t as big as you’ve expected, it’s still worth trying them out since they pose no real threat to your wellbeing. Plus, they are really a lot of fun to play!