Brain-training games: beneficial or bogus?

Promises of improved mental performance have spawned a multimillion-dollar industry, but what works and what doesn’t?

Brain-training games come in the form of apps, websites and online programmes, and claim to boost brain health to avoid cognitive decline as we age. Photo: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay
Powered by automated translation

What’s soft, squishy and weighs about 1.3 kilograms? It's you. Or rather, your brain, the organ that essentially encompasses who you are. It’s where your personality resides, as do your likes, dislikes, creativity and willpower.

Given the importance of our brains, it isn’t surprising to learn there is a rapidly growing multibillion-dollar industry dedicated to preserving its cognitive abilities, as noted in the Global Cognitive Assessment and Training Market Report 2021 by

To add fuel to the fire, study after study has shown our mental functions begin to decline as we age. Our memory weakens, the speed at which we process information slows down and our attention span becomes as fleeting as the life of a TikTok video.

The solution? To train the brain. While it is technically an organ, the consensus is to treat it like a muscle — either use it or lose it. Enter brain-training games.

Buff up that brain

Brain-training games account for hundreds of millions of dollars within the aforementioned multibillion-dollar industry. They come in the form of apps, websites and online programmes, and claim to boost our neuroplasticity to avoid rapid cognitive decline as we age.

One of our biggest fears is losing our mind and personality
Dr Doerthe Schiess, neurologist, German Neuroscience Centre

Platforms such as Lumosity, Elevate, Peak and countless others have been on the rise since 2005, each one framing itself as the gateway to improving cognition across avenues such as memory, speed, attention, flexibility and problem-solving.

Their approach lies in the gamification of training exercises and they keep users funnelling through by encouraging them with colourful graphs and bite-sized bits of research. And, like any score-and-milestone-based app game, it’s easy enough to keep users playing when instant gratification lies at the end of a two-minute “brain booster”.

However, as light and harmless as these apps seem, they’re shrouded with carefully selected language. In 2016, Lumosity was fined $2 million for falsely advertising that its programme could help to protect people against Alzheimer’s disease.

After this reveal, and considering the nature of the market’s audience, brain-training apps began to treat their marketing with care to avoid a backlash. The premise does, after all, stem from preying on people’s fears, says Dr Doerthe Schiess, a neurologist at the German Neuroscience Centre.

“One of our biggest fears is losing our mind and personality, as can occur with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, the popularity [of these apps] is based on a negative, rather than a rational, emotion,” she says.

“Claiming the solution to this fear is available on an easy-to-use app in our pocket at an acceptable price lets people forget about their concerns.”

Preventing diseases such as Alzheimer’s might be a tall order, but can brain-training games still deliver on improving cognition to some extent? Are simple exercises such as identifying facial expressions, organising numbers and creating words out of scrambled letters enough to maintain or enhance brain health?

Solution or distraction?

Fun and games aside, claims such as boosting cognition need to be backed by research.

On the surface, it does seem like there is substantial evidence in favour of brain-training games. They not only highlight the benefits of the training, but also support the theory that the skills transfer easily into real-life scenarios — sustained concentration, faster recall and improved communication.

Most people will become automatically better over time if practising a game
Dr Doerthe Schiess

However, a review published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest reveals otherwise. A team of psychologists reviewed the gamut of scientific studies cited by major companies behind brain-training programmes and found a series of flaws, ranging from small sample sizes and inadequate control groups to missing pretest baselines and cherry-picking data to fit a chosen conclusion.

On the other hand, despite the poorly designed studies, users did demonstrate improved performance across the course of their training.

“Most people will become automatically better over time if practising a game or sporting activity,” explains Schiess. "However, these skills haven’t been conclusively proven to be transferable. For instance, you might learn to recite the first 100 digits of pi backwards and forwards, but that won’t keep you from having to look up your landline number when someone asks for it.”

On the right wavelength

While brain-training games may not be the cure-all to cognitive decline that their users hope, they’re not completely futile. It might just be a case of right path, wrong execution.

Both neurology and cognitive psychology back the theory that engaging in “real-life” activities and learning opportunities are the best way to keep a brain active. In other words, activities such as socialising, exercising and learning new languages or instruments are more likely to help, rather than spending 10 to 15 minutes indulging in games that add little to no real-life value.

Schiess also highlights the benefits of methods such as neurofeedback, also known as neurotherapy, essentially a scientifically proven type of brain training.

“NFB enables one to alter their brain waves by operant conditioning, or non-conscious learning. By measuring the brain waves and providing an audio and/or video feedback signal, it teaches self-control of the brain function.”

Neurofeedback therapy indicates how a brain reacts to certain situations and triggers. Over time, the person undergoing the therapy can identify when their brain is in a certain state, and then learn to avoid negative states (such as rage) and recreate positive ones (such as relaxation).

It not only trains your brain to work more efficiently, but is also a non-invasive and medication-free method to treat conditions such as ADHD, epilepsy, anxiety disorders and even autism.

“When used for peak performance, benefits include improving attention and concentration while decreasing worry, procrastination and stress — this all results in improved performance,” says Schiess.

The verdict

Brain-training games, while admittedly enjoyable, might just be akin to other logic games littering the market. Our continued progress can simply be attributed to the age-old adage, “practice makes perfect”. Meaning that any sense of productivity we glean from completing levels and unlocking badges is the same false productivity high we tap into when we decide to reorganise our wardrobe rather than complete a more pressing project.

The science of methods such as NFB has yet to catch up to the easily accessible format these programmes promise. Until then, feel free to “brain train” with these apps. Just don’t expect to see any deeper returns other getting better at gameplay in the virtual world.

Updated: May 30, 2022, 3:19 AM