brain games
October 25, 2014

Neuroscientists Push Back On Brain Game Claims

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Companies like Lumosity and Cogmed market digital brain games as a way to boost mental fitness while having fun, but a group of neuroscientists said the claims made by these companies aren't directly backed by clinical research.

On Monday, a joint statement by researchers from by the Stanford Center on Longevity in California and the Max Planck Institute in Germany said the research mentioned in brain game commercials is “only tangentially related to the scientific claims of the company, and to the games they sell.”

The statement was signed by a number of neurology researchers including some outside the two primary supporting institutions. Ulman Lindenberger, a neural psychologist at Max Planck who helped organize the statement and a similar one released in 2008, told Science Magazine that the statement represents “a growing collective concern among a large number of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists who study human cognitive aging.”

The Berlin-based researcher added that studies referred to by brain game companies only measure skills for a single cognitive task – as opposed to a range of tasks denoting improvement in a specific cognitive skill. Many scientists who signed the statement are themselves researching brain games, but they noted that their research, as a matter of proper scientific process, focuses only on singular tasks.

“Brain gaming companies blur this distinction,” Lindenberger said.

Lumosity is often cited as one of the biggest culprits when it comes to citing studies in support of its products and, according to Gizmodo, the company recently altered a statement that appears when its brain game app is started.

“Analysis of our database shows that just 10-15 minutes of Lumosity training per day can lead to improvements in Lumosity over time,” the in-game statement now reads. The change in language suggests that playing this Lumosity game will help a player to get better at the specific task of playing the game – and not improved cognitive function.

While it may be starting to seem like Lumosity has been caught selling digital snake oil, some scientists have defended brain games as a harmless way to stimulate the mind. Calling all brain games bad is “a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Michael Merzenich, a professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco and executive at brain-training company Posit Science, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Roberto Cabeza, a neuroscientist at Duke University and another signatory on the statement, said people shouldn’t be completely discouraged from playing brain games, but if they’re only playing them for some kind of mental benefit, and not to have fun, they should quit.

Cabeza added that there are probably a number of other activities that people should engage in if they want to stimulate their brains, such as learn how to play an instrument or even physical exercise, which has been shown to have mental benefits.

“You also have to compare it to what you could have done during those hours,” Cabeza said.

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