Can you train your brain? Or should you go jogging instead?

Does “brain training” make you smarter, more alert, and (cognitively) younger all around? If you pay for brain training software, is that a smart investment?

The people who sell this software presumably think so.

But not everyone agrees. The websites of the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max-Planck Institute for Human Development recently posted a statement signed by more than 70 prominent neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists—27 members of the Psychonomic Society among them—who took exception to the claim that “brain jogging” (as it is called in German) has widespread beneficial effects.

To quote from the statement:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories below, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxieties of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”

The full statement can be found here.

Because the statement was signed by 27 members of the Psychonomic Society, I asked for more information from a few of them; Prof. Klaus Oberauer (Zurich), Dr. Randy Engle (Georgia), and Dr. Susanne Jaeggi (Irvine).

Their motivations for signing the statement are remarkably consistent: All cite the fact that the effects of brain training have been “advertised with overblown promises” (Prof. Oberauer) or that “many brain training companies use ‘scientific evidence’ to market their products, however, there are only very few cases where this is actually true, or, they are just related to very few games out of many that are marketed within a company” (Dr. Jaeggi). Dr. Engle was additionally motivated by the fact that he failed to replicate the results of a previous supportive study.

Does this mean the researchers believe that training of cognitive activities has no benefits at all?

No, far from it.

They all agree that training is beneficial—of course it is, otherwise what’s the point of education? With sufficient effort, we can all acquire a new cognitive skill such as another human language or a further computer language—in Dr. Engle’s words, “we have known this since Thorndike and Woodsworth in around 1900.”

The contentious issue is whether a “brain game” can improve people’s abilities generally; that is, whether training can transfer to tasks that are different from those being trained initially. And if there is transfer, what is the extent of it, and how “far” does it reach—that is, how different can a new task be to the trained one and still show benefit from the initial training?

On this issue, the expert opinions seem slightly more divergent.

Dr. Engle believes that “The idea that we can ‘train’ fluid intelligence is simply silly and reflects a great ignorance of the biological mechanisms underlying fluid intelligence.”

Prof. Oberauer, by contrast, does not rule out the possibility that fluid intelligence could be subject to improvement by training, but at an empirical level it does not seem terribly well supported: He has conducted “several random-controlled, double-blind studies of the effectiveness of working-memory training, with mixed results, some finding evidence for transfer beyond the trained tasks whereas others failed to find evidence for transfer.”

Dr. Jaeggi suggests that “by now, we actually have pretty good evidence that some targeted interventions work, indeed, in that we regularly observe transfer effects, that is, effects that go beyond what has been specifically trained.” She nonetheless objects to the brain game companies’ messages because “getting significantly better at anything requires hard work and dedication, and again, cognitive interventions don’t seem to work for everyone. There is no ‘one-size-fits-it-all.’ ”

So there is some transfer, at least some of the time and for some people. However, it seems that those performance improvements occur within the constraints posed by one’s largely invariant fluid abilities. Hard work will get the most out of our engine, but it’s not going to double the number of cylinders.

The theme of hard work also underpins Dr. Engle’s suggestion for how one can improve one’s general cognitive functioning: “Physical aerobic exercise is a great place to start if the goal is to make your brain and body work better. As a soon-to-be 68 year old brain, I believe that there are age-related declines in the kinds of fluid abilities that I study, but I also think that there are things that we can do to maximize the capabilities we do have. I spent one whole summer several years ago reading the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness. My graduate students thought I was just going through a delayed mid-life crisis but I was of the opinion that Zen masters know more about attention control than we scientists: I think that we all can learn to better focus our attention (regardless of our individual limitations in attention capability) and to better avoid distractions. … Listen, don’t just hear. Look, don’t just see. Those are skills that will be generalizable to many different tasks and we can all do better at them.”

So it appears that actual jogging may also jog your brain for free (or the price of a pair of running shoes.

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