Do mind games net brain gains?

Wow! Online brain training, a product of research in cognitive psychology, has leaped from academia into the media and public eye. Brain-training companies like Lumosity and PositScience now compete for mainstream market share, as curious minds ponder: Can I really change my brain?

The New Yorker, The Economist, and CNN Money recently published pieces on the emerging field of brain fitness. A Sept. 4, 2013, headline in The New York Times boldly proclaimed: “A Multitasking Video Game Makes Old Brains Act Younger.”

But does all this media hype translate as hoopla or real science?

Neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to grow and change, to expand rather than decline, excited the academic world in the ’80s and ’90s. Now, cognitive psychologists at U-M are working to figure out the best ways to optimize brain function and fitness. They are determining whether skills gained from brain training can transfer from the gaming arena to daily life.

Head games

In 1962, long before brain games became trendy, Layman E. Allen, now Michigan professor emeritus of law, developed one of the earliest instructional games, “Wff’ n Proof,” to teach mathematical logic to lawyers. Together with Frederick Goodman, now professor emeritus of education, Allen kicked off the Tuesday Night Games Club, which became a Michigan tradition. The club provided expertise as instructional gaming became serious business, and Michigan emerged as a major player in the enterprise.

Almost 50 years and one cognitive revolution later, Michigan’s John Jonides, professor of psychology and neuroscience and a leader in working-memory research, developed n-back training, one of the most popular and well-researched cognitive training programs available. (The video below was featured in the June 2011 edition of Michigan Today.)

Jonides and post-doctoral students Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl attempted to demonstrate transfer of training in their 2008 and 2011 research. They found that fluid intelligence, the ability to solve new and different problems, increased after cognitive training in a working-memory task. The award-winning research led to collaboration with Lumos Labs, the parent company of Lumosity, resulting in the brain game “Memory Lane.” Ongoing research focused on the factors affecting transfer of brain training.

Mind over (gray) matter

Most of us expect transfer of training when we perform physical exercise. Weightlifting at the gym should transfer to the ability to hoist a suitcase into the overhead bin on the plane, for example. But is it realistic to think that improvement gained from a brain game focused on one brain function could transfer to improvement in a different brain function? Or that improved brain performance on training tasks and games would eventually transfer to tasks executed in real life?

As intriguing research by Jonides and others in the field of “brain science” segues from the pages of prestigious academic journals to the mainstream consumer press, concerns arise in the academic huddle. Are research conclusions raising unrealistic expectations of cognitive training? Or does negation and criticism of research findings hamper progress in the field?

David E. Meyer, professor of psychology and director of the Brain, Cognition, and Action Lab at U-M, says, “Many in the international community of cognitive scientists recognize the complexities and controversies surrounding the topic of ‘brain training.’ Unfortunately, no solid evidence exists yet to prove that such training has an effect on general intelligence. Furthermore, it’s highly debatable as to whether such hypothesized effects might transfer in a durable way to human performance in practical, real-world contexts outside the psychological laboratory.”

Benjamin Katz, a doctoral student working under U-M’s Priti Shah, professor of psychology, says it’s still too early to answer questions like, “Do brain games really work?” Research in cognitive training and brain games is still in its infancy, he says, emphasizing, “It will take years of rigorous research before we can begin to understand the full effects and underlying mechanisms of training.”

Katz’s perspective comes from a unique background. A computer science class in game development, coupled with a concentration in film studies and psychology at Columbia, provided the skill set he needed to get a job developing educational games. In 2009, when Katz realized cognitive psychology was his ultimate goal, Lumos Labs hired him to design brain games for the Lumosity platform. Katz met Jonides two years later at a conference in San Francisco. The connection brought Katz to U-M, where he sharpened his focus on the transfer of training in Shah’s Basic and Applied Cognition Lab.

Questions, questions, and more questions

Jonides commented recently about the new questions he, Shah, and Katz are attempting to answer. “It is pretty clear from the abundance of studies in the peer-reviewed literature that training working memory does improve performance on tests of fluid intelligence for some people under some circumstances,” he says.

“The hard work now is to understand what ‘some’ means,” he continues. “What are the differences among individuals that make training effective? What are the tests of fluid intelligence to which you get transfer? What are the conditions of training that make it most effective? Are there allied interventions (such as physical exercise) that can modulate the effects of cognitive training? Can we go from laboratory tests of intelligence to real tasks that people have to perform in their daily lives? What are the changes that working-memory training produces in the brain, and how long-lasting are they? These and related questions will form the basis of the next wave of research in this emerging and important field.”

Buschkuehl was a researcher in Jonides’ pioneering 2008 study. He is confident results that describe working-memory training’s impact on real-world performance will show up in future research. In The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (2013), Buschkuehl notes, “…from an anecdotal point of view, many participants have shared stories of how they perceive a major benefit. Now they can follow lectures more easily, understand math better, etc.”

More anecdotal comments come from a very informal survey of Lumosity fans:

  • “I feel smarter. That’s a benefit even if it’s a placebo effect.”
  • “I was uncomfortable in my new job. Could I do it? After a month or two of online brain training I noticed I was doing better. It works for me.”
  • “All those flying birds and flashing symbols — my brain falls into order as I complete my training. I’m more efficient and focused.”

So, are you thinking about trying out some brain games? If so, what do inquiring minds need to do before deciding to choose a brain-training product?

  1. Identify what brain functions you would like to improve: working memory, problem-solving skills, flexibility, and/or speediness of thinking?
  2. Check online and examine software companies’ claims with a critical eye.
    • Does the company provide training that fits your wants and needs?
    • Is the training developed by cognitive psychologists?
    • Does the company provide access in understandable language to the research underlying their games and exercises?
    • Does the research cite results comparing an experimental group with a control group?
    • Are the subjects in the experiment in your age group? If not, the results may not apply to you.
  3. Read the promotional information and use the free-trial option before you sign up.
  4. Decide if you want to have the adventure: Expect fun, learning, and improvement in performance, but not a 10-point jump in your IQ.

Just as Michigan researchers were at the forefront of the cognitive revolution, the scientists’ current focus on the transfer of brain training may lead to deeper understanding of cognitive plasticity, increased opportunities for individuals to boost their brain function and fitness, and sturdy status for brain games.

Till then, let the games begin.


  1. Marcia MacMullan - 1947; 1967

    My husband (UM Architecture 1950) is recovering from a stroke to his left brain hemisphere–his speech, memory, and ability to use his right hand, arm and leg were gone. Three months later he is ready for discharge to home care. There must be some games that would help him regain his memory and speech fluency. May I have some suggestions? I do have an ap for speech therapy but it is too “boring” he tells me. ( I have been interested in communication research ever since I worked, briefly, for Gregory Bateson) Thanks for this article.


    • Deborah Holdship

      Hi, Marcia: The website may be a good resource for you. Commenters there suggest reading the last chapter of “The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness” because it includes a series of personal anecdotes and strategies that people have found successful, from nutrition and meditation practice to actual brain training exercises. People also recommend sites like emWave, braingHQ, and Cogmed. Best of luck with your research; I hope you find an effective strategy for your scenario.


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