One of the biggest trends in digital self-help is the concept of brain training: the attempt to maintain or improve one’s cognitive abilities by engaging in a program of regular activities. Brain training is based on the hypothesis that our cognitive abilities — like executive function and working memory — can be improved via exercise just like other muscles in our body.

The question is: Does it work? Can an app on our phone really improve our fluid intelligence? Many believe it can and does, but will admit that no studies so far prove it. Yet. Here’s what we found out:

What We Know

Despite the lack of definitive proof that brain training really works, a massive market already exists for people who want to believe it does. According to the latest research, the Brain Training Software market was valued at $8.36 billion in 2022, and it’s expected to expand to almost $30 billion by 2028. The reason for the popularity of brain training apps is simple: They supposedly solve a common problem (forgetfulness, for the most part), and they’re fun. 

Brain training is grounded in the idea that the brain is neuroplastic, which means that it has the ability to change and develop throughout our lives. Under that theory, if we “practice” certain cognitive functions, we should be able to strengthen our brains in those areas. 

Some Examples

Some aspects of brain training have been shown to have positive effects for people with cognitive difficulties. For example, in 2020 the FDA approved a prescription video game for children with ADHD, called EndeavorRx. It was granted clearance based on data from five clinical studies that showed the game markedly improved objective measures of attention when used regularly.

In a similar vein, other apps like Norbu strive to relieve stress and anxiety by “training” the brain to interpret stimuli differently. Using what they term “neuron massage,” the game essentially tricks your brain to switch from stress neural networks to the prefrontal part of the frontal lobe, thus building better stress resistance by “rewiring” your system. The app’s website helpfully explains how the games will achieve various brain training goals, and links to studies that support each claim. (Keep in mind, though, that just because an app is supported by scientific research doesn’t mean that the app has been proven to work.)

One of the most well-known brain training apps is Lumosity. The app has a collection of games designed to target specific aspects of fluid intelligence, like speed, memory, attention and flexibility. Admittedly, the games are fun and as engaging as any other puzzle games available from the App Store or Google Play. The question is: Can they really improve or maintain our overall cognitive health?

Misleading Promises?

In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission sued companies selling “brain training” programs — including the one that makes Lumosity — for “prey[ing] on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, even Alzheimer’s disease,” without providing sufficient scientific evidence to back its claims. Lumosity paid $2 million to the FTC in order to settle the lawsuit.

If you visit their website today, you can see that Lumosity proudly claims that there have been over 20 peer-reviewed publications in academic journals “using their games or assessments.” [Note: The studies used their games/assessments; they didn’t necessarily support their claims or prove validity.] The app even links to one study that compared results between users of their app and others who did crossword puzzles instead. While these may be valid studies (despite some complaints about small sample sizing, inadequate control groups and cherry-picking research outcomes) many experts are unconvinced that they paint the same picture Lumosity claims. Do these assessments measure comprehensive gains in cognitive skills and fluid intelligence — or are they measuring participant improvement in just one particular skill?

So… Do Brain Training Apps Work?

Unfortunately, we don’t really have an answer to that question. Yet. Most of the studies show that brain training does lead to cognitive improvement, in that users get better at a particular task assigned over time. What hasn’t been shown to a satisfactory degree is whether what you gain from these apps can be translated into real, everyday life.

The bottom line is this: If you enjoy brain training games, there’s no reason to stop. They’re not bad for you — so no harm, no foul. 

Top image by ABIDAL from Getty Images Pro, via Canva.com


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