Brain fitness is a growing industry, with products running the gamut from neurodrinks to neurosummits that gather like minds in convention-type settings. In some form or another, each promises to rewire your brain for health, wealth and happiness.
Brain-training games currently top the list. But are they really training your brain -- or merely draining your wallet?
A few months ago, one of the most popular brain-training companies was busted for making bigger promises than it could keep. Lumosity of Lumos Labs was ordered to pay the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a $2 million settlement for making promotional claims that weren’t backed by sufficient research.
Lumos Labs had touted its brain-training games as a solution to improve performance in work, academics and athletics. The group further advertised the games’ abilities to delay cognitive decline related to aging or dementia. Using the games even could reverse cognitive deficits resulting from brain injuries, Lumos Labs said. The FTC disagreed, challenged those claims and won the lawsuit.
Much can be lost in translation between the laboratory and the shopping cart. Here are a few things to know before you join the ranks of the nearly 100 million who subscribe to brain-training products.
What is brain training?
By the strictest and most scientific definition, brain training is a set of interventions used to improve a person’s ability to perform cognitive tasks. These tasks require you to tap into cognitive functions such as attention, memory or reasoning. As you can imagine, everything from reading this article to thinking about your next career move relies on cognitive ability.
Brain training aims to deliberately activate these cognitive functions, with a key difference. The goal is not to complete a real-life task but to improve the functions themselves. To boost your memory capacity, you might challenge yourself to memorize lists of phone numbers.
In a sense, brain training is like lifting weights. It strengthens the “muscles” you use but doesn’t serve a functional purpose on its own.
Who needs brain training?
You already train your brain on a daily basis and in multiple ways. While reading this article, you’re practicing focus as you concentrate on the text and ignore ambient noise or other distractions. You’re analyzing content as you extract the main points and sharpening your memorization skills as you file away new facts for later use.
Brain training first was developed for people who’d suffered brain injuries. The exercises were a clinical intervention to improve their cognitive functions and help them regain their abilities so they could once again live independently. Later, clinicians started using brain training to improve cognitive performance in people with conditions including attention-deficit disorder, dementia and even serious mental illness.
Over time, brain training became popularized and available to all. No longer seen as a clinical therapy, it’s now a tool for anyone who wants to put a finer point on thinking skills.
Will brain training make me smarter?
Brain training in a box -- the commercial brain-training platforms that look like video games -- will not make you smarter on their own. At best, they’ll improve your performance in brain-training games. The more you practice, the better you'll get. You’ll advance through the levels, your scores will improve, and you might feel smarter. Some brain-training games provide comparison statistics, so you can see how much “smarter” you are than other users.
In theory, high scores on these games may translate into better attention or faster reaction times. But you’d have to test it and record results for yourself, in real-world situations. Doing well on a brain-training game is twice-removed from doing well in life and business. Scoring high on a reading game doesn’t automatically translate into being able to read, understand and negotiate your work contracts better than you did prior to brain training.
What are the real benefits of brain training?
Most commercial brain-training games are very entertaining. Their simple graphics make them accessible to people of all ages and tech abilities, though they probably make hardcore gamers roll their eyes.
There is a fine line, however, between entertainment and science. Research reveals that after computer-based brain training, people score slightly to moderately better on tests that measure the specific cognitive abilities they’ve just trained. Not bad, but nowhere near the promises often made.
There are less-advertised and more real benefits, however. Brain training enables you to observe your brain in action, which could help you spot and strengthen your cognitive weak points as you improve your strategic-thinking skills.
How can I maximize the benefits of brain training?
Brain-training games are entertaining, easily accessible and relatively cheap. A year’s subscription to a brain-training website will cost you less than a single session with a brain-training expert. But you’ll also get a lot less out of the online experience. Brain training with a professional could have dramatic effects on your performance -- just like training with a fitness instructor can help you pinpoint weak spots and customize a workout plan.
If you’re going it alone, you can make the most of brain training with a few simple steps. First, identify three real-life tasks and set a realistic improvement goal, with measurable criteria. Then, choose a brain-training game relevant to those tasks. Begin training consistently. Finally, track your progress on the real-life task to see how close you’ve come to reaching your target.
If you’re making progress toward executing the real-life task in a more efficient way, you’re getting your money’s worth. If not, at least you've discovered a better way to kill time than yet again scrolling through your social-media feeds.