Brain Training Apps Promise but Don’t Often Deliver

I recently saw an ad for a game claiming that: "Successful people play this game at least 30 minutes a day." It's an ad for a simple game where you search for specific words from a grid of letters. The idea of improving our cognitive functioning by playing simple computer games is certainly appealing. For only minutes a day, the promise is that we can train our brains and improve our attention and working memory, increase our reasoning abilities, problem solving, executive functioning, multi-tasking, or general intelligence, and even delay age-related cognitive decline!

Key Takeaway

Brain training apps and games are seductive. They hold the promise that, for only minutes a day, the skills we gain by playing a game will have a wider reach and improve our cognitive skills in other areas important for everyday functioning. But the evidence shows that this is not true. Even though we may improve on the skill specifically trained, with few exceptions, these skills don't transfer over to other areas of our life. We just become better at playing the game. We would be better off learning a new complex skill or engaging in a new hobby - learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, learning to play chess - which recruit and train a wide variety of sub-skills. And even if they don't transfer to other contexts, they improve our lives in significant ways.

There are simple lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia and disability in later life. These include managing blood pressure controlling cholesterol, keeping blood sugar normal, getting physically active, eating a healthy diet, losing extra weight, quitting smoking, maintaining social relationships, and managing depression and hearing loss.

But the research investigating whether the skills learned with brain training games transfer to untrained tasks or to improved general cognitive functioning doesn't support this. The reason why we would want to play the brain training games in the first place is to improve our cognitive skills in other tasks that are important for everyday functioning, not to improve solely on the game. So this is an important question.

Skills learned in one domain don't necessarily transfer to other domains

A classic example of a skill failing to transfer to other contexts is that of SF. The number of items we can keep in short-term memory is between 5 and 9 items. This is called our memory span and, after two years of training, SF was able to increase his memory span for digits to an impressive 80 digits. What would happen if he were asked to remember letters? Surprisingly, he could remember no more than 6 letters, well within our normal memory span! 

You would think that remembering letters is not that different from remembering numbers. But, the reason that SF could remember 80 digits is because he was able to use his extensive knowledge of running times to chunk the numbers into running times. So, for example, instead of remembering the numbers 9, 6, and 7 separately, he chunked them into a running time of 967 ms: 967 ms became one chunk or one item. So he didn't increase his memory span at all: He just developed a strategy for grouping individual numbers into chunks, a strategy that was useless for remembering letters, or anything else.

There have been many research studies looking at this question of whether the skills learned through brain training games transfer to other contexts and the results are mixed. To make sense of the conflicting results, a meta-analysis was conducted in 2016 focusing on brain-training for working memory and whether it transfers over to other skills beyond the game itself. A meta-analysis takes the results from a number of studies and combines them using specific statistical methods. This means that a meta-analysis is more powerful and should produce more meaningful results than a single study. 

"There is no evidence that working memory training convincingly produces effects that generalize to important real-world cognitive skills."

This meta-analysis  combined 87 publications and 145 experiments  and found that working memory didn't transfer over to other skills beyond the game itself. They did find short-term improvements on both verbal and visuospatial working memory tasks that were very similar or identical to the tasks trained, but these improvements did not last. "Most seriously, however, there is no evidence that working memory training convincingly produces effects that generalize to important real-world cognitive skills (nonverbal ability, verbal ability, word decoding, reading comprehension, arithmetic) even when assessments take place immediately after training, especially when compared against a treated control group."

It's not just working memory skills that don't transfer to other contexts. This lack of transfer has been observed in many experiments. In 2010, an experiment where a number of tasks were trained showed that, although participants did improve on the tasks trained, the effects did not transfer over to untrained tasks, even tasks that were cognitively similar.

This online study tested 11,430 participants, who were divided into three groups - one group trained on six training tasks that emphasised reasoning, planning and problem-solving abilities; a second group trained on short-term memory, attention, visuospatial processing and mathematics tasks similar to those commonly found in commercially available brain training devices. There was also a control group that didn't train on these tasks but that answered questions. Before they started training, the participants were given four benchmarking tests: These were four neuropyschological tests sensitive to changes in cognitive function in health and disease. The benchmarking tests were repeated after the study ended six weeks later.

"What's important is not whether the participants improved on the tasks they trained, but whether the gains on these tasks transferred to other tasks."

Unsurprisingly, the participants who trained improved their performance on the trained tasks. However, what's important is not whether the participants improved on the tasks they trained, but whether the gains on these tasks transferred to the benchmarking tasks. In fact, all three groups improved on the benchmarking tasks, the two groups that trained and the control group that just answered questions! This is what psychologists call a practice effect: Everyone did better the second time that they took the benchmarking tests. 

The reason why the participants who trained didn't improve on the benchmarking tasks any more than the control participants may have been because the training tasks and the benchmarking tasks were too different. Perhaps the skills trained were not the same skills required to complete the benchmarking tasks.

A 2018 study sought to answer this question, choosing benchmarking tasks that required similar cognitive skills to the task the participants trained on. This study tested two groups of participants - one group trained on a token search task for 30 days and the other group didn't receive any cognitive training. The token search task is a short-term memory task and requires the participants to uncover tiles to reveal a token. The number of tiles increases as the game progresses. Participants have to remember which tiles they've already uncovered because there are penalties for uncovering the same tile more than once.

After 13 hours of training, the participants were tested on the digit span task, which required them to remember an ever increasing sequence of numbers, and the spatial span task, where participants had to remember the locations of an ever increasing sequence of flashing tiles. These tasks were selected because they're commonly used tasks that measure short-term memory and are sensitive to improvements in performance. 

To the researchers' surprise, although the participants did improve on the token search task over the 13 hours of training, they didn't improve on the digit span or spatial span tasks any more than the control group: The control group, the group that didn't train on the token search task, improved just as much as the group who had trained! Even more surprising was that the spatial span task was conceptually almost identical to the token search task in design and implementation and recruited the same cognitive mechanisms and brain structures, so the trained group should have improved more! But they didn't.

Does this mean that all brain training games are useless?

No it doesn't. Some brain-training games have been developed together with scientists. "Decoder" is one such game, developed with the University of Cambridge to train sustained attention. The game was put to the test in a 2019 research study where healthy young adults played the "Decoder" game for eight hours over a 4-week period. Compared to those who played bingo for the same amount of time or who didn’t play any game, the "Decoder" group improved their performance on a reliable and objective measure of sustained attention and they showed better attention shifting skills than either the bingo group or the control group. 

The researchers concluded that the "Decoder" game is an effective, medication-free way to enhance attention in healthy adults. They also suggested that the "Decoder" game may be effective for enhancing attention in clinical populations, such as those with ADHD and other neuropsychiatric disorders that show attention deficits. The "Decoder" game is available on iPad and iPhone through Peak - Brain Training.

"Certain kinds of video games may be advantageous for seniors."

And there is some evidence emerging that playing certain kinds of video games may be advantageous for seniors. In a 2013 study, seniors trained on a video game that required them to drive along winding roads. At the same time, they had to press a game controller whenever they saw a green sign on the roadside. This was called the multi-task group. A control group either drove along the road or monitored and responded to the green sign. This was called the single task group.

After 12 hours of training, the seniors in the multi-task group doubled their ability to shift attention between the road and the sign. In fact, after training, their ability was similar to that of 20 year olds, and the effects were still evident 6 months later. And their cognitive control and short-term memory had improved, most likely because of their increased ability to maintain attention in the face of distractions. In addition, they showed evidence of neuroplasticity in the form of enhanced brain waves (theta waves) that are known to reflect cognitive control. The single task groups didn't show any of these gains.

What's the bottom line?

The reason for playing brain training apps and games is to improve cognitive skills that are important for everyday functioning. While the skills trained through the brain training apps and games do improve, with few exceptions, the evidence does not support that these skills transfer to wider contexts where they would be useful. We would be better off learning a new complex skill or engaging in a new hobby - learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, learning to play chess - which recruit and train a wide variety of sub-skills. And even if they don't transfer to other contexts, they improve our lives in significant ways.


Anguera, J., Boccanfuso, J., Rintoul, J., Al-Hashimi, O., Faraji, F., Janowich, J., … Gazzaley, A. (2013). Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature,501(7465), 97. doi:10.1038/nature12486

Melby-Lervåg, M., Redick, T., & Hulme, C. (2016). Working Memory Training Does Not Improve Performance on Measures of Intelligence or Other Measures of “Far Transfer.” Perspectives on Psychological Science,11(4), 512–534. doi:10.1177/1745691616635612

Owen, A., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A., … Ballard, C. (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature465(7299), 775. doi:10.1038/nature09042

Savulich, G., Thorp, E., Piercy, T., Peterson, K., Pickard, J., & Sahakian, B. (2019). Improvements in Attention Following Cognitive Training With the Novel “Decoder” Game on an iPad. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience13, 2. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00002

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