Brain training programs have been gaining popularity in recent years. These programs and apps run users through a gamut of games that test memory, attention, speed, and other cognitive skills. Companies in this field claim that not only do these cognitive skills improve on tasks in the games themselves, they also transfer to activities outside the game. But with a lawsuit against leading brain training company Lumosity comes the question: do the skills gained in brain training programs actually transfer to everyday life?

The authors of a recent literature review tackled this question by examining over 130 papers on brain training in addition to studies cited on websites of leading companies in the field. They looked at how cognitive skills improved in three different areas: in the game itself, in closely related tasks such as other cognitive skill games, and in distantly related tasks such as everyday living.

The authors found that while cognitive skills improve within the context of the game, there is less evidence that these skills improve in closely related tasks and virtually no reliable evidence showing that these skills transfer to everyday activities. In other words, while users’ memory tends to improve in relation to the memory games in the program, there is no evidence that their memory improves outside the game in regular living.

Yet, brain training programs often claim that these in-game cognitive skills do transfer to everyday life. The authors explain, however, that the studies brain training companies cite to back this claim are usually inadequate. For example, many studies don’t test real everyday activities (opting instead for laboratory tasks), and others don’t sample a group representative of their client base.

While brain training games can still be fun, this study demonstrates why users should be cautious of any miracle drug claims. Users’ speed and attention might improve in the game itself, but they shouldn’t expect to see significant increases in these skills in other areas, such as driving. This study does not warn people not to use these programs, but it does suggest researchers conduct more rigorous studies before touting the benefits of brain training programs.

Simons, D. J., Boot., W. R., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2016). Do "brain-training" programs work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186.

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