Brain Training

Chances are you’ve seen at least one online ad promoting brain training services like those from Lumosity or NeuroNation, even on this website*. These services claim their barrage of cognitive tests and training programs enhance what they call “fluid intelligence”, sharpens the aging mind, and even overcome serious brain impairments like those following chemotherapy or trauma. This billion-dollar industry, however, is based on highly glamorized studies which can only be classed as poor science, an Ars Technica review suggests.

Beth Mole from Ars Technica links to a recently published study by a team from George Mason University. The psychologists posted two very similar ads for students on campus, but with two different calls to actions. One invited students to participate in a “Brain Training & Cognitive Enhancement” program, alluding from the get-go that their intelligence can be improved. The other ad promised students “SONA credits”, but didn’t elaborate further as to the objective of the study.

Credit: PNAS

The first ad was used because that’s how virtually all of the studies which claim brain training can increase IQ have recruited their students. The second poster acted as the control. “We designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect via overt recruitment in an effort to evaluate the role of placebo effects in fluid intelligence gains from cognitive training,” the authors wrote in the journal PNAS. “Indeed, to our knowledge, the rigor of double-blind randomized clinical trials is nonexistent in this research area,” they added.

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The two types of intelligence

Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is defined as the ability to use learned knowledge and experience.

With these posters, the researchers enlisted two groups made of 25 students each. All 50 students were first given a test meant to gauge their fluid intelligence, after which they were allowed to play a game training game for one hour, then tested again.

After just one hour of training, the participants recruited with the brain power poster scored better on the fluid intelligence test with improvements equivalent to five to ten IQ points. Again, that’s in an hour! The control group saw no such improvement.

Clearly, what we’re seeing is a placebo effect. Yes, placebos work for intelligence as well especially in a society where people don’t feel at all confident about their own intellectual abilities. If you tell yourself you’re smarter, you might actually act smarter. The authors conclude that this recruitment method used by studies in this line of research in the past created self-selected groups which believed and expected brain training will enhance their intelligence before even setting foot in the lab.

To their credit, services like Lumosity can help boost fluid intelligence, but not in the way most think. From the looks of it, you could get the same cognitive benefits as a sugar pill that’s marketed as a “brain power to the max”. There wouldn’t be any difference. If there is, we’d need to these services to show us some credible, double-blind, controlled studies. For now, the only respectable study suggests brain training is bogus.


*ZME Science apologizes for the occasional sub-par quality of our advertising. We use third party ad networks which serve ads based on your location and interests — that’s literally thousands of services. If you come across a misleading ad, please e-mail us and we’ll remove it at once from our ad server!