Brain Games

Last month Cyrus Foroughi and colleagues at George Mason University published a small but provocative study, “Placebo effects in cognitive training”. The basic experiment tested the effects of “cognitive training” on “fluid intelligence’. This is, of course, “brain training”, which is a multi-milliion dollar industry, and claims to have scientific support.

The manipulation Foroughi et al did was to use different recruitment materials, which deliberately manipulated placebo effects by attracting believers. The idea is that if you strongly believe that the “brain training” will work, than there sill be at least temporary gains, simply from this belief. If the materials promise results, and attract people who believe in the promise, then this might have a major effect on the observed studies.

The results show that simply by using alternative advertising flyers, a short term effect can be seen. So, the people who responded to a flyer about “brain training”, with the assertion that studies have shown that this works, showed improved intelligence scores after training. Other people who responded to a neutral advertisement showed no gains from the same training.

Uh oh! It only works if you tell them confidently that it will work. A classic placebo effect.

The authors note that the published literature does not control for this potential effect, and generally does not report how subjects were recruited. This calls into question how much, if any, o the reported gains in “fluid intelligence” should be attributed to the training, and how much to expectations and selective recruitment.

This study gathered some buzz, as it is (quite rightly) seen as a serious challenge to the claims of the “brain training” industry.

I’m not too surprised by this finding, or by the strong probability that cognitive training is mostly bogus. Anyone who has tried to do experimental social psychology knows how tricky and pervasive placebo effects are. Any study that doesn’t take care will have serious problems.

In any case, I don’t really think that anyone knows much about “intelligence”, “fluid” or otherwise. And we certainly don’t have any detailed understanding of how “cognition” works in the brain. Any advertisements talking about about “brain training”  or “brain health” are obviously bogus on their face.

Do cognitive activities improve cognitive abilities? Sure. It’s called “practice” and “learning” and so on.

Are there magical games you can play for a few minutes that will change general cognitive abilities for long periods of time? I doubt it.

In particular, I’m very skeptical that little games on the web or a mobile device will have deep effects on your “intelligence”. Of course, spending lots of time with a screen can have significant effects on vision, attention, and social life among other things.  So if there are cognitive gains (which I doubt), they should be considered against the potential damage that computer use may be causing.

  1. Cyrus K. Foroughi,, Samuel S. Monfort, Martin Paczynski, Patrick E. McKnight, and P. M. Greenwood, Placebo effects in cognitive training. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113 (27):7470-7474, July 5, 2016 2016.

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