Brain and Body

Brain-Training Games May Be Nothing More Than a Placebo, Meta-Analysis Argues

June 22, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Sudoku puzzle, brain teaser, brain exercise
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If you’re told you’re going to perform better after playing them, you probably will.

Most brain-training games at least claim to have some scientific backing, but a new meta-analysis study argues that the improvements seen from these games may be nothing more than the placebo effect at play.

Basically, study participants who are told they’ll gain cognitive benefits from playing “scientifically-proven” brain-training programs actually do end up performing better.

In the study, which has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cognitive scientists from George Mason University rounded up 50 study participants — 25 were recruited by a flyer that described the study as “Brain training and cognitive enhancement,” while the other flyer simply pitched the study as a way for students to earn course credits. Further, the suggestive flyer also promised that “numerous studies have shown working memory training can increase fluid intelligence."


Brain study recruitment poster


Credit: FOROOGHI ET AL., PNAS, 2016. DOI: 10.1073/PNAS.1601243113


All participants were given a standardized test for fluid intelligence, which is the general ability to think abstractly, reason, solve problems, and identify patterns.

Then, the participants engaged in an hour of cognitive brain training, and took the same intelligence test. The results showed that the students who were recruited with the suggestive flyer experienced an increase equal to between five and 10 IQ points in the intelligence test. Those who answered to the regular flyer showed no benefits.

“It's strong evidence that it wasn't really a true training effect,” study author Cyrus Foroughi told Cosmos.

SEE ALSO: Mindful Meditation Trumps Painkilling Placebo, Study Finds

The researchers also looked at 19 past studies which explored the effectiveness of brain-training tests. They found that 17 of them used suggestive language similar to that of their first flyer that promised a science-backed intelligence boost. Because of this, the researchers argue that the placebo effect needs to be taken into account for future recruitment processes and study designs.

“If you do find a way to actually increase intelligence, it's a fantastic finding,” Foroughi says. “I just don't think the science is quite there yet.”

In the study discussion, the authors argue that they’ve provided “strong evidence that placebo effects from overt and suggestive recruitment can affect cognitive training outcomes.”

“The brain-training industry may be advised to temper their claims until the role of placebo effects is better understood,” the authors conclude. “Many commercial brain-training websites make explicit claims about the effectiveness of their training that are not currently supported by many in the scientific community.”

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