the limits of cognitive training

A new study published today in Nature by Adrian Owen and colleagues reports the results of a large-scale study done in conjunction with the BBC of the effects of video game playing on cognitive performance. More than 11000 people participated in the study online by playing video games (really, simple cognitive tasks common to commercial “brain training” software) for up to 30 minutes each week for 6 weeks. They completed a battery of standard cognitive tasks before and after the “training” sessions to test for generalized improvements. One group did tasks that emphasize reasoning, planning, and problem solving. Another trained on tasks that emphasized memory and attention. A control group searched online for the obscure answers to questions. The critical question: Would the training tasks have any benefits for cognitive performance on more standard measures? In more simple terms, this is akin to testing whether doing crossword puzzles helps keep your mind sharp.

The results of the study were largely consistent with an earlier clinical trial known as the ACTIVE study—In essence, doing a task repeatedly improves your ability to do the task, but it has little benefit for other aspects of real-world cognition. Owen and colleagues found the performance gains from doing the cognitive tasks were comparable to the gains from searching for trivia online, suggesting that the improvements from doing brain training tasks were minimal or non-existent for tasks other than the ones being trained. In other words, doing crossword puzzles makes you better at doing crossword puzzles, but it won’t help you better recall your friend’s name when you meet him on the street.

This online approach to studying the effects of cognitive training is inherently messy—subjects select themselves to be in the study, they participate only if they want to, there are high rates of attrition, and relatively little possibility for control. The study also tried to include all of the sorts of tasks used in commercial brain training programs, and as a result, it might not have represented any of them too well. It’s also possible that more extensive training would lead to bigger transfer from those simple tasks to more complex ones. A few studies have suggested that extensive training (e.g., 10 – 50 hours) on first-person shooter video games can produce some effects on cognitive performance not specifically trained in the game (e.g., Green & Bavelier, 2003), but other larger-scale studies haven’t replicated many of those improvements (Boot et al, 2008).

Overall, the results are consistent with the idea that brain training programs that offer up a quick fix for the limits on cognitive performance don’t live up to some of their more grandiose claims. It would be nice to think that we could overcome the effects of aging on cognition simply by playing games, but that’s an illusion of potential—we think there are hidden abilities that can be released with minimal effort, but that’s not how cognitive enhancement works. Instead, we can make huge improvements, but typically we improve only on the things we train. Consequently, the benefits of doing simple cognitive tasks for other aspects of everyday cognition are minimal. If you want to improve your ability to do crossword puzzles, then by all means do more crossword puzzles. Just don’t expect that keeping your mind active by doing puzzles will be of much help with any other aspect of cognition. If your goal is to improve your cognitive fitness more generally, you’d be far better off spending the same amount of time walking around the block instead of playing games (Hertzog et al, 2009).

A friendly chest thump to The Research Digest Blog whose post on this study appeared while I was writing this post.

Sources cited:

Owen, A. M., HAmpshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., Howard, R. J., & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test Nature : DOI:10.11038

Ball, K. (2002). Effects of Cognitive Training Interventions With Older Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 288 (18), 2271-2281 DOI: 10.1001/jama.288.18.2271

Green, C., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention Nature, 423 (6939), 534-537 DOI: 10.1038/nature01647

Boot WR, Kramer AF, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, & Gratton G (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta psychologica, 129 (3), 387-98 PMID: 18929349

Hertzog, C., Kramer, A. F., Wilson, R. S., & Lindeberger, U. (2009). Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development: Can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 1-65

8 comments to the limits of cognitive training

  • Note from Dan: There are many brain training programs like the one mentioned by Tanya Mitchell in her comment. Programs that train specific cognitive skills with the intent of improving those specific skills are not at issue. Nobody challenges the idea that you can get better at a task through practice.

    The issue is whether training of one skill can improve other skills or more general abilities. To my knowledge, there are no peer-reviewed, scientific publications that document improvements in IQ as a result of training basic cognitive tasks, unless they specifically train the IQ task itself (if they do that, they aren’t improving intelligence in general, just performance on that particular type of IQ task). In fact, there are few peer-reviewed, scientific studies showing much generalization simple cognitive tasks to real world performance. Most brain-training products and programs are not backed by peer-reviewed research (Posit Science might be one of the few exceptions), and claims that simple tasks generalize to real-world cognition are largely unsupported by science.

  • I think what we can learn from this study is that not all cognitive training or “brain training” gets results. But my company which does one on one personal brain training has substantial information including thousands of test results that show not only can you improve skills like memory, logic and processing speed, you can improve them significantly. Our latest study showed that we averaged a 14.9 point increase in IQ using the Woodcock Johnson Abilities Test. I agree that more research needs to be done, but why not choose a program that has gotten results for years with kids, adults, and TBI patients. If you want to make a drastic change to your physical muscles it requires intense physical exercise over a period of time (and not just 30 minutes a week) the same is true for the brain. To make a significant change the training needs to be intense and include significant time each week. To view some other studies on cognitive training please go to We also welcome researchers to not only study our results but use our programs as interventions in their studies.

  • I can’t concur more with this article. Many studies have established mind training do affect neuron development but it need to be stated that it’s not the end all be all answer.

  • I can’t agree more with this post. Various scientific studies have shown mind training do have an impact on neuron growth but it need to be noted that it is really not the end all be all treatment.

  • Your brain is debatably the most crucial organ in your body. Take excellent care of it by sticking to the fundamentals: devour much more veges, reduce your sugar consumption and exercise. Simple. That is what the most recent science reveals. No need for expensive supplements.

  • I could never get into aerobics, the repition and sweat and hard work. But there is nothing like the rush it gives you, whatever chemicals it releases in the body its like a drug.

  • Something I don’t find too surprising – though doing “brain games is no bad thing”.
    The simple rule applies though of “if you don’t use it you lose it” as we get older we tend to stick more with certain habits – so it’s habitual thinking which is the bigger problem. Breaking out of routines, keeping on meeting new people, starting new hobbies, mixing with a variety of people is what will keep the brain younger..combined with exercise and healthy food, of course!

  • Elaine Goldie

    These are really interesting findings: people seem to think they can ward off dementia by keeping the brain active- if that is truly the case then why are so many wonderfully educated and intelligent people stricken by the disease?