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.
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