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Do brain games really work?

YOU’VE probably seen ads for apps promising to make you smarter in just a few minutes a day. Hundreds of so-called “brain training” pro-grams can be purchased for download. These simple games are designed to challenge mental abilities, with the ultimate goal of improving the performance of important everyday tasks.
But can just clicking away at animations of swimming fish or flashed streets signs on your phone really help you improve the way your brain functions?
Two large groups of scientists and mental health practitioners published consensus statements, months apart in 2014, on the effectiveness of these kinds of brain games. Both included people with years of research experience and expertise in cognition, learning, skill acquisition, neuroscience and dementia. Both groups carefully con-sidered the same body of evidence available at the time.
Yet, they issued exactly opposite statements. One concluded that “there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.”
The other argued that “a substantial and growing body of evidence shows that certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.”
These two competing contradictory statements highlight a deep disagreement among experts, and a fundamental dispute over what counts as convincing evidence for something to be true. Then, in 2016, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission entered into the fray with a series of rulings, including a US$50 million judgment (later reduced to $2 million) against one of the most heavily advertised brain training packages on the market. The FTC concluded that Lumos Labs’ advertisements – touting the ability of its Lumosity brain training pro-gram to improve consumers’ cognition, boost their performance at school and work, protect them against Alzheimer’s disease and help treat symptoms of ADHD – were not grounded in evidence.
In light of conflicting claims and scientific statements, advertisements and government rulings, what are consumers supposed to believe? Is it worth your time and money to invest in brain training? What types of benefits, if any, can you expect? Or would your time be better spent doing something else?
I’m a cognitive scientist and member of Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity. I have studied cognition, human performance and the effects of different types of training for nearly two decades.