Which Way to the Brain Gym?
Intelligence is classically thought of as an immutable characteristic of each individual, pre-determined by genetics and permanent for a person’s entire life. But what if this is not true? It is an appealing idea to think that somehow, one can voluntarily, and naturally, boost his or her level of cognitive performance. Research has already shown that the brain is more plastic than originally thought. Parts of the hippocampus, a subcortical brain structure implicated in tasks of memory and other cognitive control functions, as well as the olfactory bulb (smell center) have been shown to generate new neurons after initial neurogenesis in the mammalian brain. These findings play into the idea that there is a way to somehow become smarter, even though you aren’t necessarily born with such cognitive gifts.
There are now apps and other computer programs that claim to improve brain function with excessive use. One of the bigger names in this field, Lumosity, runs advertisements that their brain-training program is backed by research and is “based on neuroscience.” The purpose here is not to discredit such apps like Lumosity and Brain Fit, but to take a closer look at the legitimacy of these claims of cognitive improvement, examine some actual research being done, and encourage a critical approach to a topic that popular culture REALLY wants to be true.
In the September 5th issue of Nature the cover reads “Game Changer: Video gaming enhances cognitive skills that decline with age.” The headline is in reference to a paper published by a group of researchers out of the University of California, San Francisco. Led by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the team developed a video game targeted at training multitasking ability and cognitive control. The game, called NeuroRacer, was used to compare performance levels of older adults between ages 60 and 80 to 20 year olds. Under the general assumption that multitasking ability declines with age, the group found that training with NeuroRacer resulted in the older adults becoming more proficient at the game than untrained adults in their 20s. The more meaningful finding though, is that after training the older adults performed better at attention and memory tasks separate from the game. Also, these effects lasted for six months. They further backed their findings with electroencephalography (EEG) data examining the theta wave activity in both young and old adult brains. Theta is a low-frequency brain wave often linked to attention. After training with NeuroRacer the theta activity of older adults increased, resembling the level of theta activity normally seen in people in their 20s. These findings indicate the potential for an increase in cognitive function with the appropriate training and have implications for those affected by neurodegenerative diseases, as well as general cognitive decline with age.
Gazzaley’s study initially seems straightforward, but can we accept a conclusion with such profound implications that easily? Daniel Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, says no. In a review of Gazzaley’s paper on his blog, Simons raises 19 questions he has that are critical of conclusions drawn by this video game study. Out of these 19 critiques, one that I find concerning is that the study fails to prove that the older subjects improved their general multitasking ability compared to that of a 20 year old. Yes, the study finds that older subjects improved markedly on performance in the multitasking video game compared to younger subjects, but in terms of transfer to multitasking outside the game there is no evidence. Studies aimed at proving real world application to these brain games must provide evidence that training transfers to activity outside the training games. Yes, of course you get better at a game you play over and over again, but the more important question is whether or not you improve at unrelated tasks outside of training.
Simons also notes issues with small sample size and the failure to account for a subject’s predisposition to video gaming, among other critiques. One last issue that I think is worth mentioning is the study’s central assumption that multitasking ability decreases with age. They came to this conclusion by testing subjects across all different ages on a diagnostic version of NeuroRacer. The problem is that a 70 year old and a 20 year old have lived in different times and grown up in different environments. In the present day youth are exposed to much more simultaneous activity from a younger age, with all the new technology that is constantly in your face. The linear relationship that is found between multitasking ability and age is not that simple. Even though much more challenging, it would be necessary to test one individual on multitasking performance at different times throughout life to get a better sense of this idea. This critique is not devastating to the study but is something else to think about when drawing your own conclusions.
Dr. Gazzaley’s findings are certainly captivating and have large implications that the media continues to pay close attention to. This study is only a recent piece of a much more extensive literature on brain fitness and transfer effects. Other researchers have focused on working memory training and its effects on memory, attention, and cognitive control. It would be great for everyone if our intelligence turned out to be more plastic than originally thought. But this has not been definitively proven yet. Research trying to show this effect must be done carefully and correctly. The appropriate use of control groups, as well as tests showing transfer effects to real world applications are imperative to these studies. The placebo effect must also be accounted for if subjects are to actually perform better, and not just think they are. Lumosity and other brain fitness games may have some real use, but after taking the current research into account, it is still necessary to be critical of the many cognitive training and “brain gym” products out there.
Check out the Lumosity commercial here:
J. Daniel Bireley
Sanes, Dan H., William Anthony Harris, and Thomas A. Reh. Development of the Nervous System. Third ed. Amsterdam [u.a.: Elsevier, Academic, 2012. Print.