Brain games, we’ve been told, are a lot like exercise. You do them because you care about yourself, and want to invest in your body, and bask in the self-righteous glow of a better working memory and higher IQ. But do they actually work?
A new meta-analysis of 23 different studies about memory training is spurring the scientific community to question the very basis of the idea that memory games improve reasoning in everyone, from ADHD sufferers to the elderly. In the New Yorker, Gareth Cook explains:
The meta-analysis found that the training isn’t doing anyone much good. If anything, the scientific literature tends to overstate effects, because teams that find nothing tend not to publish their papers. (This is known as the “filedrawer” effect.) A null result from meta-analysis, published in a top journal, sends a shudder through the spine of all but the truest of believers.
No biggie–that’s what the scientific process is for, right? The problem is, brain training has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar industry. Companies like CogMed are selling the idea that their games can improve the mental agility of customers, including those with learning disabilities. That’s a morally ambiguous business model:
The responsibility is so heavy because the needs are so great. Many people who have suffered brain trauma are haunted by a feeling of diminishment and a frustration that they can’t do more to help themselves. There are millions of children with learning disabilities who feel lost and ashamed. And then there are all the seniors who struggle with mental dissipation. These are the customers.
These new studies show that brain training does help you improve on certain skills, so there’s nothing wrong with playing brain games. Selling them as a miracle cure for damaged or disabled brains? That’s more problematic.