Do Brainpower Apps Really Make You Smarter?

Cognitive fitness software companies like Fit Brains and Lumosity are booming businesses. But whether brain games are the remedy for mental dullness and even disease, or mere digital snake oil, is hotly debated.

Last week, on a quiet train ride home from work, I found myself in an odd predicament: I couldn't find my duck.

After a few seconds, my brain lapse subsided, and I found the duck, sandwiched near the left corner between the silhouettes of a rocking chair and a power drill. By that point though, the damage had already been done--I clearly wasn't going to beat my high score.

Shadow Shapes is a game that's part of a larger suite of brain-training exercises in a popular application called Fit Brains Trainer, which was acquired by Rosetta Stone back in December for $12 million. In recent months, the free trial version has spread to iPhones everywhere, becoming a fixture at the top of the App Store's charts. Along with Lumosity and CogniFit, Fit Brains Trainer is one of the key players in the market for cognitive-training platforms ostensibly designed to keep your mind sharp.

Business is booming, too: One study by SharpBrains, a research firm that tracks the burgeoning industry, estimates that annual revenues in the brain-health software market grew from $295 million in 2009 to $480 million in 2012. The pitch of these applications--and boy, is it a pitch--is that mentally taxing your noggin for 15 minutes a day, five days a week, will keep your mind's cogs well lubricated, and can improve working memory, rebuild concentration, and perhaps even slow the onset of feared neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.

Fit Brains's games, which target players ranging from ages 17 to 88, are simple enough. In varying degrees of difficulty, you solve puzzles, identify matching polygons, complete number patterns, and count paint drops falling through a bucket. These games are purportedly designed to target several key brain areas, including something psychologists refer to as "fluid intelligence," or the part of the mind we once used to remember things such as phone numbers--a task that, like many today, we outsource to our smartphone. If the brain is like a muscle, the thinking goes, these cognitive trainers are like exercise, except instead of grunting through crunches, you're crunching through positive integers.

"Our approach is to get people doing brain fitness," Michael Cole, founder and CEO of Vivity Labs, the company behind Fit Brains, told Fast Company. "We want to get it integrated into their daily life, and get them training on a regular basis."

For the last month, I have been playing Fit Brains challenges on my phone, with the not-so-secret hope of eliminating those aforementioned brain farts from my daily life. Ideally, this would make it easier to quickly recall vital and useful information like how much tip to leave on a bill, or where the hell I left my keys this time.

Most brain-training software is predicated on the research of at least one in-house neuroscientist. In the case of Fit Brains, that specialist is Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist with more than 25 years experience caring for people suffering from dementia, head injury, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. (He couldn't be reached for an interview.) "A brain that is dynamic and malleable can be shaped towards health," wrote Nussbaum in a 2011 article for the Journal of the American Society on Aging:

When the brain is engaged with stimuli that are novel and complex, the cortex is called upon the process at a deeper level relative to over learned information, and this is potentially a critical factor in development of brain reserve. An example of an activity that is novel and complex is one in which a person has little ability, minimal or no experience with the task, and will feel uncomfortable trying to complete it.

Much like treadmills or hot yoga, the notion of discomfort is what's at the heart of Fit Brains and other cognitive workouts; you would be forgiven if you found the task of counting pixelated coins to determine a pile's monetary value to not be very fun. Indeed, it highlights the real incentive behind cognitive training software, which taps into the very reasonable fear that we're all getting older and dumber every day.

And yet, there is a vocal group of psychologists who hold that brain-training apps are today's equivalent of digital snake oil, unfairly capitalizing on our own fragile mortality.

An article called "Brain Games Are Bogus," published last year on The New Yorker's website, documented several recent developments, including a team of scientists from Georgia Tech who found a number of methodological problems with the experiments many of these training applications were founded on. Their findings suggested the current research supporting the brain-app economy is flimsy at best, and dangerous at worst. "If you are doing brain training for 10 hours a week, that is 10 hours a week you are not doing something else, like exercising, Zach Hambrick, an associate professor of psychology who worked on the Georgia Tech study, told The New Yorker. "It also gives people false hope, especially older adults for whom this is a big concern."

The reality, though, is likely more nuanced and complicated than a firm "yes" or "no." The most recent evidence in favor of brain training comes from science journalist Dan Hurley, who interviewed hundreds of researchers in the field for his book, Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power. At first, he was deeply skeptical of cognitive training as a way to improve memory. But after roughly 200 interviews with experts (many of whom believed that improving fluid intelligence was feasible) and visits to labs around the country, he changed his mind. "There is no question that training causes structural and functional improvement in the brain, as seen on MRI," Hurley told Scientific American in a recent interview. "The Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force, the Marines and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IAPRA) wouldn’t be funding this stuff if it were make-believe." He continues:

The legitimate questions that need to be answered are: Which methods work best? How long do you have to do them? Who benefits? Should the methods be combined? As with any new area of medical research, larger and longer studies are needed to clarify uncertainties.

What cognitive training pretty clearly won't provide is a silver bullet to fight off brain decay. A healthy social life certainly wouldn't hurt, and neither would an appreciation for a good book. Even Hurley admits that "physical exercise is perhaps the best-proved method for improving cognitive function in older people."

What brain games might contribute is an elusive puzzle piece in a holistic portrait of brain health--and that alone might make them worth pursuing. One of the fundamental challenges for the industry going forward will be identifying and further refining which mental exercises actually produce results, and disposing with what can be deemed ineffective. "Now, it's how well does it work and for what audience," Cole tells me. "What kind of training needs to be done? Where are we at right now?"

The other, often overlooked challenge will be making brain games just that: games. In the last several weeks, I learned firsthand that Fit Brains's workouts were workouts more than anything else--and working out requires characteristics like self-discipline and motivation. Father Time sneaks up on all of us, but after a few weeks of counting pizzas and coffee cups on a tiny screen, what's to stop someone from allocating their precious free time to more mindless pleasures, like Candy Crush Saga? Or Keeping Up With the Kardashians? Business may be booming now, but the attention economy is swift and unforgiving.

At the end of my month with Fit Brains, my mind didn't feel notably sharper or more alert. But that may have been my own undoing: Admittedly, I often felt the games too mentally draining to get through after a long day at the office. On my subway ride home, as everyone around me was staring off blankly into space, it was difficult to commit more than a few minutes to basic arithmetic or reconfiguring polygons in my mind's eye with anything close to the requisite effort to see improvement. So, more often than not, I'd take a breath, close the app, and tap on something stupid and fun, like Flappy Bird.

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  • Really interesting article, i've been doing these "brain games" for over 2 months. I've no idea if they work, but something keeps me going sometime I mumble to myself "knowlege is power..." I would like to get smarter and I see these as a tool to acomplise that, even if they don't work. Of course you should't devote all your time to them, but a few minutes everyday. I think reading a book on a non-fiction subject is properly better, but that's just my opinion... I've no idea what my mening or objectiv with this comment is.. I need sleep... I'll play some Clock Brain before going to bed :/ Thanks for reading my dear fellow human, or alien :O.. Dan Dan Daaaan!