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“Brain Training” Won’t Make You Smarter, Just Poorer

A superteam of scientists take on the self-help industry’s newest darling.

Photo by Lori Hurley via Flickr

Bad news for dimbulbs: A piece in Scientific American this morning highlights a statement from 70 leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists refuting the notion that “fluid intelligence”—our ability to solve novel problems through logic—can be improved with games or “brain training” exercises. These fad programs approach the mind like a muscle, and theorize that repeating individual cognitive activities will result in stronger function in the same way that physical exercise strengthens the body. Through companies like Lumosity and BrainHQ, Americans spent more than a billion dollars this year trying to beef up their brainpower, but the statement, issued by Stanford University and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development, makes a pretty strong case that trying to boost one’s IQ is a waste of time:

“The strong consensus of this group is that the scientific literature does not support claims that the use of software-based ‘brain games’ alters neural functioning in ways that improve general cognitive performance in everyday life, or prevent cognitive slowing and brain disease.”

While you might think this paper is just another example of greedy scientists trying to keep all of the smarts for themselves, brain training has become a serious industry and a darling concept of the self-help world, and the one study that forms the basis of the entire shebang, a 2008 article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was based on faulty methodology. Other scientists have also been unable to replicate the study’s results, despite repeated attempts. The good news is that one can always increase “crystallized intelligence,” (which accounts for the experience and knowledge we accumulate throughout our lives) by, you know, actually learning something: take a language class, play an instrument, read a book. Basically, we can install new mental software, but improving the underlying hardware is going to be a little more difficult than playing “smart” video games.

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