We've all seen the ads, banners, commercials and books hyping the benefits of "brain training," offering games and puzzles that promise to keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age. Diseases such as dementia are terrifying, and millions of people do their best to stave it off though online games, crossword puzzles and so on.
As a recent Scientific American column noted, "cognitive training - better known as ‘brain training' - is one of the hottest new trends in self improvement. Lumosity, which offers web-based tasks designed to improve cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, boasts 50 million subscribers and advertises on National Public Radio. Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,' and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.'" It all sounds very impressive and scientific.
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While it's important to stay both mentally and physically active in our later years, there's little evidence that most of the commercially-sold brain enhancement methods or pills do any good. In fact the scientific community pours cold water on these fanciful myths.
In late October the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world's leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to examine these brain games and programs. It then issued a statement that read in part:
Computer-based "brain-games" claim a growing share of the marketplace in aging societies. Consumers are told that playing the games will make them smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster and better. The implied and often explicit promise is that adherence to prescribed regimens of cognitive exercise will reduce and potentially reverse creeping cognitive slowing and forgetfulness, improve everyday functioning, and help to prevent Alzheimer's disease. ... Advertisements also assure consumers that claims and promises are based on solid scientific evidence, as the games are "designed by neuroscientists" at top universities and research centers.
We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.
Working the Brain Gym Though many of the "brain training" programs and commercials target older people, some are also marketed for children. One of the first and best-known commercially sold brain workout programs is called the Brain Gym. It was created in the 1970s and is marketed worldwide, used as a teaching program in Canada and the United States, in British state schools and elsewhere.
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However the Brain Gym's theoretical basis has been researched and fully discredited. There's simply no evidence that the Brain Gym works - nor that it even could work. Dr. Ben Goldacre, the "Bad Science" columnist for "The Guardian" has long been a vocal critic of the Brain Gym, referring to it as "transparent pseudoscientific nonsense" with "a scientific explanatory framework that is barkingly out to lunch."
When challenged to provide any scientific evidence that the Brain Gym works, creator Paul Dennison admitted in an April 2008 interview on the British news program "Newsnight" that he's not medically qualified and that many of Brain Gym's ideas are unproven and based on his "hunches."
The panel of scientists at the Max Planck Institute note that there is no specific harm in playing these so-called "brain games" -- other than some modest financial loss and raising false hopes -- but that "we also need to keep in mind opportunity costs. Time spent playing the games is time not spent reading, socializing, gardening, exercising, or engaging in many other activities that may benefit cognitive and physical health of older adults."