So-called brain-training tools seem to have exploded in the last few years; one estimate puts it at a $6 billion market by 2020. It’s clearly become a major industry, but what’s less clear is exactly what it does, and if it even works. The typical procedure seems to be to engage in short games, puzzles and working-memory-type tasks, and these are supposed to produce long term changes in attention, engagement and general fluid intelligence.
Whether this is actually true or not is a matter of some debate. I’m not a specialist in this area, but the received wisdom appears to be that training on specific tasks does improve performance – on those tasks. There seems to be little generalisation to other tasks, and even less to domain-general abilities like executive processing, or working memory. A high-profile study by Adrian Owen and colleagues (2010) reported exactly that – benefits in the tasks themselves, but little (if any) general benefits. A previous study from PNAS in 2008 does seem to contradict this, and reports an increase in fluid intelligence as a result of working-memory training – not only that, but they claim a dose-dependent effect, that is, more training = more increase in intelligence. The gains in that study were relatively small, and it should be also noted that the control group also apparently increased their intelligence somewhat over the same period as the experimental group – curious. There are lots of other studies around, but many have issues; small samples, poorly-controlled etc. etc.
So, the jury’s still very much out (though personally, I’m on the side of the skeptics on the issue). This hasn’t stopped a bewildering array of businesses starting up, making all kinds of wild claims, and playing on the fears of educators and parents that perhaps if they don’t provide these kinds of programs, their kids will be slipping behind the rest. All these companies have glossy, highly-polished, ethnically-balanced websites with testimonials, and lots of links to science-y looking videos that present their program as the only scientifically-proven method of increasing your child’s intelligence. A brief browse through some of these companies websites reveals that they range from the absurd (QDreams! Success at the speed of thought!) to the very, very slick indeed (e.g. Lumosity). Other examples are Cogmed (seems to be backed by Pearson publishers and, to its credit, links to a list of semi-relevant research papers), and the very simplistic PowerBrain Education – which seems to involve getting kids to do some odd-looking arm-shaking exercises. There’s literally hundreds of these companies. Some of them even seem to cater to businesses who want their employees to do these ‘exercises’.
LearningRX definitely falls into the slick category. According to this New York Times article it has 83 physical store-front franchises across the USA, where people can come to pay $80-90 an hour for one-on-one training, and they market this to parents as an alternative to traditional tutoring. A quick glance at their Scientific Advisory Board is pretty revealing – I count only one (clinical) psychologist, and a grab-bag of other professionals – mostly teachers (qualified to Masters level) with an optometrist, a chemical engineer and an audiologist. Not a single neuroscientist, and only a few qualified at doctorate level.
I’m not trying to be unnecessarily snobby about their qualifications here, I’m suggesting that the claims they make for their brain-training programs (literally: it will change your child’s life) are big ones, and we might expect that the people who developed it might be qualified in some area of brain-science. If it really, clearly worked, then of course it wouldn’t matter exactly who developed it, and what their qualifications were, but there’s definitely reasonable doubt (if not outright disbelief) over its effectiveness.
And this is the important point. People are spending money on this – big money. Whether that’s a hard-pressed family struggling to find an extra $90 a week for their kid to have a session at one of LearningRX’s centres, or an education board deciding to institute one of these programs in its schools. Education budgets are tight enough, but these kinds of programs are being heavily invested in, and I can see why – they promise to make kids smarter, better-behaved, more attentive, and all you have to do is sit them in front of a special computer game for an hour a week. That must seem like a pretty attractive proposition for teachers. Unfortunately, if they really don’t work, then that money could be better spent on books, or musical instruments, or something else which might genuinely enrich the kids’ lives.
There’s a long and venerable history of unscrupulous people making money from pseudo-neuroscience – back in the 19th Century phrenology was described as “The science of picking someone’s pocket, through their skull.” I’d like to believe that some of these companies have a solid product that actually made a difference, but they all seem to have the whiff of snake-oil about them. For now I’m very much of the opinion that you’d probably be better off learning the piano, or Japanese, or even playing the latest Call of Duty. If you were really ambitious you could even try and get your kid to (Heaven forfend!) read the odd book now and again.
I put that last sentence that mentions Call of Duty in there as a bit of flippancy, but I’ve since been informed (by Micah Allen on Twitter) of some evidence that playing action video games can indeed improve some cognitive processes such as the accuracy of visuo-spatial attention and reaction times. These results mostly originate from a single lab and so are in need of replication, but still – interesting. (I still reckon you’re probably better off with a good book though.)