Bad News on Brain Training- it doesn’t work (but check out things that do)

(Music: Dave Brubeck; Yann Tiersen)

Brain Training doesn’t work…

The search is on for the brain training shortcut allowing you to perform better, stronger, faster, and for longer. We’d all like a shortcut to help us function better: one that quickly overcomes fatigue, boosts our overall performance, one that enhances learning and memory. For most of us, that tends to be a cup of coffee or tea: both give you a rapid, if short-lived, boost. For some, however – the foolish, the willfully-uninformed, the snake-oil purveyors - the way forward is the new smart pill (nootropic), or the new brain training game or even, perhaps, a brain stimulation device. They eye these treatments as potential shortcuts with the hope that these will ‘train the brain’ to perform more effectively.


There is good news and bad news on the brain training front. First, the bad news: the evidence is in and the evidence is clear – the much-touted shortcuts of pills, apps and brain stimulation don’t boost cognition in meaningful, specific and predictable ways. There is no good body of evidence for general improvements in cognition from these interventions.

Smart Pills: There is huge media and other interest in cognitive-enhancing drugs – sometimes called smart pills. A few minutes searching on the internet will uncover stories of students and others using modafinil and some other compounds to enhance their own cognitive function. And coffee drinkers have felt the boost you get from a dose of caffeine – you become more alert, more focused, less fatigued – at least for a while. And certainly, you perform complex tasks better when you’re alert, compared to when you’re fatigued – but the correct way to think about this is comparing the effect of caffeine to when you’re well-rested, after a good night’s sleep. Smart pills don’t work – really, they don’t – not in any meaningful, long-term way. They may well help you fight fatigue, staving off sleep for a while. Users of smart pills confuse wakefulness-promotion and cognitive enhancement; not feeling sleepy because you’ve stayed up all night is not the same as improving cognition when you’re not fatigued. Smart pills are not a shortcut.

And brain training games? These offer the hope that an app delivered to your phone or tablet will generally boost cognition, and do so in an enduring way. Sadly, playing lots of brain training games ensures you’ll be better at playing brain training games. There is no good body of evidence showing that brain training games improve cognition generally. A systematic review of the evidence concludes: ‘…brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance’ (italics added for emphasis: this is the goal of brain training - to give a general boost to your cognition across all domains from attention to memory to language to spatial skills to numerical reasoning to everything else). In other words, these interventions, to date, cannot be shown to have any meaningful effects; of course, this is not to say that brain training cannot, in principle, work. But the evidence so far is against brain training actually working.

Brain Stimulation Devices: Another proposed shortcut – and a potentially dangerous one – is the use of electrical stimulation devices to try and improve cognition. Here, people attach battery-powered devices to their skulls in the hope of ‘improving’ the functioning of the brain. These devices do not work. In somewhat gruesome experiments conducted on a human cadaver, the neuroscientist Gyuri Buzsáki and his group at New York University show that, at even at the highest levels of electrical stimulation that these devices generate, there is little electrical effect in the brain of electrical stimulation. The scalp, the fatty deposits below the scalp, the thick, bony skull, and layers of tissue and muscle and sinew and blood are too great a collective barrier for simple, battery-powered electrical stimulation to ensure stimulation in the brain. You might burn your scalp, though, and you may give yourself a serious muscle-tension-induced headache. And hooking yourself up to the mains to get a greater level of stimulation? Anyone doing that is a good candidate for a Darwin Award.

Combining brain training and brain stimulation: A reasonable argument might be that these interventions need to be combined - that the effects of each alone are too weak or subtle to be detected. Very well, then, what happens when you combine brain training and brain stimulation? Nothing very much, it appears: in a registered report (one of the best ways of not fooling yourself into seeing something that isn’t there), the evidence is ‘against benefits from cognitive training and transcranial direct current stimulation in healthy older adults’. Just go for regular long walks instead - physical activity actually benefits the brain and body in specific, measurable ways!

The assumption underlying these treatments is that stimulating the brain is itself is a good thing – that pushing the brain into an enduring state of ‘uptime’ is somehow good for your functioning. And, of course, it isn’t. The brain needs regular downtime as well as uptime to function effectively: rest is an utterly essential, necessary and substantial portion of any recipe to ensure productive living.

… But there is good news: here are a few things that do work

And the good news? There is a ‘brain training’ route that demonstrably works, but it is an indirect one, and it is one we can all avail of. There are proven methods of enhancing brain function that relieve fatigue, boost our overall performance, and enhance learning and memory. They do take time, but are risk-free, and work easily with the natural grooves of our brains and bodies. These methods improve brain function; are safe, reliable and easy to administer; they come without downsides or, as the pharmacologists say, without ‘unexpected adverse events’. They provide provides the rhythmic downtime the brain and body alike adore and need. They improve mind and body when taken in regular doses. The simplest and proven methods to improve your performance, to enhance how you feel, to augment your memory, to improve your reaction times, to slow down dramatically the process of brain and muscle aging, to build resilience, even to control your weight, are available to us all. These shortcuts are not pills; they are not delivered by your smartphone, tablet or computer screen. They are shortcuts all too easily and unfortunately overlooked at any age. Some even promise and deliver an endless supply of unique and uplifting experiences. But the key message is that they do this wonderful work obliquely and indirectly – and it might even take you a while to notice their effects.

So, what are the better shortcuts – or more correctly – oblique-cuts? We all know them, even if we deny ourselves them: they are straightforward.

Lots of regular, consistent, sleep (sleep is required for the long-term consolidation of learning and memory, mood regulation, sluicing out the junk that builds up in the brain during the course of the day, and a zillion other things);

A good diet (for all the obvious reasons);

A good education using principles derived from the science of learning and memory (such as ‘distributed practice’ - where you do a little practice often, rather than a lot in one go, combined with regular testing), extended over a period of years to shape our amazing brains (and not stuff such as ‘learning styles’, which has no meaningful empirical basis in what we know of either the psychology or neuroscience of learning and memory - I’ll come back to learning styles in the future)

Lots of regular physical activity – emphasising aerobic fitness and strength training, preferably while being exposed to nature.

In future newsletters, I will explore each of these in more detail – probably by occasionally doing ‘themed months’ – one month devoted to learning, another to sleep, another to physical activity and so on. I’ll also do some neuromyth-busting at some point.

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Dave Brubeck Quartet - ‘Blue Rondo à la Turk’

Yann Tiersen - ‘Porz Goret’