Are brain training apps BS?

Grace Sweeney


We’ve all seen a million TV commercials by companies like Lumosity that try to sell us on the idea that paying for online games is a worthwhile investment, akin to getting a personal trainer for your brain.

But those brain fitness claims were too good to be true. In 2016, Lumos Labs, creator of Lumosity, was ordered to pay a hefty fine to the FTC for false advertising. And a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that brain-training programs had no real effect on cognitive performance.

Which brings us to the question—are all of these apps and games a load of BS? Is the idea of brain training a scam?

A closer look at brain training apps

What are the claims?

Lumosity App

The most common benefits you’ll see with brain training apps like Lumosity, BrainHQ, Elevate, and other is that they aim to boost your working memory, ability to make decisions, and process information.

The thing is, neuroscience has the ability to observe and test these claims. So, if there are benefits associated with these apps, they should be easy to observe, right?

Unfortunately, several studies have found that there’s no concrete evidence that brain training has any meaningful effect on brain activity or cognitive function.

This 2017 study of 128 young adults tracked brain activity over 10 weeks and found no tangible benefits associated with a particular app—in this case, it was Lumosity.

Then the question is, can you improve your IQ?

Anecdotally, most of us feel like our brains work better when we do certain things. And, most of us can recognize that a day spent on the couch watching the Housewives makes our brains feel like mush.

So, logically, it makes sense that wed be able to sort of hack into better mental performance, right?

While it seems that specific games marketed toward boosting performance aren’t all that, it’s not to say that our brain capacity is a fixed thing.

Learning a new skill—like a language or an instrument can challenge your mind. Reading, of course, expands your mind, too.

The problem with brain training is that those exercises only serve as a way to make you better at the exercises themselves, not necessarily smarter across the board.

But what about puzzles?

It’s not entirely clear whether puzzles like sudoku and crosswords can keep you sharp. They do help you with your recall, but like the brain training apps, the skills tend to be limited to solving the puzzles, with little translation to cognition in a broader sense.

That said, there have been some studies linking games to improvements. A 2014 study found that daily crosswords delayed memory decline by 2.5 years in elderly patients.  And another found that playing Tetris might have an impact on brain efficiency.

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Don’t discount your diet…

Want to get smarter? Ditch the processed foods. You are what you eat, and eating a high-sugar diet affects your ability to learn and process information. Changes in blood sugar can dull your brain, reducing your ability to think or be productive.

Shop the perimeters of the supermarket and ditch the cereal aisle in favor of meats, fresh produce, and whole grains.

Additionally, it pays to look toward the sea for your next meal. Load up on tuna, salmon, and others at least a few times a week. While it’s not entirely clear why fish boosts mental performance, it is thought to boost immune health and reduce inflammation thanks to those hefty doses of omega 3s and 6s.

…or the power of exercise

Research has shown that regular physical activity is one way to boost your brain power. So, instead of blocking off time to master the ins and out of your Lumosity challenge, hit the gym or go for a run.

Exercise doesn’t need to be strenuous, either. Make time for three workout sessions a week, for about a half an hour a pop.

What’s the bottom line?

Is brain training a waste of time? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t exactly cut and dry.

Brain training games aren’t useless if your idea of relaxing is kicking back with your favorite crossword puzzle to wind down. But, forcing yourself to complete a number of challenges each day isn’t going to give you any pronounced IQ boost.

Instead, the focus should be on taking care of yourself—through you guessed it, getting enough sleep, eating well, and moving around. Additionally, it pays to challenge your brain.

Try taking a class or starting a new hobby, whether it’s finally learning French or taking a boxing class, grasping new concepts is the best way to grow.

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