[cross posted from my CACM blog]
My mother-in-law was mortified by her first attempt to play a brain training game on the Nintendo DS. Her brain age, as calculated by this unflattering device, was at least 15 years too old. This is mainly because the speech and handwriting recognition wasn't accurate enough initially rather than because of any cognitive misdemeanours on her part. In common with the smugness of the Wii Fit's representation of one's body shape, it does raise the question of why users put up with nagging interfaces, which are at least as annoying as impolite or over-proactive interfaces. Maybe you put up with your brain training game nagging you because you think it will make you more clever?Or remember more? Or think faster? Do you- like the puzzled folk on Dr Kaswashima's Braintraining web site- struggle to remember what you had for dinner two nights ago?
Sadly, a new study published in Nature is here to disabuse of this happy notion. Brain training games only make you better at brain training games. They don't improve your performance on general cognitive tasks, even those closely related to the games. To give you an idea of how much training you would need to do to see even a small improvement in memory, the authors write: “To illustrate the size of the transfer effects observed in this study, consider the following representative example from the data. The increase in the number of digits that could be remembered following training on tests designed, at least in part, to improve memory (for example, in experimental group 2) was three-hundredths of a digit. Assuming a linear relationship between time spent training and improvement, it would take almost four years of training to remember one extra digit. Moreover, the control group improved by two-tenths of a digit, with no formal memory training at all.”
Well worth it, then.
An interesting feature of the study was that it was conducted online with 11,430 participants, which just goes to show that you get big data sets by collaborating with the BBC's popular science shows (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bang/). It rather knocks the previous brain training study I blogged about in the shade with their ~600 participants.
At any rate, it is time to stop falling for the Nicole Kidman adverts and give up your daily brain training. Do what you've been longing to do and tell that obnoxious homunculas of Dr Kawashima where to go.I suggest using your handheld as a cognitive prosthesis instead. Who needs to remember an extra digit in a phone number when you can get your handheld to store it for you?