This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News
returning to a subject that I have reviewed in previous columns: brain training.
NPR story summarizes of a much longer report by Daniel Simmons of
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and six of his colleagues. This
study and review of existing reports was precipitated by two conflicting
statements in 2004: an open letter signed by 70 scientists objecting to the
marketing claims being made by companies involved in brain training and a
response from 120 scientists defending brain training.
incentive, Simmons and his colleagues reviewed more than 130 reports of brain
games and other forms of cognitive training. The 83-page article, while
lengthy, is worth reading if you are interested in this subject. It outlines
many brain game reports, analyzes their methods and claims, and makes
observations about these claims. Further, the authors conclude by suggesting
how to improve studies in this area. There are several points from this article
that I would like to emphasize.
This is a
rapidly expanding and an increasingly lucrative area. The sales of brain
training products are predicted to reach 3 to 3.5 billion—yes, billion—by 2020. That projection is not solely
based on direct-to-consumer sales—about 50 percent involve supplier-groups that
buy brain-training materials for their clients. Such groups include schools,
retirement communities, and health providers. Not too long ago, I had a
director of a local retirement community tell me that he was subscribing to a brain
game provider for his clients. Why, I asked him. He said because his
competitors had done so.
two big problems in this area: The first is the claims that companies are
making about their products. They come very close to saying that their games
can reverse the effects of aging on cognitive ability and/or the effects of a dementing
illness such as Alzheimer’s disease. The marketers are very good at making partial
promises and letting the recipient fill in the blanks. Fortunately, the Federal
Trade Commission, the group that monitors advertising, caught on and recently
fined the makers of Lumosity $2 million for false advertising. Other companies
could be in line for similar legal trouble.
issue is in the nature of training. The terms used are “near transfer” and “far
transfer.” The former is the spillover of training in a narrow area to closely
related areas. This occurs quite regularly. For example, if you are training to
return the ball in tennis, it might well help you in squash. You might also see
some indirect effects that could help you in other sports: your conditioning
might improve; you could become more limber.
training won’t make you a better swimmer or golfer. Those would be examples of
far transfer. Simmons repeatedly gives examples where far transfer does not
colleague at Hopkins, George Rebok, suggests there is hope. He says that training
programs have to be more broadly based, carried out for longer periods of time,
and perhaps have some refresher sessions. Existing training programs are
probably unwilling to change—they don’t want to admit that their golden calves
are actually turkeys.