Sunday, September 20, 2009

Brain Fitness Software: Hype or Bologna?

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, KQED Radio, the biggest local NPR station, is well into its Fall fund-raising drive. Once again, it’s promoting--as a gift to big donors--“brain fitness” products from Posit Science in San Francisco. I’ve used the software, which is supposed to stimulate users' brains to make new connections and fortify important ones, and I don’t think its going to hurt anyone. It might well even help. But the KQED announcers’ repeated promise that it is “scientifically proven to make you smarter and help you recover lost brain function” is bunk, as I found researching this skeptical article about the burgeoning brain fitness movement for San Francisco Magazine. It’s notoriously hard to test this kind of software scientifically, the placebo effect alone blows the current studies out of the water, and the efforts to do so have produced ambiguous results, at best. Take a look at this buyer beware statement from the Stanford Center on Longevity.


Martin Walker said...

Hello, Gordy.

I just read your article cross-linked in this post, and I applaud your skeptical approach the subject of brain training. Anything that sparks the imagination or whips up a fervor can lead us astray.

But there are some independent academic studies indicating that brain training can result in significant, measurable changes in cognitive ability.

A joint U. Michigan and U. Bern study last year on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008) recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% (over and above a control group) after 19 sessions of focused brain training.

Neuroscientists generally acknowledge that certain activities can stimulate neurogenesis and plastic change. The question is which activities and how much. The scientists in the Michigan / Bern study deliberately chose a demanding mental exercise and asked the participants to train for 30 minutes per day, five days per week. They believe that it was this intensity and duration that enabled them to demonstrate measurable increases in cognitive ability.

Martin Walker
Effective, Affordable Brain Training Software

socialprimate said...

Hi Gordy,

I'm a scientist at Posit Science, and I've been directly involved in the research studies that provided the evidence that these programs improve cognitive and real-world function.

There are now quite a number of randomized controlled trials published in leading peer-reviewed journals on this topic, notably
Smith et. al. Journal of the American Geriatrics society documenting memory/attention improvements after using the Brain Fitness Program (, and
Ball et. al. Journal of Gerontology reviewing multiple studies of speed training and showing generalization to real-world measures (

It's simply not reasonable anymore to say that there's no evidence that correctly designed cognitive training programs work.

The Center on Longevity Group published a thought provoking brief report on cognitive training programs. They carefully selected their language to state "very few training programs have shown evidence that such gains translate into improved performance in the complex realm of everyday life."

That's right - very few have been shown to do so, which makes the ones that have even more important.

Similarly, most chemicals you might swallow don't cure disease - but that doesn't mean that medicinal chemistry is bunk.

Best regards,

socialprimate said...

Hi Gordy,

I see in my previous comment that google didn't post my full name - I didn't mean to be semi-anonymous.

Henry W. Mahncke,
Vice President, Research & Outcomes
Posit Science

The Author said...

Martin and Henry,
Many thanks for your thoughtful replies.
I agree that there is evidence that brain training software may help and I support the research, and the software. I don't think the field, or Posit's products, are bunk. But I still maintain that the assertion that those products have been "scientifically proven to to make you smarter and help you recover lost brain function," as the announcers on KQED keep claiming, is overreaching by far enough to warrant the word. I'm glad KQED is promoting the software, and that Posit is promoting KQED, I just wish the announcers would use the words "scientifically proven" more carefully. For skeptics like you and me, those words are the gold standard and we misuse them at our own peril.