Study: Brain games don't make you smarter

Using software designed to train your brain doesn't necessarily make you any smarter, according to a new study conducted by the BBC.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

If you were hoping that the right software could make you smarter, you may be out of luck.

Brain training software, such as Nintendo's Brain Age, are often touted as a way to improve your smarts. But 11,430 people who played such games for several weeks didn't seem to be any brighter at the end, according to the results of a study conducted by the BBC and released Tuesday.

The investigation launched by the BBC last September challenged viewers of the BBC One science TV show "Bang Goes the Theory" to use a series of brain training games designed by scientists from the Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer's Society. Volunteers were asked to train their brains for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a week, for a minimum of six weeks.

Different contestants were assigned one of three groups. Members of the first group used software designed to train their reasoning and problem-solving skills. Those in the second group played games geared toward boosting short-term memory, attention, and math skills. And people in the third group were given a series of Web-browser tasks not related to any specific cognitive skills.

Volunteers faced such games as Loop the Loop, in which they had to draw a continuous loop around a series of squares; Flower Finder, in which they had to pick the one flower of four that didn't match the rest; and Jigsaw, in which they had to put together a virtual jigsaw puzzle.

But the results published on the BBC's Web site and in Nature magazine (PDF) found that although people got much better at playing the games themselves, they showed little or no improvement in their ability at everyday thinking, reasoning, memory, or problem solving.

"The results are clear," said Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council, in a statement. "Statistically, there are no significant differences between the improvements seen in participants who played our brain-training games, and those who just went on the Internet for the same length of time."

The experts did acknowledge that further research still needs to be done to see if brain training can keep the brain fit as people age. But for now, the findings indicate that just surfing the Web may have the same effect as completing a jigsaw puzzle at boosting your brain power.

Interested in trying some of the games yourself to see if you get any smarter? You'll find them at the BBC Labs Web site.