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A clinical trial shows brain training games do not produce expected results

Posted by: Nathan at 4/24/2010 12:30 AM
A clinical trial called Brain Test Britain, which was introduced through the BBC one show Bang Goes the Theory and concluded recently on Lab UK, shows that there is no significant increase in overall "brain power" through the use of brain training video games. The trial was designed by Dr Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge and Professor Clive Ballard of Kings College, London. It was comprised of two groups, one of which engaged in regular brain training games designed by the researchers and the other, serving as a control, that were given specific web browsing activities. Both groups were tested before and after the trial to gauge their "brain skills". The results before and after the six week trial were averaged and compared on Lab UK. The results showed that while there were slight improvements in both the control and test groups on the "brain skill" test, the results did not show a significant enough increase to conclude that the brain training games improved overall "brain skill".

I just have two major problems with the results and the researchers conclusion of the data they collected.

1. There is no basis in current commercially available brain training games in this study

Even if the games designed by the researchers were very similar to their more famous counter parts on the Nintendo DS platform, these researchers can only make claims regarding the games that they designed. Essentially making their claim that brain training games, in general, do not increase "brain skill" inexact. I am not of the personal opinion that games like Brain Age actually increase one's "brain skills", but I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I am not inclined to believe any claims by video games that they increase brain fitness or brain skill, unless they are backed up by a similar study. In short, the results of this test do not apply directly to all or even most brain training video games.

2. The researchers ignored the immersion factor

Even if brain training video games do not increase "brain skill" that does not dampen their appeal for the genre's audience. These games make players feel smarter. Video games have a unique attribute, as an interactive medium, to draw people in to the world they create, immersing them in the game world. Brain training games (the successful ones at least) are designed in a manner that encourages and rewards the player for better performance. Even if that immersion is hidden behind the facade of being a brain training exercise, there is no doubt that the reason for the continued success of this genre of games is driven by their player's need to feel that they're increasing their intelligence.

There is one conclusion I agree with whole heartedly. That these results confirm the old adage "practice makes perfect". Testers who participated in the trial became better at the brain training games themselves, though that didn't help other brain functions much. I would not expect any other result. If I gave you a test on English literature, then had you practice basic math problems for a month, then gave you another test on English literature I would not expect your performance to improve significantly on the second test. I am very familiar with the lack of transference between one practiced used of the brain to another. If my timing, spatial reasoning, and visual reflexes could improve other functions of my brain I would be a certified genius by now. So, sorry kids. Playing video games will likely only make you better at activities that are like video games; no matter how many times it says "brain" on the box.