Do Brain Games Work?

Do Brain Games Work?

image? the Brain Idaho Commission for Libraries

A few new studies, including one meta-analysis, suggest brain games don’t make you any better at anything but playing brain games.

Think you can make yourself smarter with brain-training software? New studies suggest that so-called brain games don’t improve players’ thinking or IQ, they just make you better at playing the games, the New Yorker reported.

The studies come after of a decade of spotty research suggesting that brain games do work–and the launch of companies such as Cogmed, Lumosity, Jungle Memory and CogniFit that sell brain games for kids, older adults and everyone in between. The New Yorker talked with Cogmed executives, who insisted the new research was flawed. Meanwhile, the researchers involved in the skeptical studies say it’s unethical to sell software that doesn’t work, especially to vulnerable audiences such as kids with learning disorders or older adults worried about cognitive decline.

The skeptical studies include:

  1. A study comparing dual n-back training–a favorite training program among avid self-improvers in Silicon Valley–with a placebo game and with not playing any games at all in healthy young adults. The researchers, from three different U.S. universities, found the games improved people’s ability in the games.. but not in independent tests of fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, multitasking or other capabilities.
  2. A study that tried to replicateprevious research showing that certain mental exercises improved fluid intelligence, which is important to learning and is associated with professional success. The newer study wasn’t able to reproduce the effects of the previous experiments.
  3. A so-called “meta-analysis” thatreviewed 23 previous studies of brain games, weighting the studies by how rigorous they were and how many study participants they included. Like the other skeptical studies, the meta-analysis found that people just got better at the games they played, but their skills didn’t transfer elsewhere, such as people’s verbal and nonverbal ability, arithmetic, or attention.

The New Yorker covered the objections brain-game company Cogmed had with the studies’ conclusions. Neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg, who led a brain-games study in 2002 that showed the games did work for children and is now a paid Cogmed consultant, also said the meta-analysis was poorly done, though reporter Gareth Cook pointed out that it the analysis was published in one of the field’s top journals.

One thing that the New Yorker piece doesn’t do is distinguish between how brain games work for normally developing kids, kids with learning disabilities, normally developing adults, and adults with diagnosed cognitive decline. The stakes are different for each group, so it’d be helpful to know if there are differences. It may be that the science doesn’t yet exist for such a detailed breakdown: Skeptical Studies No. 1 and No. 2 were performed in normally developing adults, while the meta-analysis looked at studies about brain games performed in all kinds of people.


Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk

Hints of Human Language Heard in Lip-Smacking Monkey Talk

Sounds made by a little-known monkey living in Ethiopia’s mountain grasslands may hint at the origins of human speech. Unlike most other primates, which communicate in strings of short, relatively flat-toned syllables, geladas possess uncannily human-like vocal tempos and undulations.

“When we first started working with geladas in 2006, we noticed sounds like people were talking around you,” said evolutionary biologist Thore Bergman of the University of Michigan. “Most primates only make a few sounds, but geladas produce a complex stream with a rhythm similar to language.”

Key to the gelada vocalizations,described today by Bergman in Current Biology, is the ability to smack their lips. Underlying that seemingly simple action is a rich synchrony of lips, tongue and the hyoid bone beneath them.

Earlier research on lip-smacking in macaque monkeys found it distinct from lip-moving while eating, and also noted an intriguing correspondence to the universal rhythms of human language.

Though the monkeys moved their lips without without actually vocalizing, the researchers speculated that lip-smacking could have been a precursor to human speech, setting a tempo for what would become the sonic foundations of language.

Bergman builds on that notion. He shows that geladas sometimes use lip-smacking to shape their calls, giving them a human language-like quality. Geladas were already known to possess an extremely rich vocal repertoire; lip-smacking adds to that richness.

An open question, said Bergman, is whether the lip-smacking vocalizations have some special significance. “We don’t know much about the function,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if the fact they produce these complex sounds allows them to communicate things other monkeys might not be able to.”

Image: Alastair Rae/Flickr

The possibility that early ancestors of humans may have shared this ability raises a linguistic chicken-egg-problem, Bergman added.

“The ability to produce complex sounds might have come first. Then, when we could do that, we could attach meanings and communicate in more sophisticated ways,” he said. “Or it could be that, as we needed to communicate more, we developed an ability to produce a greater variety of sounds.”

Whatever the order, vocal complexity is likely intertwined with social complexity. Baboons are closely related to geladas, but use fewer vocalizations and don’t smack their lips. Perhaps not coincidentally, baboons live in relatively small, short-lived groups.

Gelada groups stay together for many years, with females having especially long-lived relationships. Often groups come together in bands of several hundred individuals. “It’s a very complex social system. They have some of the largest groups of any primate,” Bergman said. “These very large group structures may be linked to vocal complexity. There’s some evidence across primate that bigger groups make more sounds.”… Read more