Brain-training games put to the test

Do quick-fix promises by software companies like Lumosity hold water?
arthurmlee1, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Are there proven ways that humans can boost their intelligence? Do popular brain-training games by companies like Lumosity really work? What about “smart” drugs or zapping the brain with electrical current?

These questions are explored in “Getting Smarter,” a highly recommended essay written by Jeffrey M. Zacks, a professor of psychology and radiology at Washington University in St Louis, which appeared recently in Aeon. The essay debunks a number of quick-fix claims linked to brain-training software, cognitive-enhancing drugs, and electrical stimulation — but also offers real-world methods that can boost one’s cognitive abilities.

Zacks states that Lumosity’s games attempt to use “far transfer,” defined as training in one task to make gains in another. A large study by the British Medical Research Council found that participants who brain-trained on memory and attention tasks showed improvement afterwards, but only on the tasks they practiced and not on overall IQ-like benchmarking tests.

In practice, successful far transfer remains quite rare — but there are methods of cognitive enhancement out there that do work. Near transfer, or practicing a certain task to get better at it, does work. For instance, ways to boost memory beyond what seems humanly possible have been put into practice by people like British memory champ Ben Pridmore, who memorized the sequence of a deck of cards in under 30 seconds.

“Getting smarter” by Jeffrey M Zacks on aeon.co