Curious David Redux: Brain Boosting or Bloated Claims?
Please forgive any duplication of earlier blog posts as I continue my mastery of the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org and winnow my writings of the past 10 years before grouping them into e-books. I am attempting to make sure that the pieces are still germane and that there are no dead links.
Curious David Redux:
For Christmas nephew Alex gave me some “brain challenging” puzzles. For a very short while I was able to fool him (and myself!) about my mental acumen by solving two of them in a few minutes. Then my beloved, intellectually curious grand nieces and grand nephews (ages 5 through 8) exposed me and put my achievements into context. They quickly took apart the remaining two puzzles which I had avoided because I thought that they were too difficult for me! I still haven’t figured out how to put the puzzles back together!
Later that evening grand nephew Cole invited me to play a board game “Brain Games for Kids.” I had reason to heed the warning on the box!
My mind was indeed blown away as he outperformed me very quickly — answering all questions correctly and gleefully (but kindly) correcting me when I failed to know the answers.
Putting his success into context, 1) he probably had memorized all the questions and answers and 2) he is quite precocious. Still, the children taught me a number of lessons and raised a number of questions for me to ponder. Are these additional signs of changes in my aging brain? Should I stop comparing myself to those younger than I? Are there brain fitness strategies they use which could inform me? Are there deleterious effects of their constant use of of iPads and cell phones? Is this why I focus much of my research time on the topics of brain health and aging?
In an earlier blog piece I summarized five preliminary conclusions I had reached as a result of my immersing myself with my research students investigating the claims of brain fitness training companies. I hope to continue that research in the Fall and to build upon what I learned at a Brain Health Virtual Summit. (I also am looking forward to participating in the 2018 SharpBrains Brain Health Virtual Summit.)
- “Brain Training” and brain health products is a huge, lucrative and growing industry with very expensive market research reports! Alas, I did not have the $7,150 to purchase such a report. Click this link to read the abstract.
- There exist a number of excellent, current, well-written and understandable science-based guides to maintaining cognitive fitness and brain health (e.g. Click this link to see an example of this Harvard Medical School paper).
- There exist excellent scholarly reviews of the efficacy (and validity of claims made) of “brain fitness” programs. The best such review is by Daniel J. Simons et al. which can be found here: (Click this link to see it in full).
Among the authors’ important conclusions and advice most germane to this blog piece (and the next series i am contemplating writing) are the following:
“Consumers should also consider the comparative costs and benefits of engaging in a brain-training regimen. Time spent using brain-training software could be allocated to other activities or even other forms of “brain training” (e.g., physical exercise) that might have broader benefits for health and well-being. That time might also be spent on learning things that are likely to improve your performance at school (e.g., reading; developing knowledge and skills in math, science, or the arts), on the job (e.g., updating your knowledge of content and standards in your profession), or in activities that are otherwise enjoyable. If an intervention has minimal benefits, using it means you have lost the opportunity to do something else. If you find using brain-training software enjoyable, you should factor that enjoyment into your decision to use it, but you should weigh it against other things you might do instead that would also be enjoyable, beneficial, and/or less expensive.
When evaluating the marketing claims of brain-training companies or media reports of brain-training studies, consider whether they are supported by peer-reviewed, scientific evidence from studies conducted by researchers independent of the company. As we have seen, many brain-training companies cite a large number of papers, but not all of those directly tested the effectiveness of a brain-training program against an appropriate control condition. Moreover, many of the studies tested groups of people who might not be like you. It is not clear that results from studies of people with schizophrenia will generalize to people without schizophrenia, or that benefits found in studies of college students will generalize to older adults. Finally, just because an advertisement appears in a trusted medium (e.g., National Public Radio) or is promoted by a trusted organization (e.g., AARP) does not mean that its claims are justified. Consumers should view such advertising claims with skepticism.”
4. Many cognitive training studies and brain training companies overpromise results, cite the same methodologically faulty studies, cite studies funded by their organization, ignore best practice experimental designs (see point 2 above), and fail to take into consideration placebo effects (Here is a simple, well-designed, study indicating how EXPECTATIONS may cause the outcome attributed to cognitive training.)
5. Many helpful insights into memory loss can be gleaned from literature such as Lisa Genova’s Still Alice and from individuals sharing first-hand experiences such as in the beautiful bogging in Sally Remembers.
— Still curious at age almost 69,
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