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Brain training is nothing more than a placebo: study

A thriving industry has been built in recent years around the belief that human intelligence is malleable — that with the right tools and practice, you can become smarter. Companies like Lumosity and NeuroNation collectively pull in a billion dollars per year selling this idea. These businesses would tell you that with the right logic and memory exercises, you can increase what is known as fluid intelligence. There is actually a body of research that supports this, but a new analysis at George Mason University backs up the alternative position that brain training is just a placebo.

The traditional view of intelligence from decades of study indicated that your cognitive abilities were mostly established by your genes. Experiences and conditions throughout childhood and early adulthood also seem to have some effect on overall intelligence, but a few studies in recent years claimed there was more you could do to boost your “fluid intelligence.” These studies showed a small but measurable improvement in IQ with the use of logic and memory exercises. This is the basis of the brain training industry, but they’re already known for playing fast and loose with the science.

Lumosity was recently ordered to pay the FTC $2 million as punishment for making extravagant claims about its ability to boost intelligence and stop cognitive decline associated with old age. Lumosity is no longer permitted to claim that its service boosts intelligence in any life-altering way. Even a 2015 analysis of all research on the topic concluded that brain training could only boost IQ by three or four points, which is barely statistically significant. The new report from George Mason researchers says it may be more like zero to zero points.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and claims that all the improvement observed in past studies of brain training it thanks to poor experimental design and the placebo effect. The researchers created two posters (below) to recruit subjects for the study. One simply advertised a study that could earn students course credits, but the other specifically talked about brain training and how studies had found it can be effective in increasing fluid intelligence. Those who responded to the first poster were the control, and the second were the experimental “placebo” group.


Both groups of 25 volunteers (the same number used in many of the brain training studies) took a standardized test before and after playing a brain training game for an hour. Those who responded to the poster hyping up brain training (the placebo group) had scores five to ten points higher after training. The control group scored the same.

This study backs up the notion that some people are subconsciously trying to convince themselves that brain training works. The researchers also note than many of the past studies (17 of the 19 in the 2015 meta analysis) used pro-brain training advertisements to recruit subjects. They basically selected people who would have shown improved performance after training no matter what that training consisted of. So, the training itself doesn’t increase scores at all. The study authors conclude that brain training companies should “temper their claims,” which is a nice way of calling brain training bunk.

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