Along with at least half of Australia I watched the highly entertaining series “Redesign my brain – with Todd Sampson” http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/redesign-my-brain-with-todd-sampson/. Everyone’s been telling me how great brain training is which is funny as everything I’ve been reading recently tells me it doesn’t work (see below for further bollocks, bogus and bullshit brain training blogs written by people better qualified than me).
I only managed to check in for the last of the series and was very pleasantly surprised to find that under the whacky t-shirts Mr Sampson brings to the Gruen Transfer he is totally buff. I couldn’t help but noticing his rippling biceps during the extended shots of him underwater, chained up and in danger and it nearly managed take my attention off his very annoying fringe. Sorry, I’ll get a grip and get back on topic. In case you missed it the central premise in the “radical 3 part documentary we see TV personality and ‘non swimmer’ Todd Sampson face his greatest fear – being chained, handcuffed and blindfolded underwater with only his radically improved brain to help him escape.”
The finale then had Michael Merzenich – the father of neuroplasticity and co-founder of Posit Science a brain training company – lauding the benefits of brain training for everything from age related detrioration to autism to ADHD. It would wouldn’t it – its his business to sell brain training.
The big question that this series didn’t answer is “Would Todd have been able to face his greatest fear and escape underwater etc. etc. if he had just had 3 months regular training in relaxation, escape techniques and swimming?”. Why didn’t we have the other Gruen Transfer bloke doing standard training in parallel – is it because he wouldn’t have looked that hot in his kecks? True it wouldn’t have been a great experiment with only one member in test and the other in the control but it would at least have opened the conversation to the fact there might be other reasons than brain training for his Houdini performance.
It brain training sales pitch is so seductive and all encompassing. What ever ails you we can cure in almost no time at all. Are you unhappy? Memory problems? Distractible? Brain training can cure it all.
Unfortunately the research just doesn’t back this up.
The original research by Jaeggi that got everyone excited about the propects of brain training http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2008/04/25/0801268105.abstract was not successfully replicated http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22708717, or here http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289612000839 . Indeed my Stats I lecturer last year used the Jaeggi study as a case study in poor experimental design.
A meta-analysis (a summary of 23 other studies) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22612437 found that you do get better at the games but that this doesn’t transfer to other general skills.
A recent study on video game improving cognitive control in older adults http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/september2013/09162013training.htm looks like it hit the jackpot and demonstrated real and significant effects. However we are reminded by BPS research http://www.bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/driving-video-game-reverses-age-related.html that the groups had only 15 members in them, that we don’t know if the researchers were blind to the conditions and that these results can be created just by researcher enthusiasm and participant expectations.
So if you are enjoying playing the brain training carry on until your hearts content.
If you want to train your brain I’m still recommending learning an instrument, a foreign language, singing, yoga or dancing as the best brain training out there. Try these as part of a group and you will get fitter, improve your social interactions, your rythymn, your coordination, your mood and yes your brain.