How to tell the difference between a fun-but-useless “brain game” and an effective, worthwhile cognitive training program

There are a lot of “brain games,” “mind teasers,” and even “neuroscience-inspired” brain training programs around.

The problem for the consumer is that while a few of these are a great use of time (they make lasting improvements to brain function), many are a total waste of time (they don’t). How can you separate the wheat from the chaff?

In 2015, the U.S. Institute of Medicine (now called the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies) weighed in on this very question. As part of their seminal report on cognitive aging, they issued five criteria by which the effectiveness of any cognitive training program should be evaluated. Most of the criteria have to do with how good the science studies on the program are, and if the program has been shown to change real-world abilities (not just change your ability to do the exercise itself).

Specifically, the report asks these questions:

  1. Has the product demonstrated transfer of training to other laboratory tasks that measure the same cognitive construct as the training task?
  2. Has the product demonstrated transfer of training to relevant real-world tasks?
  3. Has the product performance been evaluated using an active control group whose members have the same expectations of cognitive benefits as do members of the experimental group?
  4. How long are the trained skills retained?
  5. Have the purported benefits of the training product been replicated by research groups other than those selling the product

In this section, you will find two documents. The first is a self-evaluation conducted by Posit Science—a company I co-founded. This document shows how Posit Science would respond to each of the five criteria (the questions above) for its cognitive training program, BrainHQ.

The second document is my attempt at indicating how well some other programs and activities that market themselves as “brain games” or “brain training” fit these criteria.