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The Disappointing Reason Those Brain-Training Apps Might Not Work

If you think spending an entire afternoon on Lumosity or all evening doing crossword puzzles is helping your brain get stronger and smarter, think again. New research tells us that brain games don’t actually work the way we think they do.

This new information was published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience by a group from Florida State University that conducted research to figure out if brain games actually help build up and strengthen cognitive function. Neil Charness, a professor of psychology at the university and an expert on aging and cognition, paired up with Wally Boot, an associate professor psychology, and Dustin Souders, a graduate student, for this study.

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“Brain challenges like crossword games are a popular approach, especially among baby boomers, as a way to try to protect cognitions,” said Charness, explaining that a growing number of older individuals use these kinds of games in hopes of preventing memory loss or any type of cognitive disorder that comes with aging.

It turns out that the brain-game business has been thriving for a few years, sometimes off of largely false claims preying on people’s fears. The Federal Trade Commission actually called out one such company, fining them $2 million for false information and advertising. Boot stated that “these exaggerated claims are not consistent with the conclusions of our latest study.” So developing more brain elasticity and more readily available memory functions isn’t an actual thing, and that’s pretty disappointing to a lot of people.

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When people try these games out, it’s normally in an effort to improve overall working memory, hoping that that would translate to other areas of life, otherwise known as “far transfer.” But the studies have disproved this, saying that more specific tasks or instances are much harder to remember as opposed to just using general working memory.

According to Charness, people would be much better off exercising than trying to home in on just mental exercises. So exercise isn’t just good for your body, but also great for your brain and all of its functions. “If your real goal is to improve cognitive function and brain games are not helping,” Charness adds, “then maybe you are better off getting aerobic exercise rather than sitting in front of your computer playing these games.”

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