Welcome to the Brain Training Guide

Does brain training work?

Many companies are selling “brain training” or “cognitive training” apps and software and claim that they will improve your thinking (your attention, memory, reasoning, judgement, or decision-making). Maybe you have a brain disease or disorder. Maybe you’re worried about your thinking abilities declining. Maybe you have a healthy brain and just want an edge. Hundreds of apps are for sale. Which one should you buy?

The scientific community has not yet reached agreement on these apps (compare this position statement from a collection of eminent scientists with this one), but a recent review of them found  little, if any, evidence to support their use. For recent overviews, see Pete Etchells' report in the Guardian and Ed Yong's in the Atlantic.

If you want to make up your own mind on whether an app is worth it, consider taking these 3 steps:

1. What is the cost?

Can you afford the price of the program? Even if the program you’re considering is free, think about all the other potential costs: Spending money on power for your phone or computer, and maybe a data plan. Also, all programs require you to invest time and energy into the training. Ask yourself: Am I willing to pay these costs, even if the program doesn’t work?

2. What should improve?

The crucial question for these apps is the extent to which they show generalization or “transfer of training.” Will playing this new memory game on your phone just make you better at playing the game itself, or can you expect to see improvements in your memory elsewhere? If so, how noticeable will these improvements be? Will they only be detectable on a sensitive test in the laboratory, or will they transfer to real life? Brain training companies’ claims about generalization and transfer must be supported by credible scientific evidence. How can you find out?

3a. Search for all credible research on your brain training app

Scientific evidence varies in quality, based largely on how well the study was designed and carried out. Probably the most rigorous way to evaluate brain-training apps is in a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT), with blinding and use of placebos. Very few brain-training apps have been evaluated this way yet. But all studies that are of reasonable quality (even if they’re not as good as an RCT) will be listed on Pubmed. Pubmed is a free search engine that includes every reputable academic journal in medicine and science.

To find all peer-reviewed academic journal articles on the app you’re interested in, type the app name into this Pubmed search box:

3b. Contact the corresponding author

Your Pubmed search will return summaries (“abstracts”) of each journal article. Each will list a corresponding author (under “Author information”). Email him or her to ask for a plain English description of the study’s design, results, and implications. If you want to go in-depth, here’s a good guide to what questions to ask.

If you don’t find an entry on Pubmed for your app, this means there is no credible research available on that app yet. But Pubmed is updated regularly, so check back in a few months.

3c. Contact the company directly (if necessary)

You may have entered your search term above and been swamped by irrelevant hits (for example, “Lumosity” is a unique word and returns only relevant abstracts, but “Elevate” will return thousands of hits not related to the Elevate brain-training app). In this case you might want to refine your search or contact the app company directly.

Each Pubmed abstract has a unique reference number. If you contact the app company directly, ask for the pubmed reference numbers of all peer-reviewed journal articles on their program. If you want to go in-depth, here’s a good guide to what questions to ask them.

Sometimes scientific studies of brain training that find no effects just don’t get published, for various reasons. This means that we risk over-estimating the effects of brain training. The problem of missing “negative evidence” is common in all areas of research. Sites like psychfiledrawer.org are a good place to search for any information that might have been missing from Pubmed regarding your brain-training app.

Good luck!
Patrick Davidson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology
University of Ottawa
Ottawa Ontario Canada