August 21, 2017
Fast Company
Michael Grothaus

Most “brain training” programs are little more than memory games.

There are dozens of apps and online courses that claim their “brain training” can make you more mentally agile, but there’s usually little scientific evidence to back up those claims. While the FDA does approve certain brain training programs aimed to treat specific medical disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, and the FTC goes after false advertising claims–as it did when Lumonsity made claims not supported by science–there’s also no industry body that certifies brain training programs, which is a problem for both the field and consumers, according to Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science.

“Right now, there’s no group that specifically reviews brain training programs and says based on the science, these ones have been shown to work in these ways, and these other ones have not been shown to work,” says Mahncke. “It would be very helpful to people to have this kind of resource–it’s challenging for a lay person to wade through the hundreds of scientific papers and figure out which brain training programs are evidence-based and which aren’t.”

That’s why a group of Australian scientists undertook a systematic review of what studies have been published of commercially available brain training programs in an attempt to give consumers and doctors credible information on which brain training programs are actually scientifically proved to work–if any. Unfortunately, of the 18 different computerized brain training programs marketed to healthy older adults that were studied, 11 had no peer reviewed published evidence of their efficacy and of the seven that did, only two of those had multiple studies, including at least one study of high quality–BrainHQ and Cognifit. And of those, just one had multiple high-quality studies: Mahncke’s BrainHQ program.

That study, along with other similar ones, shows that most brain training only make you better at the exercises themselves, and don’t carry those gains over to your real-world concentration, productivity, or mental acuity.


But there is good news. Science does show that some brain training programs do work. So which ones? As the Australian study showed, Mahncke’s BrainHQ and competitor Cognifit actually do have a real benefit. Because both are based on brain training that is focused on improving processing speed–the speed and accuracy with which the brain processes information. Mahncke says this type of training focuses on the visual system: “You see an image in the center of your vision–for example, either a car or a truck–and at the same time, you see another image way off in your peripheral vision. The images are only on the screen for a brief period of time–well under a second. You then have to say whether you saw the car or the truck in the center of your vision, and then you have to show where you saw the image in your peripheral vision. This challenges the speed and the accuracy of your visual system. And as you get faster and more accurate, the speed increases and the peripheral vision task gets more demanding–pushing your brain further.”

As your visual system is continually challenged by these specific tests, your brain will adapt through a process known as neuroplasticity. “At its core purpose, the brain wants to resolve things. It is constantly moving from the particular to the big picture and back again,” Mahncke says. As the brain works to put the big picture together it goes through neuroplastic changes in order to do so (“neuro” = brain, and “plastic” = the ability to undergo structural changes).

These plasticity-based changes actually form new neuropathways in your brain–literally changing its shape. The new neuropathways can then be called upon to help you process stimuli beyond just the specific methods used in the brain training exercises. This is why brain training that results in neuroplastic changes works much better than simple memory “brain training” games, which may help you remember where, for example, the red card is hidden, but won’t help you remember the details from that last meeting with your client.

“We know that the brain is more plastic when brain chemicals are activated, so the design of these exercises also incorporates attentional demands, novelty, and rewards to activate those chemicals and drive the chemical and physical change that produce the better functional results,” says Mahncke. “Those brain chemicals also impact mood and learning rates. If you think about it, what you do, pretty much every waking moment, should be positively affected by a faster and more accurate brain.”

The result, as the science has shown, says Mahncke, is that people who undertake plasticity-based brain training programs “notice feeling sharper, quicker, and more able to notice the important details of everyday life–like what someone says in a noisy restaurant, or what’s happening at the edge of your peripheral vision, or what all seven digits of that phone number were.”

But what if you don’t feel like undertaking scientifically proven brain training programs like BrainHQ and Cognifit? Mahncke says that you can prime your brain for and spur it into plastic changes by challenging yourself in everyday life. Here are his four tips how to do that:


“Just doing the same old stimulating thing over and over again doesn’t challenge the brain to rewire itself,” Mahncke says. “If you’ve been doing crossword puzzles for 10 years, pick something new–and really different–and work at it 2-3 hours per week, even though it will be hard. My mom started harpsichord lessons–and practiced a lot! It was great for her brain: the speed and accuracy of listening and finger movements are a good form of brain exercise–and everyone in my family enjoyed having music in the house!”


Don’t want to switch up your hobbies or learn a new musical instrument? No problem, just get out there and travel. “Travel is a great way to challenge your brain to learn and change–everything from buying a loaf of bread to finding your way home is new and different. But if you can’t afford to jet to Italy as a form of brain training, then take new paths in your own neighborhood,” Mahncke says. “Find a new way to the grocery store, or the long way to your favorite park. Focus on noticing new landmarks, different sounds (and smells?) and putting together and more detailed mental map of your own neighborhood. As soon as a route gets familiar, find a new one–every few days. This engages your brain’s hippocampus–the seat of learning and memory.”


Finally, don’t forget your body. “The National Academies of Science, Engineering & Medicine recently reviewed the data and suggested three things as supported by scientific evidence–brain training (from ACTIVE specifically–not just brain games), physical exercise, and maintaining healthy blood pressure in middle age,” says Mahncke. In other words, it’s going to be harder to maintain a sharp brain if your body is diverting its energy to fighting other elements in your body, like high blood pressure. So avoid consuming too much salt and get out there for a walk or a run–and if you want to work in exercise and brain training in one go, adjust your runs every few days to let your brain discover new paths and routes around your home.


“We are at the beginning of a paradigm shift in how we think about brain health. As with any major paradigm shift in science, things may seem confusing for a while. Headlines will scream about some major breakthroughs in cognitive performance from plasticity-based brain training. This will seem to be followed within the month by headlines screaming about some other study seemingly showing the opposite. In fact, what you are experiencing is scientists rather messily trying to separate the wheat from the chaff,” says Mahncke.

“Some brain training has been repeatedly shown to work. If you sort through it, you’ll find that is a plasticity-based brain, training developed by knowledgeable and reputable experts. Other brain games have been rushed to market to make a buck, and will fail in serious trials. It’s important to realize that not all brain training is the same. Look for products designed by real experts and subjected to peer-reviewed studies, and be wary of those that spend more money on advertising than on research.”