Is this really a surprise?

New research has just been published (full paper in pdf) showing the results of an experiment carried out by the BBC to investigate whether ‘brain-training’ games make any difference to overall brain power.

The results of this study (n=11,430) seem pretty conclusive: they don’t.

These results have been criticised because the researchers used a sample aged 16-60 when most games of this nature are aimed at the over 60s (the age at which one switches from a sentient being to an absent-minded simpleton) and because the time spent playing the games was relatively short (4 hours on average over 6 weeks). These may be valid criticisms, but the question this research really raises for me is: why did anyone assume that playing this sort of game would improve overall brain power in the first place? The idea that repeatedly playing a series of cognitively low-level and disparate games will in some way enhance overall brain function seems very strange to me. (But, hey, if someone wants to prove it I’ll be the first to be converted)

This research both pleases and troubles me. The former because there is finally some robust research being carried out that opens up the debate about these type of games rather than simply following the hype put forward by those who produce them. The latter because I worry that the media will equate this research with ‘games not good for learning’ and put back the case for games – complex, rich, sophisticated games – for learning back 20 years.


  1. John Kirriemuir

    Noticed that the participants only had to use the games for 10 minutes a day, 3 times a week. Which seems bordering on the negligible. There’s not many things you can do in life for 10 minutes, 3 times a week – including academic study – that are going to start hardwiring your brain.

  2. Paul Hollins

    I’m also concerend about the media hype over this research .

    Talking about games and robust research are both very welcome activities and long overdue. In respect of Brian training I don’t think, to their credit, Nintendo have ever claimed these games “improve overall brain power” that would be an extremely difficult statement to defend (and I’m not a neuro scientist). Some success has been claimed with using the games in UK schools , that success relates more (in my view) to the motivation to learn as a broad pedagogic activity as opposed to the specifc software used though.

    It will be interesting to see how this “discussion” develops.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *