FSU Researchers Investigate Brain Game Claims

Jun 23, 2017

Can you improve your brain function by playing certain types of games or watching videos that claim to boost mental capacity? Some Tallahassee-based researchers have been looking into that question.

(l. to r.) Walter Boot and Neil Charness discuss their research during their visit to WFSU.
Credit Bill Edmonds

One of the two researchers is Florida State University Psychology Professor Neil Charness. He’s also the director of the Institute for Successful Longevity.

“I’ve been working in the field of aging for I’d say 40+ years at this point,” Charness explained. “So I’ve had a very strong interest in understanding how cognition works and more importantly, how it changes as we develop. If we’re kids, how we get much better at things and as older adults how we, at least on some functions, we seem to show some decline over time.”

Charness’s local research partner is Associate FSU Psychology Professor Walter Boot.

“Neil and I and a number of other collaborators have recently completed a very comprehensive review and evaluation of all the brain training literature, including some of the research on whether or not children with ADHD you can give them video games or certain types of programs could improve their attention, memory and school performance,” Boot said.

Even the most casual check of the Internet will reveal a veritable tidal wave of games and online programs to improve children’s memories, problem solving ability, maybe even help boost their test scores in school.

(Game audio:) “Here’s a quick brain game that shows you how our brain makes snap judgments about where we are on the lifeline just by how we look….)

And then there are the more comprehensive products, such as the Luminosity family of brain-stretching exercises that were very popular a few years ago.

(Advertising audio:) “No matter why you want a better brain, Lumosity.com can help. It’s like a personal trainer for your brain.”

At least it was until the federal government slapped the company with a $2 million fine last year for what the Federal Trade Commission deemed “deceptive advertising.” But is there hard science suggesting kids or adults who take part in these so-called brain training experiences actually show better mental performance? Professor Boot was skeptical.

“Overall the reviews show there is very little compelling evidence that that’s the case and whether we’re talking about younger adults or older adults, our review came down to the fact that the evidence out there isn’t really solid enough for people to be recommending these products to anyone.”

Boot, Charness and their other colleagues said as much in an article published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. But there is another primary target for brain stimulating games; adults of advancing years for whom dementia and diseases such as Alzheimer’s become more of a clear and present danger. Professor Charness said he understands perfectly why these folks and those who care about them would be attracted to anything that might keep these afflictions at bay.

“To be perfectly honest, yes as we get older, our memory function is less effective,” he acknowledged. “But a lot of people look at this and get very worried when they have a memory lapse. Does this mean I’m about to come down with Alzheimer’s disease or some other dementia. And for the vast majority of people, no, that shouldn’t be a real concern.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with doing such things for your own enjoyment, said Professor Boot.

“If you enjoy playing these games, please do so. We don’t want to take that away from people. These games are fun and are gamified versions of neuropsychological tests and people play them because they find it rewarding in some way. If that’s the case, please do that but it’s important for people to calibrate their expectations and not expect that they’re going to suddenly increase their IQ by 15 points as some of these companies are promising.”

But that isn’t to say that there are some kinds of mental activity that might actually help forestall the natural impact of aging. Which is why Professor Charness is recruiting participants from the Tallahassee area for further study.

“I think the message I take away is, it’s early, we have a lot of science to do and that’s why we’re asking for help from some of your listeners to come out and help us along in this quest to understand what works and what doesn’t work.”

Here's a link to the study for which Neil Charness and Walter Boot are seeking volunteers:

https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03141281?term=Neil+Charness&rank=1