13 October 2016

Break your head – there is no benefit from this

Solving puzzles only helps in solving puzzles

Anatoly Alizar, Geektimes

If you are involved in sports, you know well how physical exercises develop strength, agility, endurance. These are useful qualities in real life: you can lift a bag of potatoes with one hand, run to the 20th floor without an elevator, overtake a car by bicycle (the average speed of cars in Moscow is 24 km/ h). Body workouts really help in real life.

What about brain training? It would seem that the same principle should work in training cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

On the Internet and on television, you can often find ads for games, applications and courses for brain development, attention training, memory, etc. These are simple exercises for memorization, attention and reaction speed, which usually become more complicated with each level. In fact, the market for such applications already amounts to millions of dollars, and in the future it may grow to several billion, experts say, as the aging citizens of the Earth become increasingly concerned about their mental health.

Even serious organizations like the American Association of Retirees promote programs like BrainHQ, encouraging retirees to "keep fit." Other companies like Gogmed, CogniFit, Posit Science, Lumos Labs offer games and exercises that supposedly develop brain abilities, improve academic performance, improve social life and help in a career. Even Nintendo successfully distributes the Brain Age game, which supposedly "trains" the brain for several minutes a day, improves blood flow in the brain, working memory, etc.

Such statements are found in marketing materials and often refer to the results of scientific research that confirm the effectiveness of these programs. The only question is, what exactly are these programs effective at, do they improve the brain's performance in real tasks that are really important in school, work and everyday life?

In October 2014, the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development published an open letter signed by an international group of more than 70 psychologists and neurologists (A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community). It challenges the claim that brain development courses and games represent a scientifically sound means to reduce or reverse cognitive decline." In the letter, the scientists draw attention to the fact that in fact there is not a single scientific study that confirms the positive effect of puzzles in real life. In response, in December 2014, a group of 133 scientists and therapists published another open letter stating the exact opposite: that there is an increasing number of studies confirming that certain cognitive tasks can significantly improve cognitive functions. In the second letter, however, the scientists repeated the thesis that claims about the benefits of puzzles for the brain "are often exaggerated and misleading."

Although two groups of scientists agreed on something, but how could authoritative experts, having studied the same scientific studies, come to opposite conclusions about the effectiveness of exercises for the brain?

In 2016, a group of scientists and doctors from several universities and medical schools tried to explain this contradiction. They conducted a large meta-study in which they evaluated methods for evaluating the effectiveness of popular puzzles and computer games that are advertised as improving brain function. An 84-page article with the results is published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

The authors studied in detail all the experiments listed in 374 scientific papers, which are cited on one of the leading sites in the field of Cognitive Training Data. The above-mentioned open letters of scientists are published on this site and the scientific works that they cite in support of their points of view are listed.

The analysis of the conducted experiments showed that the disagreement in the interpretation of the results is explained by different standards in checking the effectiveness of these exercises. In particular, the analysis revealed "extensive evidence that performing brain training exercises improves results in performing these exercises, less evidence that they improve results in closely related tasks, and little evidence that they improve the performance of remotely related tasks or daily mental activity."

At the same time, none of the studies observed all the necessary conditions for conducting a really clean experiment, which allows us to draw unambiguous conclusions about the influence or lack of influence of performing simple mental tasks on the effectiveness of everyday mental activity. In other words, all research in this field suffered from poor quality experiments.

The article contains detailed recommendations for scientists, scientific sponsoring organizations and regulatory authorities on what rules should be followed in such experiments.

In January 2016, the US Federal Trade Commission fined Lumosity for false advertising that exploits the fears of aging people regarding mental decline and claims that gaming exercises are able to resist memory loss, dementia and even Alzheimer's disease. It is obvious that commercial firms are ready to interpret any scientific research in their favor and do not hesitate to advertise their programs and exercises for brain training. But the fact is that these puzzles are guaranteed to train only one ability: they improve a person's ability to solve these puzzles. Just as repeated passing of IQ tests improves the result in IQ tests, but does not increase IQ at all.

The authors of the scientific work call "inadequate" statements that brain training leads to improved results in life, beyond the scope of these exercises themselves. At the same time, brain exercises are unlikely to cause any harm, except for a small emptying of the wallet. However, scientists note that the time spent on these puzzles could be spent on something useful. For what? For example, quoting the authors of a published scientific article, on "studying things that can improve academic performance in school (reading, improving knowledge and skills in mathematics, science and art), labor productivity (refreshing knowledge and standards in their professional field) or on any activities that are otherwise enjoyable."

The best way to keep fit is a healthy diet and exercise. And the best way to keep your mind in good shape is to constantly test yourself, get out of your comfort zone and look for solutions to unusual problems.

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru  13.10.2016

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