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Are Brain Training Apps Really An Intelligent Investment?

One George Mason University research team investigates the placebo effect in brain-training apps and exercises

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The impacts of brain training apps and exercises may have more to do with imagination than once thought. One study, published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may be enough to make you change your mind about this billion-dollar industry.

Brain training apps have long been a topic of controversy, filled with overarching claims, such as the "deceptive advertising" which landed Luminosity a $2 million fine earlier this year. Feeding off of fears surrounding ageing and brain function, these apps have become an essential part of many millennials' daily routines. However, one team of researchers at George Mason University have attributed any incurred results to the placebo effect, claiming that "desire to become smarter may blind us."

The Study

This research centered around two dramatically different recruitment tactics. The first group of 25 was recruited using flyers which expressed an opportunity to participate in a "brain training and cognitive enhancement study" and featured scholarly references on the topic of fluid intelligence. The second group of 25 was recruited simply to "participate in a study," with no allusion to the potential benefits.

Participants then completed an hour of cognitive activities similar to those which one would find in popular brain training apps. At the end of the hour, all participants then took a standard IQ test.

The results of these tests found participants who received the "cognitive enhancement" flier had improved their IQ by 1 to 10 points, whereas the control group saw no improvement.

These conclusions may provide additional insight into the varying results of research to-date. As best summarized by the researchers, themselves, this study may "provide an alternative explanation for effects observed in the cognitive-training literature and the brain-training industry."

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1601243113

What does this mean for app users?

Simply reading app descriptions and relevant materials on the concept of expanding fluid intelligence just might be the secret to getting smarter using your smartphone.

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