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Ryuta Kawashima is a cross-over sensation — a Japanese neuroscientist who in 2005 found global fame and fortune with Nintendo-endorsed “brain training” video games. He symbolised hope that an ageing society could use technology to combat the terror of mental decline.
Scientists, though, have long been sceptical of the brain-training industry, forecast to be worth more than $8bn by 2021. The claim is that tailored video games can sharpen cognitive skills and delay the hallmarks of senility such as memory loss. The view of the Alzheimer’s Society is that “no studies have shown that brain training prevents dementia”.
A similarly lukewarm reception was evident on Monday, when Cambridge university scientists unveiled a gaming app designed to improve attention and concentration in healthy adults.
According to Barbara Sahakian and George Savulich from the university’s Behavioural and Clinical Neurosciences Institute, playing the game, called Decoder on an iPad for eight hours every month can significantly and measurably improve attention and focus. It could, they suggest, help individuals to immerse themselves more convincingly in their work tasks, enhancing “flow”. The research was published in the journal Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience.
The Cambridge team recruited 75 healthy adults aged between 18 and 30 and split them into three groups: the first played Decoder on iPads; the second played bingo, also on iPad; and the third group did neither. In Decoder, users assume the role of an intelligence officer looking out for strings of letters and numbers that appear on the screen, giving away future crime locations. After eight, one-hour sessions spread over a month, the 25 Decoder users outperformed the other groups on standard attention tests, displaying improvements comparable to those achieved by stimulants such as Ritalin.
The researchers write: “It may be that this [Decoder] will be a suitable game for those healthy individuals who find sustaining attention difficult in the workplace.”
Til Wykes, professor of clinical psychology at King’s College London, who was not involved in the study, suggested that eight hours a month might be better spent going for a walk or to the gym. Exercise helps cognitive health, as does staying mentally engaged by, say, playing board games.
Her dismissive analysis hints at the evidence deficit haunting the brain-training industry. Individual studies purporting to showcase a causal link between games and better brainpower tend to be small, short-term and of wildly varying designs, making results inconclusive or unreliable. Any benefits tend to be judged using other computer tests, rather than whether users cope better with everyday challenges (the “generalisability” problem).
Finally, vested interests are at play: Professor Sahakian, a renowned scholar on brain function, consults for the games developer involved with Decoder, a tie-up that she defends: “That’s how we make what we develop in the lab accessible to the public.” Prof Sahakian added that she too champions exercise, publishes her methods fully and decries the inadequate evidence underpinning inflated claims by others.
Authorities are taking note of those who over-promise and under-deliver. In 2016, Lumos Labs paid $2m to the Federal Trade Commission over unsubstantiated claims that its Lumosity games raised everyday mental performance and delayed age-related cognitive decline. Decoder does what is claimed for it but we do not know if improvements attributed to the app transfer to the real world, such as staying serene in the face of an overflowing email inbox.
Who knows, turning off your smartphone or displaying a Do Not Disturb sign might be simpler ways of helping you go with the flow.
The writer is a science commentator
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