Mahncke thinks the criticism is absurd. “[The authors] are moral monsters for making that argument, and you can quote me on that,” he says. “This is a public health [issue]. Senior driving is a problem, which is important at a population level. A person in health sciences who argued that we shouldn’t reduce heart attacks because heart attacks are rare would be rightfully drummed out of the profession.”
To run with his analogy, a new heart disease drug would never be assessed in isolation; it would instead be compared to the best drugs on the market to see if it was any better. So, are brain-training games better than the alternatives? “If you want to improve driving in the elderly, you’re probably going to get a more efficient benefit practicing the things that actually get impaired like making left turns, rather than doing it indirectly,” says Simons.
Dorothy Bishop, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, agrees. These games, she notes, “encourage people to engage in solitary activities at home, when they could be getting out and doing something that would not only stimulate the brain, but also be fun and sociable, such as learning a foreign language.”
Or, say, taking classes. “My joking answer to ‘Does brain training work?’ is: Yes, it’s called school,” says Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, an educational psychologist from the University of Illinois and one of Simons’s team of seven. But formal education, she notes, is a rich set of social and intellectual experiences in which kids are learning in many different contexts, not practicing the same decontextualized tasks again and again. “I don’t want people to get discouraged from reading this, and think that important abilities are unchangeable,” she adds. “It’s not impossible, just more complicated than brain-training companies would have us believe.”
She and her colleagues end their 70-page review with 12 pages of recommendations for conducting better brain-training studies in the future. The tips are fair, says Rebok, but the problem is that such studies are very expensive. “ACTIVE cost millions of dollars and took us 10 years to do. It’s the gold standard but there are problems with it,” he says. “If you’re going to raise the bar, how do you get there?”
That might be especially difficult given the controversy generated by the field’s own self-delivered hype. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Lumos Labs had “deceived consumers with unfounded claims.” Through extensive advertising, they claimed that their games would boost performance at work and school, or reduce the mental decline of old age, but they “simply did not have the science to back up its ads.” The company agreed to pay a $2 million fine.
“Those who market brain-training products have effectively boxed themselves in,” says Bishop. “I sometimes get approached by such people because they know that without evidence from a proper trial, they won’t be taken seriously. I don’t want to spend my time doing a trial of an intervention I’m dubious about, but I’m also aware that if they do the trial themselves, they’ll be accused of conflict of interest. I suspect the moral here is that it is very dangerous to launch into commercialization of a product before you have solid evidence of effectiveness, because it’s extremely hard to get it later on.”