Positive Results From Brain Training Programs May Stem From Placebo Effects

A study published by psychology researchers at George Mason University suggests that the positive results from brain training programs may stem from participants’ belief in their effectiveness, rather than improved intelligence.

“The [brain training] industry makes a lot of very strong claims,” says Dr. Cyrus Foroughi, a recent graduate from Mason’s psychology Ph.D. program who designed the study. “One website [NeuroNation] actually says ‘Working memory is directly related to intelligence—the more you train, the smarter you can be.’ We believe the industry should temper their claims until the scientific evidence is stronger.”

The research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is generating buzz from news sites such as The Huffington Post and Vox about what this means for the billion-dollar brain training industry, which markets its programs claiming to increase intelligence in users. Older people seeking to avoid cognitive decline are a particularly attractive audience for these products.

Foroughi and his team—fellow Ph.D. student Sam Monfort, post-doctoral researcher Dr. Martin Paczynski and faculty members Dr. Pam Greenwood and Dr. Patrick McKnight—designed the research similar to many cognitive training studies, but varied how the test was advertised to participants.

The team posted two different flyers on Mason’s campus, one advertising the study as a “brain training & cognitive enhancement” opportunity, while the other avoided such terms and focused instead on the research credits students could earn. They also shortened the testing time to one hour to ensure extensive training would not affect the results.

Brain Training Test Flyer

“You completed the same study no matter what group you were in, took the test one day and then a post-test the next,” Foroughi explains. “The only difference was the flyer they responded to.”

The researchers found that the participants that responded to the “brain training” flyer saw improvements in their scores, while the control group produced no changes in their performance. This, they believe, suggests that participants who are told the training may improve their fluid intelligence could do better during testing simply because they expect to.

“Our findings do not invalidate previous work,” Foroughi adds. “Brain training may or may not be effective, but that’s not what we were testing. We were interested in testing placebo effects.”

Foroughi says the idea for the study came to him from several events converging into inspiration. He had been studying cognitive training for his doctoral degree, and attended a lecture given by Michael Dougherty, professor and associate chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Psychology. Dougherty studies topics such as decision processes and memory, and shared his doubts on the effects of brain training programs in his lecture.

“There’s this confounding factor that needs to be examined moving forward,” Foroughi says. “Brain training could very well be effective, it could not be, but we need to do better as scientists moving on.” Foroughi’s study, which has received noteworthy coverage since its publication, is a solid step towards a measured, scientific approach.

When asked what people worried about their mental health can do to stave off cognitive decline, Foroughi cites the “huge” amount of literature on improving brain function.

“There’s many things you can do to stay as mentally healthy as you can,” Foroughi says. “Staying physically active, mentally active, eating well, these are things that people have looked at. It’s been [thought that] brain training is this magic pill, but at the moment, I’m not convinced. There are many cognitive interventions that are available. ”