Brain Training Memory Apps Might Actually Be Making You Dumber

A man debuts his brain training memory device at CES

A man debuts his brain training memory device at CES | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Brain training and memory improvement apps for smartphones have become mainstream over the past few years. You may even have noticed a friend or family member using one. They often involve playing games that involve short-term memorization. The concept is you’re actively training your brain to function better and improve your memory. It’s essentially a speed bag for your mind.

The problem, though, is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest these apps actually work. Not as promised, anyway. In fact, when you look at the data on hand, brain training has proved fruitful in only a handful of ways. It can help ward off dementia in certain cases, for example. But in terms of making you a genius? Or at least making your sharper on your feet? The evidence is still lacking.

New research is bringing up additional concerns about these apps and programs. These games might make you feel like you’re doing something positive and becoming sharper, but new data suggests you may actually be doing more harm than good. You might be hurting your cognitive abilities by using brain training programs, rather than building them.

A new study, published in the journal Memory and Cognition shows an alarming relationship. According to this study, people are performing worse on cognitive tests than they would have if they had not done any brain training at all.

Brain training: Doing more harm than good?

A neon brain

A neon brain |

So, how did researchers come to this conclusion? Laura Matzen, a cognitive science researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and her team studied memory and cognition in 86 test subjects. Their goal was to see if memory and cognitive training programs had any long-term impact on working memory.

“In this study, we compared three groups of participants: a group that received [working memory] WM training, a group that received training on how to use a mental imagery memory strategy, and a control group that received no training,” the study reads. Two of the three groups performed more or less as expected. The interesting part? “although the imagery training group’s performance on a recognition memory task increased after training, the WM training group’s performance on the task decreased after training.”

Why would that have happened? If people are putting effort into cognitive exercises, wouldn’t we expect to see the exact opposite? The answer has to do with the methods we use to store information.

“Participants’ descriptions of the strategies they used to remember the studied items indicated that WM training may lead people to adopt memory strategies that are less effective for other types of memory tasks,” the study says. “These results indicate that WM training may have unintended consequences for other types of memory performance.”

Memory improvement strategies

student studying

Student studying |

So, the strategies we’re using to remember things during cognition exercises appear to be the culprit. Those strategies, whatever they may be, aren’t teaching us to actually improve our thinking. They’re just allowing us to get through the task at hand, not necessarily increasing our cognitive ability.We’re actually harming our abilities to recall information, as a result.

Obviously, for most of us who are using these apps and programs, this is the opposite of the desired result. That’s not necessarily the fault of those who make these products or services, but merely gives us a glimpse into our own psychology and cognition. We’re adapting to meet the requirements of the task at hand. It’s human nature.

Keep in mind, also, this is just one study with a relatively small pool of participants. Before we can say brain training is irrefutably bunk, a lot more research will need to be conducted. With that said, you might want to keep trying — but keep in mind that you may subconsciously be using memorization strategies that are helping you skate by.

The best thing you can do for your brain, to really get your cognition firing on all cylinders? It’s probably to get your blood moving by heading to the gym. There’s a link between physical fitness and cognition, so that’s a good place to start. As for brain training? Continue at your own risk.