Undergrad Research Investigates Brain Training Claims

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Elliot Nauert
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Brain-training products are a billion-dollar industry. However, one UNC Asheville psychology student has some bad news about brain training programs: they’re not making us any smarter.

For the past two years, Elliot Nauert has been conducting undergraduate research on the effectiveness of cognitive training to present at the 30th Anniversary National Conference for Undergraduate Research, which will be held on UNC Asheville’s campus April 7-9.

Nauert compared participants who engaged in game-based cognitive training activities three to fives times a week for six weeks, including programs offered by cognitive training developers.

“We wanted to look specifically at Lumosity, since that’s the most popular one,” Nauert said, “and then also compare it to doing things like Sudoku or crosswords regularly.”

“From the beginning of the six weeks to the end of the six weeks, overall, everyone got better at the tests - a little bit better - it was a very small effect,” Nauert said. “But none of the training groups did any better than any of the other ones.”

Nauert and his faculty mentor Patrick Foo, associate professor of psychology, said they were surprised by the results based on the initial literature review.

Developers and marketers have claimed that brain-training games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.

“We found some results that were really counter to what Lumosity was claiming,” Foo said. “When he first got those results we were really puzzled. We thought that maybe we were doing the experiment wrong and whatnot.”

However, recent events seem to corroborate Nauert’s results. In January 2016, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Lumosity to pay a $2 million to settle deceptive advertising charges for its “brain training” program, according to a press release.

Based on his research, Nauert said engaging in some sort of cognitively stimulating or challenging task might improve your intelligence a little bit, but you’re not really doing yourself any extra favor by paying for game-based programs.

Foo praised his experience working with Nauert on undergraduate research and throughout his undergraduate career in the psychology department.

“At the end of the program now, he’s coming out with an experiment that he thought up himself and we worked on it together, and actually made it happen,” Foo said. “Even though it’s a small experiment it shows him a blueprint of what he needs to do to be successful in the future. He’s going to go do great things.”

Nauert will present his research at the 30 anniversary of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at UNC Asheville, taking place April 7-9.