MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on a huge study designed to find out.
JON HAMILTON: The authors of the study are prominent researchers in the U.K., people like Jessica Grahn of the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. But Grahn says the idea came from a BBC television program.
JESSICA GRAHN: The BBC were interested to see if the claims made by commercial brain trainers that training your brain, you know, improves general cognitive function and gives you more brainpower are true. So they actually approached us and said, would you help us develop, you know, a scientific way of testing this?
HAMILTON: Grahn says people in the brain training groups had to spend 10 minutes three times a week doing things like pretending to be an airport security worker watching an X-ray scanner.
GRAHN: Bags are going in and coming out, but they're not going in and coming out at exactly the same rate. Occasionally the conveyor belt stops and they have to say, how many bags are actually left in the X-ray scanner?
HAMILTON: After six weeks, Grahn says, people had become really good at things like remembering how many bags are in a scanner.
GRAHN: Pretty much every single test that people trained on they got better on.
HAMILTON: That was the good news.
GRAHN: When we then looked at how they performed on tests that weren't the exact tests that they had performed on, even when they were quite similar, there was no difference between the group that had been surfing the Internet for six weeks and the groups that had been brain training.
HAMILTON: Their overall mental skills hadn't changed. Matthew Shapiro, a memory researcher at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, says he's not surprised.
MATTHEW SHAPIRO: You shouldn't expect that playing with a computer and doing computerized testing is going to produce an overnight magical transformation of your abilities, so that if you've been forgetful for the last two years, that suddenly you'll be able to remember everything.
HAMILTON: But Shapiro says the negative result may have been because people really didn't invest that much effort in training their brains.
SHAPIRO: I don't think any students who have to do well on a difficult exam could get by studying 10 minutes at a time every other day.
HAMILTON: Shapiro says more intensive training might produce a different result. Elizabeth Zelinski from the University of Southern California once advised Nintendo on its brain training game. She says companies generally avoid making any claims that their product will raise your IQ. But she says that hasn't changed people's expectations.
ELIZABETH ZELINSKI: People who are doing this training, they want to get smarter, they want to remember better.
HAMILTON: Zelinski says there's no sure way to do that. So she says people who want to improve their minds should pick something really challenging and rewarding.
ZELINSKI: Personally, I'm learning how to play the piano. And I don't think learning how to play the piano is going to make me a better statistician, but it's one of these things that's enjoyable, it's interesting. I don't know if it's going to have any effect on my, you know, whether I get dementia or not, you know, in 30 years.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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