You’ve probably seen the advertisements for playing various games on your smartphone or computer that claim to be able to measure your brain’s actual age, or games that claim to be able to take years off your brain’s age. How much benefit do games like those really offer?
According to a recent study from the University of California, “brain training” or memory games might offer benefit for the actual game involved, but some people won’t see it transfer into their being more mentally flexible outside the game. The concept of this is called near transfer and far transfer. An example of near transfer is being skilled at playing a word-based game and therefore being better at crossword puzzles, while far transfer would be a demonstration that the skills learned during a word game can be applied to everyday activities that aren’t related to a game.
However, some people do experience quite a boost from applying strategies and problem-solving skills used in games (as well as video games) to other areas of their life, so it was unclear why the transfer between activities was not more consistent in all populations of people.
To learn more, the researchers studied over 500 people to determine how near transfer and far transfer are connected. Some of it comes down to fluid intelligence: the capability to reason abstractly after strengthening working memory during memory games or so-called brain-training games. In order for those types of brain exercises to be helpful, there has to be a turnover into fluid intelligence. If the brain is able to work better at abstract reasoning and problem-solving, fluid intelligence is correlated to near transfer.
Think of near transfer as getting good at using an exercise bike which made biking outdoors more successful; and the far transfer application of that would be that there is more ability and desire to do other physical activities, like running.
Researchers hypothesize that if you get near transfer, far transfer is sure to follow, but some people aren’t able to even achieve near transfer. Some reasons for this are that certain types of training aren’t effective for everyone, and there is a level of engagement and enjoyment that a person has to have with the activity to prevent them from checking out and becoming disinterested.
A study of over 30,000 adult participants is now underway to explore more about these brain training games and figure out which games are useful for different populations of people. For some people zoned out on their smartphones playing a game, they really are growing their brain—and for others, it’s just a game.
Anja Pahor, Aaron R. Seitz, Susanne M. Jaeggi. Near transfer to an unrelated N-back task mediates the effect of N-back working memory training on matrix reasoning. Nature Human Behaviour, 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01384-w