Does “Brain Training” Work?

Do you think it’s possible to get smarter?

If you took the same IQ test over and over your score would eventually improve—but that’s not you getting smarter, that’s just you memorizing the test. When people talk about getting smarter, what they really care about is whether it’s possible to improve the underlying cognitive processes that drive scores on intelligence tests.

The “Brain Training” industry has gotten rich on the premise of a malleable IQ—the idea that you can get smarter if you study hard enough. In particular, these businesses suggest that intelligence can change as a result of playing certain “Brain Games,” specially designed to improve learning and memory. (We’ve all heard the commercials.)

But do they actually work?

This question is a lot more complicated than it seems, but my co-authors and I took a stab at it. We recruited participants for a cognitive training study using two different flyers that we placed around campus. Check out the differences between the two of them:


You might’ve figured out where we’re going with this.

We essentially wanted to see how much of “Brain Training” is driven by a placebo effect. If someone volunteers to participate in a study entitled “Brain Training and Cognitive Enhancement” because they think the training will be effective, any effect of the intervention may be partially or fully explained by participant expectations (and NOT by the training itself). See the results yourself:

After just one hour of brain games, undergraduates recruited with the flashy, suggestive flyer performed better on the post-training assessment than undergraduates recruited with the non-suggestive one did. In fact, the performance gains from pre- to post-training for this group equated to a “5-10 point increase” on a standard IQ test! (We doubt that such a short training session ACTUALLY increased participants’ IQ.)

These effects seem to be the direct result of the advertising on our flyer—the expectations we planted in the participants’ minds.

Are expectations about IQ behind this? We surveyed all participants about their thoughts regarding the malleability of IQ, essentially asking: “Do you think that intelligence can change?” What we found is telling. Participants recruited with the suggestive flyer tended to believe that intelligence can be changed, and believed it more strongly than controls did.


This research—and a full discussion of our findings—was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and is available for free to the public!

Thanks for reading!


Want more data visualization? Check out my other posts at:


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