MIND
May 1, 2010

Do Computer Games Make You Smarter?

A study in which subjects practiced computer games found that game skills improved, but not overall mental capacity.

New research carried out by Medical Research Council (MRC) and the BBC suggests that computer games that claim to increase smarts, cognitive skills, or memory just make you better at the game itself, rather than improving your overall mental capacity. The findings are published in the April 20, 2010 online issue of Nature.

One test focused on cognitive skills like reasoning and planning, another focused on attention, math, and short term memory, and the third group surfed the internet to find answers to various test questions, and served as controls.

The study’s 11,500 participants, between the ages of 18 and 60, were gathered from the TV viewing audience of the BBC show Bang Goes The Theory. Their cognitive skills were tested at the study’s outset, and then participants were randomly assigned to play one of three computer games, each focusing on a particular skill set, for a six-week period. One test focused on cognitive skills like reasoning and planning, another focused on attention, math, and short term memory, and the third group surfed the internet to find answers to various test questions, and served as controls.

The tests that the study used were not commercial ones, but were designed by the researchers and based heavily on the popular games that are available. Participants were asked to play the games at least three times per week, for at least 10 minutes at a time.

At the conclusion of the study, the participants’ cognitive skills were again tested to determine whether anything had changed.

Sadly, the answer was “no.” In fact, no differences were seen between any of the three groups in their cognitive abilities or overall thinking power. The participants did, however, become better at the particular games they played. But the authors conclude that “[i]n our view these results provide no evidence to support the widely held belief that the regular use of computerized brain trainers improves general cognitive functioning in healthy participants beyond those tasks that are actually being trained.”

Lead author Adrian Owen said in a news conference that "I would say that if you want to remember telephone numbers, practice your memory on telephone numbers. But don't expect that to help you with your shopping list."

“We're not saying it's bad for you," continued Owen. "If you're doing it because it's fun, that's absolutely fine. If you're doing it to improve your mental function or IQ, that isn't the case. It doesn't make you any smarter overall."

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