Can playing a game make a person smarter, more alert, and better able to learn? Well, the science on that question isn't clear.
"First I'll say that cognitive training works in some ways. It's just sort of limited," said Gregory Samanez-Larkin, an assistant professor at Yale, and one of nearly 70 signatories on a letter analyzing the effectiveness of brain games. He said the games work in some respect: people of all ages can get better at them.
But one thing is clear, Samanez-Larkin said. There's no evidence that brain games can prevent or reverse Alzheimer's Disease. One of the biggest things the letter is criticizing, he said, is the idea that someone could live "a very sedentary and cognitively disengaged lifestyle" then arrive in old age and expect a brain-training game to restore attention and memory. "There is no evidence to support that," Samanez-Larkin said.
He added the letter shouldn't be read as a condemnation of the whole brain training industry. "I think it's basically just a cautionary statement saying, 'Look, based on the evidence that we have ... consumers really should be considering opportunity costs,'" Samanez-Larkin said. "Whether they think it's worth investing their time in a game like this, versus doing other things that might lead to cognitive enrichment as well."
Those things include activities like spending time with friends and family, or going outside and taking a walk.
So where does the science go from here? Samanez-Larkin said the question that's still intriguing researchers is whether or not improvement on one task-oriented skill like a game, can translate into broader cognitive improvement.
"That's what people would love to see," Samanez-Larkin said. "We're not saying all of these companies should shudder up and stop doing what they're doing. We're just making some qualifications about the limited scientific evidence there is for long term benefits."