CogniFit's Science blog: Cognitive Training That Works

Cognitive Training That Works

Those of us who want to improve or maintain our cognitive functions often decide to engage in cognitive training. This is because scientists agree that training, by making you repeat, practice, and surpass yourself, improves your cognitive functions on a day-to-day basis.

But will any brain training program you happen to come across turn you into an alert, focused and sharp individual? Which are the best brain fitness software to use? Are expensive software programs superior to low-tech pencil and paper exercises to improve cognitive function? Are the most advertised products the best products?  Do sites that tell us most about brain science offer the best brain training software and activities for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing cognitive function?

The answer is deceivingly simple. A cognitive training program improves cognitive function if proof exists for this claim. Cognitive training companies must supply scientific proof that the program they offer improves cognitive function.
This scientific work is called validation, and it occurs when scientists publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal, and when other scientists later repeat the work and observe similar results.

In other words, the evidence put forth as the scientific proof is reviewed by other scientists in the field. These peers use their expertise in the field and their scientific integrity to assess the evidence. If, based on their expert judgment, the evidence is robust and rests on rigorous scientific work, they will accept the validation article for publication.

In sum, published peer-reviewed validation is the only acceptable scientific proof that a software company offers a program which can maintain or improve cognitive function. Software companies that offer cognitive training programs know well the importance to provide such proof.

However, it may take several years and large resources to complete even a single scientific validation project. When software companies that offer cognitive training have no such peer-reviewed validation, they often make some up. They usually do so in one of two ways. One is to claim as their own work done by serious scientists but totally unrelated to the companies’ product. This can fool you into concluding that a published study validated the software being offered to you, when in reality the research was done using other cognitive training techniques which bear no resemblance to the program offered to you.

The other way is for a company to use preliminary results of an ongoing study as final proof that the program works. However, without the peer-review process and the resulting publication in a peer-reviewed journal, preliminary results only mean that no one, except the software company, believes that the program can enhance cognitive function.

How do you know if you’re using a scientifically validated program? Take a few minutes to check. A company that offers cognitive training must supply you with instant and irrefutable proof in the form of full-text articles, published in peer-reviewed journals. Only thus can you check that a scientific study has validated the specific software offered to you, and that the software company has not disguised others’ work to look like its own.

A peer-reviewed article displays the name of the peer-reviewed journal, the year of publication, the volume and issue and page numbers, and the names and professional affiliations of all the scientists who authored the article. However, all peer-reviewed articles may have these attributes. Therefore you must look in the article. (This is already a form of cognitive training!) Normally, you may not be able to understand the whole article, terms might be unfamiliar, and the statistics section may escape you.

However, you should be able to scan the article and find evidence that (1) that the software used in the article you are reading is the software that is offered to you and that (2) this software has successfully maintained or enhanced cognitive function in the people who used it. Although the full-text validation article should be available on the software company's site, or immediately upon demand, searching the article's title and author names on any search engine should also result in your finding the article's summary (abstract) in the journal that published it.

In summary, your verification is a two-stage process: (1) you should search for the article using a search engine and find it in a peer-reviewed journal and (2) you should look in the full text article (available on the company's site) to check the accuracy of the claims made by the company.