A half-hour south of Baltimore, in a suburban office park, Kate Ortman is holding an open house. She’s the proprietor of Brain Training of Maryland, a facility specializing in cognitive training programs aimed at one goal: improving brain function. About three-dozen curious visitors have shown up on this Sunday in late October. One of the employees giving demos is Kate’s son, Greg, a soft-spoken 27-year-old. People watch colored bars on a computer screen blink as he claps in time to a program called Interactive Metronome, pausing to explain how it had helped him.
Kate, a welcoming, chipper woman, used to be a life coach for young adults with attention-deficit disorder. She switched careers after Greg’s older brother, Daniel, needed help recovering from a nine-hour brain surgery to relieve internal pressure caused by a congenital defect. She had learned online about cognitive exercises to improve activity in the cerebellum, the region affected by the operation. But the nearest providers for any of the therapies were an hour away, and Daniel would experience intense migraines after just 30 minutes in the car. So Kate took classes to become certified in two key programs: Interactive Metronome and Integrated Listening Systems. Over time, her dining-room-table practice expanded into a full-fledged business with office space, where she and her staff could attend to clients with brain impairments.
Companies have long hawked computer-based games or other programs predicated on the idea that you can enhance your brain function. Lumosity is probably the most well-known, thanks to ubiquitous advertisements pitching its online tools as a way to boost memory and processing. More recently, you may have heard about BrainHQ, a suite of computer-based exercises developed by San Francisco company Posit Science. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady swears by its ability to keep him alert on game day. Through mental workouts, the thinking goes, we can recover from a deficit or injury, stave off decline as we age, or simply become sharper thinkers.
The practice hinges on a concept scientists call “far transfer”: that drilling in specific tasks will improve not just performance of those exercises, but also other everyday actions. Listen to music while standing on a balance beam, and your brain’s processing speed will get better. Keep track of a rapidly blinking object on a computer screen, and you’ll brake faster next time you’re out driving.
If this sounds too good to be true, that’s because, skeptics say, it is. In 2014, 75 neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists signed their names to a letter, published by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, challenging many of the claims that brain-training companies make. “To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life,” they wrote. They objected to exuberant ads that were not supported by existing research, much of which showed mixed results or failed to rule out other reasons for cognitive improvements. They cautioned consumers to look out for conflicts of interest, anecdotal evidence, and overblown promises. Two months later, proponents responded with their own letter, signed by more than 100 scientists, arguing that a growing body of research demonstrates that “certain cognitive training regimens can significantly improve cognitive function, including in ways that generalize to everyday life.”