Every day, millions of people around the world sign on to apps like Lumosity, Elevate, and a fleet of other programs that promise to increase a user’s focus, memory, and mental performance. Though most previous studies have found these apps’ brain enhancing claims to be dubious (at best), that hasn’t prevented them from garnering enormous and passionate followings. Lumosity has been downloaded over 35 million times from the Apple app store alone. The brain-training industry - which also includes Cogmed, Neuronation, and other cranialnyms - is now valued at over $1 billion. And its only 8 years old.
Yet despite its already-mind-numbing valuation, and despite the skepticism of the scientific community, brain-training could become an even more lucrative industry over the next few years thanks to a new study recently released by the UK’s military research division. This study, led by researchers at the University of Kent, found that certain brain-training exercises have the potential to improve performance in a seemingly unrelated application: sports.
To test this hypothesis, a group of 35 well trained male cyclists were divided into two groups: Brain Endurance Training (BET) and control. All of the cyclists performed a baseline fitness assessment that involved a time to exhaustion (TTE) test at 75% VO2 max. The cyclists then performed three 60-minute training sessions (riding at 65% VO2 max) per week for 12 weeks. During each 60-minute session, the BET group completed the AX-CPT task, a cognitively demanding test that is commonly used to examine situational awareness and goal maintenance. The control group did not complete the task.
At the end of the 12 weeks, the cyclists performed another fitness assessment involving a TTE test, and throughout the assessment the cyclists were asked to report their rate of perceived exertion (RPE). While both groups showed similar improvement in VO2 max, the BET group showed significantly greater improvements (126%) than the controls (42%) in the TTE test. Additionally, the BET group reported lower RPE scores throughout the TTE test.
From these results, it appears that not only can brain training games improve your athletic performance, but they can do so while making you feel as though you aren’t working so hard. However, it should be noted that the cyclists in the BET group didn’t exactly improve their fitness any moreso than the control group - they just improved their mental stamina.
The TTE task is also a very specific kind of fitness assessment, one that suits athletes who are willing to be slightly uncomfortable for an extended period of time. It’s very likely that different measures of performance - a fixed-distance or fixed-time trial - would not show the same effects, if any at all. Athletes in sports other than cycling would also likely show varying responses to brain training games, particularly if those athletes were not well trained in the sport that was being tested. After all, many sports require a high level of concentration and coordination - soccer, gymnastics, football - and brain training might only detract from the athletes attention to the competition.
Despite those drawbacks, this study is a fantastic example of the diverse applications of brain training games. A group of elite runners coached by Steve Magness, an endurance sports coach and exercise physiologist, have already begun implementing cognitive challenges into their training plans. During certain workouts, the runners will flip through flash cards or complete other mentally demanding tasks between each interval, stressing their brains and their bodies in a single, brutal session. And so far, it seems Magness’ approach is working out: he’s had runners place in the top 10 at six major marathons, including Boston, Chicago, and New York.
So brain-training works - sometimes. It appears that the effects are highly specific to the method of training, a fact which seems obvious to anyone who has ever tried to hop into a new sport or hobby alongside seasoned veterans. However, its possible that by targeting brain functions that are both fundamental and diverse in application, it may be possible to improve performance across a much wider range of activities.