A lot of companies are selling products under the heading of "brain training", and "brain exercises", "brain games" such as Nintendo DS Brain Training, Lumosity, and a host of other companies.

I'm highly sceptical that such exercises have any generalised effect beyond improving the task that is being practiced and possibly some very limited form of generalisation. Nonetheless, I was curious about what makes an exercise or a program of activities "brain training".

  • What is the scientific definition of "brain training"?
  • Alternatively, what definitions have been proposed by researchers or very popular providers of brain training?

Such a definition would presumably make clear how daily living is different to brain training. It would also hopefully clarify whether daily cognitive activity like doing a crossword, answering a question on stack exchange, making a shopping list, or playing a computer game is brain training or not.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think it makes sense for us to have a 'brain-training' tag if the term is mostly associated with pseudoscience and gimmicky marketing. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ I take your point. We discussed it a little bit here in meta. The rationale for such a tag is that we get quite a few questions here on this site given the bridging role the site plays between cognitive science and general interest. So it's good to have a way of cross-referencing all such questions. The tag also tries to make the scepticism clear. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 17, 2013 at 1:04

2 Answers 2


I think in most scientific contexts, "brain training" refers to working memory training. Scott Barry Kaufman wrote a nice article entitled In Defense of Working Memory Training. Hulme and Melby-Lervag wrote a meta-analysis about working memory training. They note that these exercises would not generalize to other mental skills such as reading comprehension, word decoding, and arithmetic. However, they did find that these exercises did improve short term verbal and visuospatial spatial working memory skills.

Kaufman argues that one should not dismiss working memory training as not improving intelligence. It may improve one aspect of intelligence (i.e. working memory). Note that according to may researchers, intelligence is comprised of many facts. Also, the age of people participating in brain training should be taken account. For example, very young people and very old people may benefit more than "normal age" people. Likewise, personality traits such as conscientiousness and neuroticism should be taken into account.

Kaufman also notes that mindfulness meditation and other "whole body" exercises would be more beneficial than specific working memory training exercises.


Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review by Monica Melby-Lervåg and Charles Hulme. Developmental Psychology © 2012 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 49, No. 2, 270–291.

A Dynamical Model of General Intelligence: The Positive Manifold of Intelligence by Mutualism by Han L. J. van der Maas et al. Psychological Review 2006, Vol. 113, No. 4, 842–861.


Brain training has to do with targeting the building blocks of inteligence/reasoning, in fact all the brain skills we need in our culture/education, and which are measured on IQ tests. This includes abstract logical reasoning, verbal and mathematical ability. Brain trining has also to do with helping the brain in understanding relations, such as more than, less than, opposite, same, before, after, here-there, amongst others as this is crucial for intellectual development in just about every sphere.


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