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Study: Improvement From Brain-Training Apps Might Be a Placebo Effect

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Brain game apps are a multi-million dollar industry, but new research shows that companies like Lumosity may not have the science to back up their claims. As The Huffington Post reports, psychologists at George Mason University have published a new study suggesting the positive results of brain-training apps are likely a placebo effect.

Mental exercise programs like Lumosity and Peak boast that their games are developed with help from scientists. Previous reports, including studies funded by Lumosity, appear to support the claim that brain games improve cognitive function on some level. But there's still a great deal of skepticism within the scientific community. For their recent study, published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the George Mason University researchers did something that most other studies had failed to do: control for placebo effects.

To gather subjects for the study, they posted two versions of the same flyer around campus. One advertised a "Brain Training and Cognitive Enhancement" study and claimed that brain exercises boost fluid intelligence, while the other made no mention of the content of the study.

The two groups of 25 participants played the same memory puzzle for an hour. After returning the next day, the group that had gone into the study without bias showed no improvement from the baseline test the day before. The group that went in knowing they would play games meant to improve brain function exhibited an improvement equivalent to five to 10 points on an IQ test. These results suggest that when brain-training games do work, the mental boost might be coming from the player's own self-fulfilling expectations rather than anything to do with the app itself.

The new study complicates much of the evidence many brain game apps have been citing to support their claims. After reaching out to the authors of 19 brain-training studies, the George Mason University team found that 17 of them may have inadvertently introduced bias to their participants by mentioning the term brain-training or other buzz words.

Earlier this year, Lumosity was hit with a $2 million fine by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising. The app, which charges up to $300 for a lifetime subscription, was accused by the FTC of preying on "consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease," and that it "simply did not have the science to back up its ads." Despite the controversy, the app still has about 70 million users worldwide. As the industry continues to grow, study co-author Cyrus Foroughi tells The Huffington Post that he hopes their new research will lead to more reliable studies into its effectiveness down the road.

[h/t The Huffington Post]

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Vivid Imagery Makes Poetry More Pleasurable, According to Psychologists
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Contrary to what English teachers led us to believe, most readers don’t judge poetry based on factors like alliteration and rhyme. In fact, a new study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts suggests that vivid imagery (i.e. sense-evoking description) is what makes a poem compelling, according to Smithsonian.

To determine why some poetic works are aesthetically pleasing while others are less so, researchers from New York University and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 400 online volunteers read and rate 111 haikus and 16 sonnets. Participants answered questions about each one, including how vivid its imagery was, whether it was relaxing or stimulating, how aesthetically pleasing they found it, and whether its content was positive or negative.

Not surprisingly, taste varied among subjects. But researchers did find, overall, that poems containing colorful imagery were typically perceived as more pleasurable. (For example, one favorite work among subjects described flowers as blooming and spreading like fire.) Emotional valence—a poem's emotional impact—also played a smaller role, with readers ranking positive poems as more appealing than negative ones. Poems that received low rankings were typically negative, and lacked vivid imagery.

Researchers think that vivid poems might also be more interesting ones, which could explain their popularity in this particular study. In the future, they hope to use similar methodology to investigate factors that might influence our enjoyment of music, literature, and movies.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Why Reading Aloud Helps You Remember More Information
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If you're trying to commit something to memory, you shouldn't just read the same flashcard over and over. You should read it aloud, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

The research, published in the journal Memory, finds that the act of reading and speaking text aloud is a more effective way to remember information than reading it silently or just hearing it read aloud. The dual effect of both speaking and hearing helps encode the memory more strongly, the study reports. The new research builds on previous work on the so-called production effect by Waterloo psychologist Colin MacLeod, who is also one of the current paper's authors.  

The current study tested 95 college students over the course of two semesters, asking them to remember as many words as possible from a list of 160 nouns. At one session, they read a list of words into a microphone, then returned two weeks later for a follow-up. In some situations, the participants read the words presented to them aloud, while in others, they either heard their own recorded voice played back to them, heard recordings of others reading the words, or read the words silently to themselves. Afterward, they were tested to see how much they remembered from the list.

The participants remembered more words if they had read them aloud compared to all other conditions, even the one where people heard their own voices reading the words. However, hearing your own voice on its own does seem to have some effect: it was a better memory tool for participants than hearing someone else speak, perhaps because people are good at remembering things that involve them. (Or maybe, the researchers suggest, it's just because people find it so bizarre to hear their own recorded voice that it becomes a salient memory.)

The findings "suggest that production is memorable in part because it includes a distinctive, self-referential component," the researchers write. "This may well underlie why rehearsal is so valuable in learning and remembering: We do it ourselves, and we do it in our own voice. When it comes time to recover the information, we can use this distinctive component to help us to remember."

The message is loud and clear: If you want to remember, you should both read it and speak it aloud.

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