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Does Brain Training Work

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Thanks

Dave Moursund

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The following IAE-pedia entry has recently been expanded and updated:

Moursund, D. (April, 2014). “Brain Science.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/23/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

The IAE-pedia entry covers 36 different brain science topics that are important to teachers, parents, and others interested in education. One of the topics is “Games to Enhance Brain Functioning.” This IAE Blog entry is based on that section of the IAE-pedia “Brain Science” article. See http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science#Games_to_Enhance_Brain_Functioning.

In recent years, there has been considerable research and development in the area of games that are designed to improve a person’s cognitive abilities. Some of the games have been heavily advertised and have achieved large numbers of users. But, does this type of “brain training” really work?

Report on a Wii Game

The following short article reports on a study in which adults ages 50 to 70 each spent 20 hours over a period of a month playing a game. It summarizes some of the progress that had been made by the middle of 2010.

Bartlett, Tom (9/16/2010). “Can the Wii Make Your Brain Bigger?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 11/7/2013 from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Can-the-Wii-Make-Your-Brain/26979/?sid=wc&utm_source=wc&utm_medium=en. An abstract of the research paper is available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20822257. Quoting from the article:

The game "Big Brain Academy" for the Nintendo Wii tests your abilities in five areas: "memory, analysis, number crunching, visual recognition, and quick thinking." According to its promotional material, it allows you to "have fun learning from the comfort of your couch."

First, the bad news: playing the Wii game didn't improve their cognitive and perceptual abilities, according to the tests. On the upside, the subjects did get better at playing "Big Brain Academy." Those Wii skills, however, don't seem to transfer to the non-Wii world.

As you can see, the much-hyped Wii game did not produce significant gains in brain functioning.

Lumosity Games

Lumosity is an example of a company that has had considerable commercial success in the brain game industry. Its website reports, "Researchers have measured improvements in working memory and attention after training." This company advertises widely and claims that it has had over 50 million users of its materials. The website provides some information on 15 completed research projects and 38+ ongoing research projects. Here are brief excerpts from the website on two reports of the completed research projects:

A 2013 peer-reviewed study from Dr. Shelli Kesler, an Assistant Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, shows that Lumosity training can improve the brain’s executive functions, which are a key driver of everyday quality of life. Dr. Shelli Kesler found that women who completed about 12 weeks of Lumosity training improved significantly on a common neuropsychological test (the WCST) compared to a control group of women that did not train. The training targeted skills such as working memory, verbal fluency, processing speed, and cognitive flexibility.

[In another study,] 1,204 students from 40 different schools participated in a semester-long study of Lumosity in the classroom. Students who supplemented their regular curricula with Lumosity training improved more than a control group on a battery of cognitive assessments.

More Research

The following article suggests that research on the use of games to improve cognitive functioning is promising but in its infancy:

Walton, Alice G. (9/5/2013). “Can Video Games Actually Improve Brain and Cognitive Function?” Forbes. Retrieved 11/7/2013 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2013/09/05/can-video-games-actually-improve-brain-and-cognitive-function/. Quoting from the article:

The cover of Nature this month features a “game changing” study suggesting that video games may improve brain function in certain measurable ways. The games, of course, are specifically designed for this purpose—they’re not off the shelf at the local game shop—and they give the brain’s attention areas a good workout. The research team led by Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco say that a similar approach could become a therapeutic tool for people dealing with a range of issues, like ADHD, dementia, autism. All of these have a common denominator—the loss of cognitive control, which includes the closely linked capacities to attend, make decisions, and multitask. The research is still in its baby stages, so it’s too soon to take that bet, but the possibilities of the technology are alluring, and the study’s underlying logic worth paying attention to. [Bold added for emphasis.]

The website http://news.softpedia.com/news/Games-Might-Improve-Cognition-in-the-Elderly-Says-Study-381110.shtml reported on the same study as the article by Walton mentioned above. This report was somewhat negative and closed with the statement, "There are other studies that show brain training video games actually have no effect on the cognitive performance of players."

The following article is also critical of the research to date.

Olena, Abby (4/21/2014). “Does Brain Training Work?” The Scientist. Retrieved 4/23/2014 from http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/39768/title/Does-Brain-Training-Work-/. Quoting from the article:

“Psychologists have been trying to come up with ways to increase intelligence for a very long time,” said D. Zachary Hambrick, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “We’ve been interested in increasing intelligence for almost as long as we’ve studied intelligence, which is over a century.”

Psychologist Randall Engle’s group at Georgia Tech has previously shown that working memory capacity is highly correlated with complex learning, problem solving, and general attention control. But he pointed out that this correlation does not mean that by increasing working memory capacity, fluid intelligence can be increased. “This idea that intelligence can be trained would be a great thing if it were true,” Engle said.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason quickly and to think abstractly; this type of intelligence tends to decline during late adulthood. The Olena paper briefly discusses an often-quoted 2008 study: “Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.”

When Engle’s group tried to repeat the findings of the [2008] paper, “we totally failed to replicate the . . . study,” he said. For the paper that resulted from their efforts, which was published in 2012 in Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers taught the same working memory tasks, in which participants were presented with stimuli one right after the other and are asked to recall which occurred a certain number of times previously, to one group of young adults; an adaptive visual search task to a second group; and no task to a control group. The researchers assessed the participants at the beginning, middle, and end of the training programs for measures of cognitive function, including fluid intelligence and multitasking. The groups that practiced the n-back and the visual search tasks improved their performance on those tasks specifically, but the team found no positive transfer to the other cognitive abilities they tested.

“Data obtained so far doesn’t seem to show that working memory capacity was expanded after working memory training,” coauthor Weng-Tink Chooi, who is now a researcher at the Advanced Medical and Dental Institute of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist. “What is more consistently observed is that improvements are noted on the trained task and other tasks that share the same specific skills/processes engaged as the trained task.” [Bold added for emphasis.]

Update Added 01/27/2014

Koenig, R. (01/22/2014). Brain-Training Companies Get Advice From Some Academics, Criticism From Others. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 10/27/2014 from http://chronicle.com/article/Brain-Training-Companies-Get/149555/.

Quoting from the article:

… brain-game companies entice people to buy subscriptions to their online training programs, many of which promise to increase customers’ "neuroplasticity," "fluid intelligence," and working memory capacity. They even claim to help stave off the effects of aging.

Leading scientists have criticized those promises, though. The loudest objection came on Monday, when the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin, released "A Consensus on the Brain-Training Industry From the Scientific Community," a statement objecting "to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline."

Nearly 70 psychology, neuroscience, and gerontology professors signed the document, which has been in the works since a group of scientists met, in April 2013, to discuss their concerns about the burgeoning industry that claims to draw on their research.

Update Added 3/30/2015

Here is another somewhat negative article:

Abner, E. (3/232015). Opinion: Can the Brain Be Trained? New Scientist. Retrieved 3/30/2015 from http://www.the-scientist.com//?articles.view/articleNo/42522/title/Opinion--Can-the-Brain-Be-Trained-/.


Quoting from the article:

Meanwhile, products already on the market claim to build, support, and protect brain function. Companies like Lumosity, for example, produce online games that promiseto train your brainfor better performance in memory and other aspects of cognition. With millions of dollars invested in these industries, brain health is clearly big business. In 2013,Forbesnamed Lumosity, which has millions of customers, one of “America’s most promising companies.” But are the promises of improved cognition supported by evidence? [Bold added for emphasis.]

So far, the answer is no. Recently, the Stanford Center for Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development convened a group of more than 60 neuroscientists to develop a consensus statement on how well brain games match up to their advertised benefits. The group concluded that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated and at times misleading.” The consensus group reported that while game scores will in fact improve for most consumers, these are short-term improvements that do not extend to other brain functions. In other words, better scores are the result of practicing the games and do not appear to translate into better memory, thinking, or gains in intelligence. Further, there is no evidence that these brain-training games will prevent or slow the onset of cognitive impairment or dementia.

Final Remarks

We are still a long way from developing brain games that significantly improve brain functioning over a broad range of tasks beyond those tasks specifically trained for in the games. There are a number of companies and well-qualified brain and game researchers working in this area, but it is proving to be a quite difficult challenge. So, be skeptical of unsubstantiated claims from the developers and marketers of such games.

What You Can Do

When your students play a computer game, they are exercising their brains. They are also learning how to play the game and most will become better at it with practice. If you spend quite a bit of your own time playing computer games, take some additional time to do metacognition/reflection about what you are learning. Try to evaluate the extent to which your increasing game knowledge and skill transfers to other problems and tasks that you face in your everyday life.

Then do the same exercise with your students. Encourage your students to think about their lives, both in and out of school, or you might restrict their metacognition/reflection specifically to the subject area that you are teaching to them.

After they complete the metacognition/reflection, have them share their insights in small groups or with the whole class.

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (10/31/2013). Transfer of Learning. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/transfer-of-learning.html.

Moursund, D. (10/7/2012). The Brain Series on PBS Hosted by Charlie Rose and Eric Kandel. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2041 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/the-brain-series-on-pbs-hosted-by-charlie-rose-and-eric-kandel.html.

Moursund, D. (12/21/2013). Education for the Future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/education-for-the-future.html.

Moursund, D. (12/6/2010). Neuromythologies (Brain Science Mythologies) in Education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/neuromythologies-brain-science-mythologies-in-education.html.

Moursund, D. (4/16/2014). Some Underlying Theory about Electronic Games in Education. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html?start=60.

Moursund, D. (April, 2014). “Brain Science.” IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/23/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Moursund, D. (n.d.). Education for Increasing Expertise. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 4/24/2014 from http://iae-pedia.org/Education_for_Increasing_Expertise.

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