Saturday, 17 December 2011

Does Brain Training work?

I came across this morning. It's a brain-training website where you can play games that supposedly help improve your short term memory, enhance your peripheral vision and even upgrade your fluid intelligence (the ability to solve new problems and learn new things).

Great marketing
I want some of that! What sold me was the claim that playing on Lumosity could help me remember names. I am focusing on becoming more likeable at the moment and remembering names definitely helps there.

A lot of fun

I spent 10 minutes playing some of the games this morning. They were fun and challenging. I really struggled with the birdwatching game. Birds pop up on the screen at the same time as a number. To get points, you have to click on where the bird was and what number showed up. I found when the game sped up, I couldn't focus on both things at the same time, which comes down to poor peripheral vision. Poor peripheral vision affects me in the real world (I find peripheral vision is a good proxy for my ability to focus my attention), so I will be very interested to see whether becoming a better 'birdwatcher' will translate out into real life.

Progress over time

What I really like is that tracks your progress. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm addicted to self improvement:P I could see myself making a habit of playing Lumosity just to improve my scores.

Does brain training actually do anything?
Now comes the sceptical, analytical side of me. Is it worth spending time playing brain training games? Will it really supercharge my brain or is it just a fun illusion of progress?

The problem of training specificity
The immediate issue I think of is training specificity. I've trained as a long distance runner for the last five years and one thing I've learnt is that cross training doesn't work that well. Doing lots of cycling will keep my heart and lungs strong but if I go for a hard run after three weeks off training, my legs will hold me back because I haven't specifically trained those muscles.

The same thing would apply to brain training. Playing Bird Watching a lot might make me really good at Bird Watching, but what does it mean in the real world? Do these practice effects translate out into the real world?

Maybe - brain training improves your IQ
Perrig and colleagues looked at the real world value of brain training. They recruited 70 volunteers and got one group to do 25 minutes of daily brain training exercises for 8-10 days. The control group did nothing. They tested the volunteers' working memory before and after the training regime using a test that was very different from the training exercises.

What they found is that it that there was a big difference between the volunteers who trained versus the volunteers who didn't train. Furthermore, the more training the volunteers did, the bigger the performance improvement was.

The conclusion: brain training might work
The research looks fairly convincing. Brain training does seem to have some effect. You could debate whether short term memory tests and IQ tests are meaningful in the real world (and that is a valid concern), but I'm going to cite the Precautionary Principle here. There is enough evidence that brain training might be worthwhile for me to give it a shot. The latest research suggests that the key question is not whether brain training works, but how to make it most effective.

How can I measure the success of brain training
A mental struggle I have right now is how to measure the success of brain training. Lumosity gives me scores that are supposedly a proxy for real world performance but that's not really good enough for me. I want to be able to track my brainpower in the real world.

Has anyone got any ideas for how to measure cognitive function in the real world? 

1 comment:

Simon Dirks said...

I think brain games work pretty well. Games like braintraining on the DS, I don't think so. You'll just get better at the games instead of improving your actual cognitive skills. The creators themselves admitted that. It's for entertainment purposes.

But, if you take a site like with games all based upon neuroscientific research, or another similar site, I think you can actually achieve some nice results with daily training.

At least I feel like it's helping for me, and I train about 15 minutes a day.