Monday, 26 April 2010

Mind games

We know surprisingly little about how the brain works, so I’ve been even more surprised by advertised claims for handheld devices with software applications that “train the brain”. And it’s no surprise at all that recent research reports have rubbished these claims.*

As this article in Scientific American, for example, reports, repetition of ‘brain training’ activities improves performance in those specific activities themselves, but nothing more (UK reports say the same). In particular, there is no evidence of transfer of learning to other activities.

This is pretty damning, since many scientists believe the capacity to transfer learning is “hard-wired” into the brain, as we constantly seek ways to take ideas from one sphere and apply them to another. This suggests there are plenty of better ways to prepare your brain – or, more accurately, your mind – to adapt to new challenges.

Transfer of learning is an important issue for learning and development professionals: we are constantly seeking ways to promote learning off-the-job that may be successfully applied on-the-job. These reports could be interpreted as evidence that software applications are unlikely to support learning transfer. However we should be wary of leaping to false conclusions: brain training applications are really just simple games, and worlds apart from software applications, such as simulations, designed to impact on performance at work. Many software applications can help – but brain training is not among them.

* Victoria Coren, in her Observer column yesterday, tried to claim the research is insufficient to substantiate its conclusions. Her argument seems to rest on effects of brain training, unseen for six weeks, having a longer term effect. Coren, usually so incisive and witty, is wrong, as comparison with any other form of learning proves – the key point is that there is no transfer of learning.

1 comment:

Martin Walker said...

Hello, Ken.

In fact, some brain training software has been shown to produce transfer to general intellectual ability. A widely reported study in 2008 demonstrated that intensive working memory training led to significant improvements in fluid intelligence.

When one looks closely at studies that show no transfer the problem is usually the training intervention itself. Brain scientists have known for a couple of decades that any kind of cognitive change requires intensive repeated intervention in a way that requires attention. (The recent BBC study required fairly non-intensive training for just ten minutes three times per week!)

I would invite anyone to try a proven brain training program and witness for themselves the cognitive benefits.

Martin Walker

Best wishes,
Martin Walker