Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Brain Training" ineffective?

Adrian Owen et al. published a letter in Nature this week, summarizing the results of a study examining the effects of playing "brain training" computer games.  Here is the link:

The format of the study is interesting, involving the BBC website, inviting mass public participation in ongoing on-line research projects (here's a link to that site, which has a variety of other entertaining surveys you can do:

In this case, over 11 000 subjects did various types of computer games on-line, aimed at developing various cognitive skills.  The subjects had to practice for at least 10 minutes per day, at least 3 days per week, for 6 weeks.  Some subjects practiced much more than others. 

The results are not very surprising to me:  basically, they showed that the skills developed while practicing a computer game do not "transfer" : they do not lead to generalized improvement in cognitive ability.   Even the subjects who practiced much more than the minimum requirement did not end up improving in a set of generalized cognitive tests afterwords.

Subjects improved significantly only in the specific tasks which were practiced.  This is intuitively obvious.   If you practice Tetris, you will become much better at Tetris, but are not likely to improve your mastery of French vocabulary!  Practicing volleyball will not help your guitar skills very much -- in some cases, such practice may in fact interfere with other skills acquisition, because one is procrastinating or redirecting energy away from one skill while practicing another.    Certainly it is true that computer games can be quite addictive:  if someone is spending many hours per week playing computer chess, or some other game, instead of reading, then overall educational performance is likely to decline rather than improve.

For participants in this study, it may be true that benefits occurred in "process" which were not adequately measured by the benchmark tests administered before and after the 6-week trial.  For example, playing a game which improves reflexes or visual memory might not immediately or directly "transfer" or  lead to improved performance in another reflex-based or memory-based benchmark test--but it might cause improvement in the rate at which another reflex-based or memory-based test, task, or game would be learned or mastered.  Analogously, if you have played a lot of volleyball, you might not immediately perform well in soccer--but you might learn to play and master soccer more quickly.  Or, if you have learned French and Spanish, you might not immediately perform well in a German vocabulary test, but you might be able to learn German much more quickly.  These types of benefits would not be picked up by the testing administered in this study. 

Here are some further ideas:

1) Is it possible that some particular cognitive games are more useful or generalizable than others?

-I think this is very possible.  I think that one should consider what type of gain is desired from the exercise you are doing.

A game which helps you practice learning and remembering faces and names could be quite helpful if such memory issues are problematic in your daily life.  Such a game would be inherently generalizable, since the daily behaviour and experience outside of the game would be similar to the game challenges. has examples of such games.

A game which helps you pay attention to reading texts closely, while monitoring and testing your speed, accuracy, memory, and comprehension of the text, could be very useful if you are having trouble reading or studying.

Games which teach and test general knowledge subjects could be obviously useful to gain general knowledge -- e.g. learning vocabulary, facts about nature, etc.

So, I think one should choose games carefully, with the knowledge that the game will train you to improve in a particular skill.  Is that particular skill likely to be useful or generalizable in your daily life?

2) Is it possible that some of the specific games used in this study could be generally useful to some particular individuals, even though they were not helpful to the group as a whole?

-I think this is very possible as well.  There are three main issues that leap to my mind about this:

First, the study looks at a large general population of volunteer subjects.  A great many of these subjects were probably already in pretty good shape cognitively, and were motivated and enthusiastic to participate in such a research project.  This would be like asking a bunch of fitness enthusiasts to do 10 minutes of calisthenics 3 times per week, and then checking to see if their overall fitness improved 6 weeks later.  It would not be surprising to see an absence of any effect.  However, if the participants were chosen because of having cognitive weaknesses, due to learning disabilities, dementia, other illnesses, or environmental deprivation, then perhaps there could have been a much more substantial and relevant improvement with such a regime.  People with a lower fitness level would be expected to benefit much more substantially from a simple calisthenic routine than those already in good shape.  Many people with depression might have low motivation or engagement with intellectual tasks -- in this case, games of this type might help people get their minds more active again, as a prelude to other types of learning or intellectual engagement. 

Second, I am reminded of some other requirements for change in the brain: an immersive or highly intensive environment can be required for the brain's plasticity to be harnessed.  This might require many hours per day, over many months.  These hundreds of hours of training would contrast with the total of 3 hours' minimum training which this study evaluated.   

Third, some of these game types could be useful, diagnostically, for evaluation or identification of particular cognitive or perceptual strengths and weaknesses.  If these problems are identified, then a specific recipe for improvement could be mapped out.

I do wish the authors of this study, given their interest in computer-based learning & cognitive testing, would invent some games which could help people develop ability in reading, comprehension, general knowledge, etc.  Also, there are game-like computerized exercises which can help people develop skills in recognizing emotions, empathizing, etc.  (examples can be found at the BBC site).   These exercises could be useful for dealing with social anxiety, relationship problems, Asperger's Syndrome, etc.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A good site for free cognitive training games

I found this free site which offers exercises which you can use to practice memory, concentration, and reasoning skills: 

There are a variety of basic memory exercises, mainly testing visual/spatial immediate memory.  Many of the tests are on a timer, for 90 seconds to 3 minutes, so the exercises are designed to help develop speed and accuracy.  Unfortunately, there is not much at this site for practicing verbal memory skills, verbal comprehension, calculation, longer-term memory, or other practical cognitive skills such as remembering faces or names.  But for a free site, it is quite good.  It also shows you a graph of your score improvement over time, which can demonstrate to you that your skills are improving with practice.

The authors of the site are two British professors who do research into web-based assessment and development of cognitive skills.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Optimal Learning & Training Schedules

An interesting question I have often considered has to do with the most efficient way to use time, in order to prepare for something, or to learn.  This is relevant in psychotherapy, in terms of helping therapeutic change progress at the most optimal pace.

To formalize the question, consider the following:

1) If you had 100 hours to learn something (e.g. to memorize a text; to learn a foreign language; to learn a musical instrument; to understand a set of complex ideas; to learn a new sports skill; or overcome a psychological symptom), how would you distribute these hours, so as to optimize the therapeutic change?  Would it be 10 hours per day, for 10 days in a row?  Or 1 hour per day, 100 days in a row?  Or 1 hour twice per day, for 50 days?  Or 1 hour per week, for 2 years (!?) 

2) Another set of constraints on this problem would be this -- if you had 10 weeks to learn something, a maximum of 10 hours per week to learn it, and a maximum of 10 hours on a single day to spend, what would be the best way to work?  Would it be 10 hours every Monday, for 10 weeks?  Or 2 hours every weekday? Or 1 hour twice a day on weekdays? 

It interests me to note that answers to this type of question come from different fields of research, from cognitive psychology to education to athletic training.

The most sophisticated piece of research I found regarding this issue is described in the following article:

Pavlik et al., "Using a model to compute the optimal schedule of practice," Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, v14 n2 p101-117 Jun 2008

The research shows that, in general, "spacing" is far superior to "blocking" in terms of time management or study scheduling.  That is, if you have 10 hours to learn something, it is better to split the time up into short blocks, with rest periods in-between, rather than spending all 10 hours at once.

Pavlik's article includes a much more sophisticated analysis:  for a memory task, items which were more difficult to remember were reviewed with a shorter interval, whereas easier or more well-learned items were reviewed with longer intervals.  As each item became more well-learned, the spacing increased gradually.  To review something too soon would not be using time well:  not only could that moment be used more efficiently to review something more difficult, it also does not develop the longer-term memory of the item as well.  It is most optimal to review something just as its memory is starting to decay.  These memory decays take place over a longer and longer time, the more you have learned something.    To review something with too long an interval between study trials would also be inefficient, as too much forgetting will have taken place, and an inefficient investment of time will need to be spent re-learning the same material.

Common practices in studying or practicing  include the following:
1) familiar or easy material is revisited too much:  it is often inefficient to review something you already know well, unless this causes you to  develop some new insight about it.
2) unfamiliar material is reviewed in large blocks of time (cramming) -- this is profoundly inefficient, and does not allow for long-term learning.

Pavlik's experiment also confirms that high levels of accuracy should be sought, right from the beginning, so as to maximize efficiency.

In summary, Pavlik's work shows that one should space learning efforts.  When just starting out, the spacing interval should be brief, with enough frequent review to master what you have just learned.  With the material mastered on a short-term time scale, the spacing interval can be extended, just enough to make the review slightly challenging.  This process continues, with gradual expansion of spacing intervals, until the material is permanently learned.   Once the spacing interval extends for days, weeks, or months, the learning will probably be permanent. 

The research is very incomplete on this matter, for a number of reasons:

1) the complexity of each individual learning task needs to be taken into account.  For example, if one is trying to solve a complex physics problem, or to comprehend a difficult concept in philosophy, it may be necessary to invest many solid, continuous hours of effort in a "block."  In this sense, each individual "trial" of learning takes place over many hours, rather than over seconds (as in memorizing a foreign-language word).  So, for more complex tasks, fragmenting one's study time could decrease efficiency.  But in a general sense, it will be extremely inefficient to try to "cram" in order to learn how to do complex physics problems.  The "spacing" needs to take place generously, but with each space over a period of days--allowing you to complete individual problems--rather than hours.

2) It remains true that action is required in order to learn.  If accuracy is valued so highly as a priority that action does not take place, than learning cannot occur.  So, for example, in order to learn a new language, one must practice speaking it, or using it.  If one is excessively meticulous about accuracy of vocabulary or grammar right from the beginning, and therefore one is silently contemplative in a conversational language class,  then the action cannot proceed, and instead a stifling self-critical process will inhibit learning and engagement. 

3) The existing research does not account for the powerful effects of "constraint-induced" neurologic change.  Immersive processes may permit the brain to develop new pathways much more efficiently -- anything less than immersion allows a continuing neural pathway of least resistance.  The Taubian ideas about stroke rehabilitation exemplify this phenomenon:  neurological recovery may be much more complete if the brain is not allowed to by-pass or compensate for the disabled body part:  in this way the brain's energy and capacity  and plasticity may be directed towards regaining lost function.  So, in this sense, a continuous "immersion" in a study process may be more effective than any sort of "spacing" regime.  The immersive experience would be a "block" lasting months at a time, continuously.  Of course, there could be smaller spacing effects within this.  Addiction recovery requires similar "immersion" in an abstinence process.  The neurological recovery from the addictive process could then proceed over months or years (typically a year being a significant milestone).   

4) Sometimes, large blocks of time can be useful.  Even though it is not the optimal schedule for using time, in terms of memory formation, it may be optimal on other levels, such as with developing the ability to maintain longer periods of attention in the subject matter, with developing deeper insights about patterns within the subject, or with developing a richer sense of community or identity around the activity.  Thus, a "weekend retreat" experience of something can be educationally powerful, even if the same number of hours spread over several weeks might be a more optimal use of time, if simple memory is the only consideration. 

Here are some references to other  research which addresses this question:
Extinction more effective if spaced rather than in a block of time.
Variable practice (involving several versions of a skill) has advantage over constant practice
Random training in basketball has better retention after 1 year
Contextual interference improves learning skill
Blocked practice better for immediate acquisition, random practice better for retention (long-term).
blocked practice better for acquisition, random practice better for retention (long-term) --pistol shooting
variable practice better in tennis
knowledge of results (KR) -- more is not necessarily better.  less KR improves results after a delay, especially if tested without KR
 shuffled practice of math problems vastly superior to standard blocked practice, when measured 1 wk later
spacing better, in general; but if the learner prefers a block strategy, then spacing less advantageous
1988 psychology article reviewing spacing as optimal memory strategy
1 day per week courses -- much inferior to 3 days per week

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Nature of Happiness - book review

The Nature of Happiness by Desmond Morris, is a brief little book describing the author's beliefs about various types of happiness.

I think it's worth including in a list of books to read about happiness, though I find it to be quite a superficial opinion piece.  There are a few interesting observations; some sound, simple advice;  and a collection of nice quotations from famous authors, but otherwise the book really lacks substance.  There is almost no reference to research;  there are many sweeping statements, such as about evolutionary underpinnings of happiness-related behaviour, yet without a rigorous development of these ideas, and perhaps without a sense of understanding the voice or perspective of those to whom he is referring.

It is always surprising to me how a minor text of this type could warrant a glowing review from a major newspaper:
"At last, a highly intelligent, serious exploration of a subject as universal as it is illuminating and fascinating read."  The Times