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.

No comments: