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Brain Exercise: Software vs. Crosswords

Today I had a great conversation with Martin Buschkuehl, one of the U Michigan researchers involved in the cognitive training study that has received much media attention since early last week, when the study was published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

I will publish the interview notes next week. For the moment, let me paraphrase his answer to the question: “Why are computerized programs like the one you used fundamentally different from, say, simply doing many crossword puzzles?”.

His answer was that for 3 reasons:

  1. Adaptive: The constant adaptability of the challenge level, thanks to real-time assessments. The person using the program is truly pushed to his or her peak level all the time, thereby “stretching” the targeted ability.
  2. Complex: The presentation of a very complex task, mixing different forms of stimuli (auditory, visual) and with time pressure.
  3. Transferability: The tasks can be designed in a way that doesn’t allow for the development of “strategies” to beat the game. One needs to truly expand capacity, and this helps ensure the transfer of the skill to non-trained domains.

All this is not to say that computerized programs are the only way to exercise our brains. There are many other ways, such as meditation, or mastering new skills. And there are other important factors in our overall cognitive health, like physical fitness and stress management. Having said that, technology, when designed and used well, can expand the realm of the possible.

Some of the media coverage:

Forget Brain Age: Researchers Develop Software That Makes You Smarter (Wired).

– “In a limited trial, he and his team were able to make 34 test subjects significantly better at answering IQ test questions after training them on a completely separate memory task”

-“The improvement seems to be dosage dependent,” Buschkuehl said. “We saw a linear increase in performance with increase in training time.”

To be continued…(next week)

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  1. Martin says:

    I’ve been taking training based on Martin Buschkuehl’s dual n-back method and I’ve found that (after 22 days of training) I’m getting better at crossword puzzles (among other things)! The opposite wouldn’t happen.

    Martin

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