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Nintendo Brain Age/ Training vs. Crossword Puzzles

Nin­tendo brain-trainer ‘no bet­ter than pen­cil and paper’ (The Times):
“The sur­vey of ten-year-old chil­dren found no evi­dence to sup­port claims in Nintendo’s adver­tis­ing cam­paign, fea­tur­ing Nicole Kid­man, that users can test and reju­ve­nate their grey cells. The Nin­tendo DS is a tech­no­log­i­cal jewel. As a game it’s fine, said Alain Lieury, pro­fes­sor of cog­ni­tive psy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Rennes, Brit­tany, who con­ducted the sur­vey. But it is char­la­tanism to claim that it is a sci­en­tific test.

Com­ments: as we have said before, Nin­tendo Brain Age and Brain Train­ing should be seen as what they are: a game. And the con­struct of one’s hav­ing a  “brain age” makes no sense.

Hav­ing said that, the researcher quoted then offers, out of the blue, a highly inac­cu­rate statement:

The study tested Nintendo’s claims on 67 ten-year-olds. “That’s the age where you have the best chance of improve­ment,” Pro­fes­sor Lieury said. “If it doesn’t work on chil­dren, it won’t work on adults.”

That asser­tion (that some­thing won’t “work” on adults because it won’t “work” on kids) makes even less sense than hav­ing a “brain age”. The Cog­ni­tive Reserve research shows the need for life­long men­tal stim­u­la­tion — and the real­ity is that kids are more exposed to nov­elty and chal­lenge all the time, whereas older adults may not be. Fur­ther, that claim (some­thing that doesn’t “work” on kids won’t “work” on adults) has already been tested and proven wrong:

In a cou­ple of recent tri­als, dis­cussed here, the same strat­egy game (Rise of Nations, a com­plex chal­lenge for exec­u­tive func­tions), played for the same num­ber of hours (23)  showed quite impres­sive (untrained) cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits in peo­ple over 60 — and no ben­e­fits in peo­ple in their 20s.

How can this be? Well, we often say that our brains need nov­elty, vari­ety and chal­lenge — and it should be obvi­ous that those ingre­di­ents depend on who we are/ what we do. A cross­word may well be new and chal­leng­ing for a kid, but not for an older adult who has done a mil­lion already. A videogame can pro­vide good chal­lenge to an older adult — and prob­a­bly not to the kid who already spends 5 hours a day play­ing them.

Fur­ther, it is not Nin­tendo that offers a science-based cog­ni­tive train­ing prod­uct. A vari­ety of com­put­er­ized prod­ucts have been shown to work on enhanc­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties for spe­cific groups of peo­ple and for spe­cific pur­poses (there is no magic cure or gen­eral solu­tion) — some­thing that cross­word puz­zles never have.

A few months back I inter­viewed Mar­tin Buschkuehl, after his team pub­lished a study show­ing how com­put­er­ized work­ing mem­ory train­ing can enhance fluid intel­li­gence. A ques­tion I asked was How are com­put­er­ized pro­grams like the one you used fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent from, say, sim­ply doing many cross­word puzzles?

His answer:

In terms of why our pro­gram worked, I could say that the pro­gram has some inher­ent prop­er­ties that are at least in this com­bi­na­tion unique to our train­ing approach. Our pro­gram is:
– Fully adap­tive in real-time: The per­son using the pro­gram is truly pushed to his or her peak level all the time, thereby “stretch­ing” the tar­geted abil­ity.
– Com­plex: We present a very com­plex task, mix­ing dif­fer­ent forms of stim­uli (audi­tory, visual) under time pres­sure.
– Designed for Trans­fer­abil­ity: The tasks can be designed in a way that do not allow for the devel­op­ment of task-specific “strate­gies” to beat the game. One needs to truly expand capac­ity, and this helps ensure the trans­fer of to non-trained tasks.”

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