Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Brain Training with Cognitive Simulations

Today we will con­tin­ue our review of the ben­e­fits of brain train­ing for spe­cif­ic occu­pa­tions: in this case, pilots and bas­ket­ball play­ers. The lessons can be rel­e­vant not only for cor­po­rate train­ing but also for edu­ca­tion and brain health & well­ness.

To do so, we will select quotes from our inter­view last year with one of the major sci­en­tists in the field of cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions, Pro­fes­sor Daniel Gopher. You can read the full inter­view here.

Prof. Gopher pub­lished an award-win­ning arti­cle in 1994, Gopher, D., Weil, M. and Baraket, T. (1994), Trans­fer of skill from a com­put­er game train­er to flight, Human Fac­tors 36, 1–19., that con­sti­tutes a key mile­stone in the cog­ni­tive engi­neer­ing field.

On Cog­ni­tive Train­ing and Cog­ni­tive Sim­u­la­tions

AF: Tell us a bit about your over­all research inter­ests

DG: My main inter­est has been how to expand the lim­its of human atten­tion, infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing and response capa­bil­i­ties which are crit­i­cal in com­plex, real-time deci­sion-mak­ing, high-demand tasks such as fly­ing a mil­i­tary jet or play­ing pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball. Using a ten­nis anal­o­gy, my goal has been, and is, how to help devel­op many “Wimbledon”-like cham­pi­ons. Each with their own styles, but per­form­ing to their max­i­mum capac­i­ty to suc­ceed in their envi­ron­ments.

What research over the last 15–20 years has shown is that cog­ni­tion, or what we call think­ing and per­for­mance, is real­ly a set of skills that we can train sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly. And that com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive train­ers or “cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions” are the most effec­tive and effi­cient way to do so.

This is an impor­tant point, so let me empha­size it. What we have dis­cov­ered is that a key fac­tor for an effec­tive trans­fer from train­ing envi­ron­ment to real­i­ty is that the train­ing pro­gram ensures “Cog­ni­tive Fideli­ty”, this is, it should faith­ful­ly rep­re­sent the men­tal demands that hap­pen in the real world. Tra­di­tion­al approach­es focus instead on phys­i­cal fideli­ty, which may seem more intu­itive, but less effec­tive and hard­er to achieve. They are also less effi­cient, giv­en costs involved in cre­at­ing expen­sive phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tors that faith­ful­ly repli­cate, let’s say, a whole mil­i­tary heli­copter or just a sig­nif­i­cant part of it.

AF: Very inter­est­ing. In the Seri­ous Games Sum­mit this week we are see­ing a num­ber of sim­u­la­tions for mil­i­tary train­ing that try to be as real­is­tic as pos­si­ble. Are you say­ing that they may not be the best approach for train­ing?

DG: The need for phys­i­cal fideli­ty is not based on research, at least for the type of high-per­for­mance train­ing we are talk­ing about. In fact, a sim­ple envi­ron­ment may be bet­ter in that it does not cre­ate the illu­sion of real­i­ty. Sim­u­la­tions can be very expen­sive and com­plex, some­times even cost­ing as much as the real thing, which lim­its the access to train­ing. Not only that, but the whole effort may be futile, giv­en that some impor­tant fea­tures can not be repli­cat­ed (such as grav­i­ta­tion free tilt­ed or invert­ed flight), and even result in neg­a­tive trans­fer, because learn­ers pick up on spe­cif­ic train­ing fea­tures or sen­sa­tions that do not exist in the real sit­u­a­tion.

Main stud­ies and appli­ca­tions

AF: What are the main stud­ies have you con­duct­ed?

DG: in this field of work, I would men­tion two. In one, which con­sti­tut­ed the basis for the 1994 paper, we showed that 10 hours of train­ing for flight cadets, in an atten­tion train­er instan­ti­at­ed as a com­put­er game-Space Fortress- result­ed in 30% improve­ment in their flight per­for­mance. The results led the train­er to be inte­grat­ed into the reg­u­lar train­ing pro­gram of the flight school. It was used in the train­ing of hun­dreds of flight cadets for sev­er­al years. In the oth­er one, spon­sored by NASA, we com­pared the results of the cog­ni­tive train­er vs. a sophis­ti­cat­ed, pic­to­r­i­al and high-lev­el-graph­ic and phys­i­cal-fideli­ty-based com­put­er sim­u­la­tion of a Black­hawk heli­copter. The result: the Space Fortress cog­ni­tive train­er was very suc­cess­ful in improv­ing per­for­mance, while the alter­na­tive was not. The study was pub­lished in the pro­ceed­ings of the Human Fac­tors and Ergonom­ic Soci­ety: Hart S. G and Bat­tiste V. (1992), Flight test of a video game train­er. Pro­ceed­ings of the Human Fac­tors Soci­ety 26th Meet­ing (pp. 1291–1295).

AF: What have been to date the main appli­ca­tions of your com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions?

DG: in sum­ma­ry, I’d say

- Fly­ing high-per­for­mance air­planes: in 10 hours, we showed an increase in 30% flight per­for­mance

- Fly­ing with HMD (hel­met mount­ed dis­plays)

- Touch-typ­ing skills

- Teach­ing old adults to cope with high work­load atten­tion demands.

- Devel­op­ing Bas­ket­ball “game-intel­li­gence” for pro­fes­sion­al play­ers, to improve the per­for­mance of indi­vid­u­als and teams

Train­er for bas­ket­ball “game-intel­li­gence”

AF: talk to us about the bas­ket­ball exam­ple. I am sure many read­ers will find that fas­ci­nat­ing.

DG: I served as a sci­en­tif­ic advi­sor to ACE, who devel­oped the pro­gram called Intel­li­Gym. Although the con­text is dif­fer­ent, the approach and basic prin­ci­ples are the same of those of devel­op­ing a train­er for the task of fly­ing a high per­for­mance jet air­plane. First, one needs to ana­lyze what cog­ni­tive skills are involved in play­ing at top lev­el, and then devel­op a com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tion that trains those skills. What most peo­ple don’t real­ize is that top play­ers are not born top play­ers. We are not just talk­ing about instincts. We are talk­ing about skills that can be trained.

AF: what are the results of the pro­gram so far?

DG: Well, first let me say that the com­pa­ny has had to over­come huge cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers to get adop­tion by a good num­ber of uni­ver­si­ty teams and some NBA play­ers. Coach­es see the val­ue of this tool very quick­ly, but admin­is­tra­tors are hard­er to con­vince in the begin­ning. We have seen that the teams and indi­vid­u­als using Intel­li­gym have improved their per­for­mance sig­nif­i­cant­ly. From the cog­ni­tive train­ing, or skill devel­op­ment point of view, we have seen that play­ers improve their posi­tion­al aware­ness-of them­selves, their mates and oppo­nents, and abil­i­ty to pre­dict what is going on in the game and to make fast and good deci­sions. Play­ers quick­ly devel­op atten­tion allo­ca­tion strate­gies that enable them bet­ter par­tic­i­pate in the game, and also improve their spa­tial ori­en­ta­tion.

Sum­ma­ry of key find­ings

AF: Fas­ci­nat­ing real-world expe­ri­ence. Can you sum­ma­rize your research find­ings across all these exam­ples and fields, and how you see the field evolv­ing?

DG: In short, I’d sum­ma­rize by say­ing that

- Cog­ni­tive per­for­mance can be sub­stan­tial­ly improved with prop­er train­ing.

- It is not rigid­ly con­strained by innate, fixed abil­i­ties.

- Cog­ni­tive task analy­sis enables us to extract major cog­ni­tive skills involved in any task.

- Atten­tion con­trol and atten­tion allo­ca­tion strate­gies are a crit­i­cal deter­mi­nants in per­form­ing at top lev­el in com­plex, real-time deci­sion-mak­ing envi­ron­ments

- Those skills, and oth­er asso­ci­at­ed, can be improved through train­ing

- Research shows that stand-alone, inex­pen­sive, PC-based train­ing is effec­tive to trans­fer and gen­er­al­ize per­for­mance.

- The key for suc­cess is to ensure Cog­ni­tive fideli­ty, this is, that the cog­ni­tive demands in train­ing resem­ble those of the real life task.

I can think of many oth­er appli­ca­tions. Prob­a­bly cur­ren­cy and options traders would ben­e­fit from a sys­tem like this. Now, we will need to increase aware­ness, and will need to find cham­pi­ons will­ing to take risks. The cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tion approach is less intu­itive that tra­di­tion­al ones.

Pro­fes­sor Wayne She­bilske, at Wright State Uni­ver­si­ty Psy­chol­o­gy depart­ment, is con­duct­ing addi­tion­al research on appli­ca­tions, such as out­lined on the paper She­bilske, Wayne L., et al, “Revised Space Fortress: A Val­i­da­tion Study” (accept­ed for Behav­ior Research Meth­ods, Instru­ments and com­put­ers).

(Pro­fes­sor She­bilske was kind enough to write a great com­ment below, giv­ing us 2 detailed ref­er­ences:

She­bilske, W. L., Volz, R. A., Gildea, K. M., Work­man, J. W., Nan­janath, M., Cao, S., & Whet­zel, J. (2005). Revised Space Fortress: A val­i­da­tion study. Behav­ior Research Meth­ods, 37, 591–601.

Volz, R.A., John­son, J.C., Cao, S., Nan­janath, M., Whet­zel, J., Ioerg­er, T.R., Raman, B., She­bilske, W.L., and Xu, Dianx­i­ang (2005). Fine-Grained data acqui­si­tion and agent ori­ent­ed tools for dis­trib­uted train­ing pro­to­col research: Revised Space Fortress. Down Load Tech­ni­cal Sup­ple­ment, Psy­cho­nom­ic Soci­ety Web-based Archive (see 37,591–601).

AF: are you doing some­thing to spread the word?

DG: apart from con­fer­ences and jour­nals, I have writ­ten the chap­ter Empha­sis change as a train­ing pro­to­col for high demands tasks, in the book Applied Atten­tion: From The­o­ry to Prac­tice, A. Kramer, D. Wieg­man, A. Kir­lik (Eds): Oxford Psy­chol­o­gy Press, about to be released.

A more in-depth view of his cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tion approach

AF: Great. For read­ers who may be inter­est­ed in more spe­cif­ic details about your spe­cif­ic approach to cog­ni­tive train­ing, could you give us some lessons learned?

DG: Good ques­tion. There are dif­fer­ent types of cog­ni­tive train­ing. The one we have spe­cial­ized in focus­es on the devel­op­ment of atten­tion-con­trol, atten­tion-allo­ca­tion strate­gies, which are bot­tle­neck in some high-per­form­ing, high-men­tal-work­load- envi­ron­ments. Our approach is called Empha­sis Change Pro­to­col, and is based on the intro­duc­tion of sys­tem­at­ic vari­abil­i­ty in train­ing, while main­tain­ing the over­all task intact. We just change the empha­sis on sub-com­po­nents of a com­plex task dur­ing per­for­mance. In our research, this has proven to be the most effec­tive way to train atten­tion man­age­ment skills, task switch­ing and con­trol process­es, such as the abil­i­ty to ini­ti­ate, coor­di­nate, syn­chro­nize and reg­u­late goal-direct­ed behav­ior.

This “whole task” approach increas­es trans­fer and adap­ta­tion capa­bil­i­ties, vs. tra­di­tion­al part task train­ing, which decom­pos­es the com­plex task and trains ele­ments in iso­la­tion. How­ev­er, whole task train­ing is hard­er at the begin­ning-there is slow­er progress at ear­ly stages of train­ing.

Oth­er prin­ci­ples we use, based on our and oth­ers lit­er­a­ture, is the need for inter­mit­tent sched­ules of feed­back (vs. full one), to help reten­tion and trans­fer (at the cost of mak­ing learn­ing slow­er), and the encour­age­ment to explore alter­na­tives to reach a gen­er­al opti­mum. This explo­ration is impor­tant: we want to help the user find a flex­i­ble, and per­son­al best, match between his abil­i­ties and task demands, out of local­ized peaks. Com­ing back to the ten­nis exam­ple, we know that McEn­roe and Boris Beck­er have dif­fer­ent styles, but both are Wim­ble­don win­ners. We want to make sure the user increas­es sen­si­tiv­i­ty to real-time changes in the envi­ron­ment and expands his or her abil­i­ty to cope with them.

AF: Pro­fes­sor Gopher, it has been a plea­sure to talk to you. Thank you for your time.


After we pub­lished this inter­view, Pro­fes­sor She­bilske wrote the great fol­low­ing com­ment:

Your excel­lent inter­view with Dr. Gopher remind­ed me why so many of us have fol­lowed his lead in train­ing com­plex skills. I hope that your inter­view inspires oth­ers. They will find that he is gen­er­ous with his ideas, time, ener­gy, and infec­tious pos­i­tive spir­it. Work­ing with him to repli­cate exper­i­ments and extend ideas is both pro­duc­tive and enjoy­able.
Your inter­view includes a ref­er­ence to an arti­cle by my col­leagues and me. I want to update the ref­er­ence and pro­vide a relat­ed ref­er­ence to a Web-based Archive.

She­bilske, W. L., Volz, R. A., Gildea, K. M., Work­man, J. W., Nan­janath, M., Cao, S., & Whet­zel, J. (2005). Revised Space Fortress: A val­i­da­tion study. Behav­ior Research Meth­ods, 37, 591–601.

Volz, R.A., John­son, J.C., Cao, S., Nan­janath, M., Whet­zel, J., Ioerg­er, T.R., Raman, B., She­bilske, W.L., and Xu, Dianx­i­ang (2005). Fine-Grained data acqui­si­tion and agent ori­ent­ed tools for dis­trib­uted train­ing pro­to­col research: Revised Space Fortress. Down Load Tech­ni­cal Sup­ple­ment, Psy­cho­nom­ic Soci­ety Web-based Archive (see 37,591–601). .

The jour­nal arti­cles’ abstract describes both:

We describe briefly the rede­vel­op­ment of Space Fortress (SF), a research tool wide­ly used to study train­ing of com­plex tasks involv­ing both cog­ni­tive and motor skills, to exe­cute on cur­rent gen­er­a­tion sys­tems with sig­nif­i­cant­ly extend­ed capa­bil­i­ties, and then com­pare the per­for­mance of human par­tic­i­pants on an orig­i­nal PC ver­sion of SF with the Revised Space Fortress (RSF). Par­tic­i­pants trained on SF or RSF for 10 sets of 8 3‑min prac­tice tri­als and 2 3‑min test tri­als. They then took tests on reten­tion, resis­tance to sec­ondary task inter­fer­ence, and trans­fer to a dif­fer­ent con­trol sys­tem. They then switched from SF to RSF or from RSF to SF for two sets of final tests and com­plet­ed rat­ing scales com­par­ing RSF and SF. Slight dif­fer­ences were pre­dict­ed based on a scor­ing error in the orig­i­nal ver­sion of SF used and on slight­ly more pre­cise joy­stick con­trol in RSF. The pre­dic­tions were sup­port­ed. The SF group start­ed bet­ter, but did worse when they trans­ferred to RSF. Despite the dis­ad­van­tage of hav­ing to be cau­tious in gen­er­al­iz­ing from RSF to SF, RSF has many advan­tages, which include accom­mo­dat­ing new PC hard­ware and new train­ing tech­niques. A mono­graph that presents the method­ol­o­gy used in cre­at­ing RSF, details on its per­for­mance and val­i­da­tion, and direc­tions on how to down­load free copies of the sys­tem may be down­loaded from

The extend­ed capa­bil­i­ties for RSF include a) being exe­cutable on cur­rent gen­er­a­tion plat­forms, b) being writ­ten in a most­ly plat­form inde­pen­dent man­ner, c) being exe­cutable in a dis­trib­uted envi­ron­ment, d) hav­ing hooks built in for the incor­po­ra­tion of intel­li­gent agents to play var­i­ous roles, such as part­ners and coach­es e) pro­vid­ing a gen­er­al exper­i­ment def­i­n­i­tion mech­a­nism, f) sup­port­ing team­work through being able to flex­i­bly assign dif­fer­ent input con­trols to dif­fer­ent mem­bers of a team, g) main­tain­ing all data in a cen­tral data­base rather than hav­ing to man­u­al­ly merge data sets after the fact, and h) hav­ing play­back capa­bil­i­ty, which enables researchers to review all actions that occurred dur­ing an exper­i­ment and to take new mea­sures. Exper­i­menters can design mea­sures before an exper­i­ment to test spe­cif­ic hypothe­ses with a rig­or­ous lab­o­ra­to­ry task. They can also use play­back to dis­cov­er and explore unan­tic­i­pat­ed events. Although sim­pler and more com­plex syn­thet­ic task envi­ron­ments can be advan­ta­geous for some goals, Dan­ny Gopher, our col­leagues, and I believe that Space Fortress remains an impor­tant tool for sci­en­tists and train­ers. Please feel free to con­tact me ( for addi­tion­al help down­load­ing and using RSF.”

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)