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)


  1. Martin on July 7, 2008 at 9:54

    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.


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SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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