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Brain Training @ BBC/ Nature: Fact, Hope, Hype?

Update (04/20/10): after reading the full BBC study in Nature, I wrote the article titled BBC “Brain Training” Experiment: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, saying that “you probably saw the hundreds of media articles titled “brain training doesn’t work”, based on a BBC experiment. Once more, claims seem to go beyond the science backing them up … except that in this case it is the researchers, not the developers, who are responsible.” You can keep reading full updated article Here.

Below is what I originally wrote before the paper itself was available.

Tomorrow we’ll probably witness brainpica lot of media coverage about a experiment run by the BBC in the UK, to be published in Nature, on whether “brain training” works.

The paper is still embargoed, so we cannot comment on it, but what I can do is to share fragments of my email to a BBC reporter six months ago, discussing impressions on what they had announced as the ultimate test of whether “brain training” works.

Again, these were purely my impressions based on limited public information. Once we can comment on the published paper we’ll be able to provide a more informed perspective.

“Hello XYZ,

Here go some of my thoughts based on my external perception of your test:

  • I agree with many of the premises for the test
  • But “Does brain training really work” is a highly misleading frame: the obvious answer is, yes, it works as a category. If not, do you mean people can’t learn? meditate? go through cognitive therapy? cognitive retraining? increase working memory and other brain functions? All these are established beyond doubt through dozens of well-controlled studies where the intervention effect a) goes beyond placebo, and b) remains there once training is over. The 2009 report I sent you includes 10 Research Executive Briefs by leading scientists who reference published papers in high-quality journals. None evaluates Nintendo – but should they be ignored, as a group?
  • Now, the key questions are, “what specific brain training are we talking about”, “work for what?” and “work for whom?”. That’s where we could help educate consumers separate hope from hype.
  • …Right now you are inventing your own “brain game”, and the only thing you will test is whether that specific “brain game” you have develop “works” or not (not clear what outcome measures you have). I wouldn’t dare to manufacture my own car now from scratch and claim, based on the results, that “cars” work or don’t.
  • I couldn’t agree more with “brain training that is good for one person might not be good for you”, since one of “brain training” properties (both strength and weakness) is its highly targeted nature. The implication? we need better assessments to pinpoint bottlenecks and direct appropriate intervention. consumers need better education and information to know what is a waste of time and money and what may be worthy. Yet, your test seems to fully ignore this, and test whether the same thing is good for everyone…you may be throwing out the baby with the water…”

Your thoughts?

(Will link to paper once published). Related articles:

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2 Responses

  1. Brain training has many facets, and requires specific environments and applied techniques to really work effectively. But when it’s done right, it *does* work. LearningRx has seen thousands of kids’ lives changed by brain training.

    If anyone is interested in knowing more, our founder, Dr. Ken Gibson, responded to the findings of the nature journal study here:

  2. To extend your analogy, I think the BBC team, under the guidance of Dr. Owens, set out to build a car that wouldn’t get down the block. Dr. Owens designed a brain training regime that mimicked the casual, diverting games sold by the likes of Nintendo. The purpose of the study seems to have been to debunk this genre of brain training rather than to seriously answer the question it claimed to pose.


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