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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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