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Does Brain Training Work? Depends. Better Question is, How, When, for Whom Can Brain Training Work?

brain training question and answersYou may have read a new wave of articles claiming that “brain training doesn’t work”, based on the recent research meta-analytic review Is Working Memory Training Effective? (Developmental Psychology, May 2012), whose abstract says:

“It has been suggested that working memory training programs are effective both as treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other cognitive disorders in children and as a tool to improve cognitive ability and scholastic attainment in typically developing children and adults…The authors conclude that memory training programs appear to produce short-term, specific training effects that do not generalize.” (Review is available Here)

Several colleagues have asked for comment, and I have pointed out several weaknesses in the review that prevent it from categorically answering the purported question “Is Working Memory Training Effective.” First, it seems to analyze  only exaggerated claims instead of more specific and solid ones (which makes it much easier to attack the claims, same as if we said, “It has been suggested that cars can fly. However, evidence reviewed does not support that claim. Hence, cars don’t work”). Second, the review mixes very different programs into one pool. And, third, it seems to ignore the emerging understanding of the real value AND limitation underlying “serious brain training” or neuroplasticity-based interventions, from meditation to cognitive behavioral therapy to bio/EEG-feedback to cognitive training: they are not “magic pills” or “general solutions” but targeted tools in a new kind of toolkit.  So the real question is how and when and for whom to target those brain training tools to enhance probability of value. A car may not fly, or be the best way to commute to many people with good public transportation options, but it sure can come handy when used appropriately.

An even more recent, and quite more insightful, review, supports and expands this critical point.

Brain training in progress: a review of trainability in healthy seniors (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 2012):

“…Brain training, currently highly popular among young and old alike, promises that users will improve on certain neurocognitive skills, and this has indeed been confirmed in a number of studies. Based on these results, it seems reasonable to expect beneficial effects of brain training in the elderly as well. A selective review of the existing literature suggests, however, that the results are neither robust nor consistent, and that transfer and sustained effects thus far appear limited. Based on this review, we argue for a series of elements that hold potential for progress in successful types of brain training: (1) including flexibility and novelty as features of the training, (2) focusing on a number of promising, yet largely unexplored domains, such as decision-making and memory strategy training, and (3) tailoring the training adaptively to the level and progress of the individual…”

This type of analysis is precisely what we need more of, and why we devoted one full session of the 2012 SharpBrains Virtual Summit to a discussion of “What “con­di­tions” seem to influ­ence trans­fer from train­ing to real life ben­e­fit? As a num­ber of non-invasive tech­nolo­gies get increased main­stream use, it is impor­tant to exam­ine which “con­di­tions” seem to medi­ate trans­fer from train­ing to real life benefit.”

Paraphrasing hockey player Wayne Gretzky, let’s skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.


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