UC study finds near-transfer of cognitive training to be necessary (yet not sufficient) for far-transfer, broader benefits

Guicheng “Ariel” Tan / UCI Work­ing Mem­o­ry & Plas­tic­i­ty Lab

Who ben­e­fits from brain train­ing, and why? (UCI release):

If you are skilled at play­ing puz­zles on your smart­phone or tablet, what does it say about how fast you learn new puz­zles, or more broad­ly, how well can you focus in school or at work? In the lan­guage of psy­chol­o­gists, does “near trans­fer” pre­dict “far transfer”?

A team of psy­chol­o­gists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side reports in Nature Human Behav­ior that peo­ple who show near trans­fer are more like­ly to show far trans­fer. For a per­son skilled at play­ing a game, such as Wor­dle, near trans­fer refers to being skilled at sim­i­lar games, such as a cross­word puz­zle. An exam­ple of far trans­fer for this per­son would be the abil­i­ty to bet­ter focus on dai­ly life activities.

Some peo­ple do very well in train­ing, such as play­ing a video game, but they don’t show near trans­fer, per­haps because they are using high­ly spe­cif­ic strate­gies,” said first author Anja Pahor, a for­mer research sci­en­tist with UCI and UCR who is now work­ing in a sim­i­lar role with the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mari­bor in Slove­nia. “For these peo­ple, far trans­fer is unlike­ly. By bet­ter under­stand­ing why this type of mem­o­ry train­ing or ‘inter­ven­tion’ works for some peo­ple but not oth­ers, we can move for­ward with a new gen­er­a­tion of work­ing-mem­o­ry train­ing games or use approach­es that are more tai­lored to indi­vid­u­als’ needs” …

Susanne Jaeg­gi, UCI pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion, direc­tor of the UCI Work­ing Mem­o­ry and Plas­tic­i­ty Lab, and a co-author of the research paper, not­ed that peo­ple are con­stant­ly being sold brain-train­ing games. “Some stud­ies claim these games work; oth­er stud­ies claim the oppo­site, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to inter­pret the inter­ven­tions,” she said. “Fur­ther, some of these stud­ies have lumped togeth­er peo­ple who show near trans­fer with peo­ple who show no near trans­fer. Our paper clar­i­fies some of this confusion.”

The Study:

Near trans­fer to an unre­lat­ed N‑back task medi­ates the effect of N‑back work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing on matrix rea­son­ing (Nature Human Behaviour).

  • Abstract: The extent to which work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing improves per­for­mance on untrained tasks is high­ly con­tro­ver­sial. Here we address this con­tro­ver­sy by test­ing the hypoth­e­sis that far trans­fer may depend on near trans­fer using medi­a­tion mod­els in three sep­a­rate ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­als (RCTs). In all three RCTs, totalling 460 indi­vid­u­als, per­for­mance on untrained N‑back tasks (near trans­fer) medi­at­ed trans­fer to Matrix Rea­son­ing (rep­re­sent­ing far trans­fer) despite the lack of an inter­ven­tion effect in RCTs 2 and 3. Untrained N‑back per­for­mance also medi­at­ed trans­fer to a work­ing mem­o­ry com­pos­ite, which showed a sig­nif­i­cant inter­ven­tion effect (RCT 3). These find­ings sup­port a mod­el of N‑back train­ing in which trans­fer to untrained N‑back tasks gates fur­ther trans­fer (at least in the case of work­ing mem­o­ry at the con­struct lev­el) and Matrix Rea­son­ing. This mod­el can help adju­di­cate between the many stud­ies and meta-analy­ses of work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing that have pro­vid­ed mixed results but have not exam­ined the rela­tion­ship between near and far trans­fer on an indi­vid­ual-dif­fer­ences level.

The Study in Context:

About SharpBrains

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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