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Scientific critique of BBC/ Nature Brain Training Experiment

logo-bbcThere has been quite a bit of com­ment about the Owen et al study in Nature avail­able online on April 20, 2010. A quick syn­op­sis of the study is that the BBC show Bang Goes the The­o­ry worked with the study authors to pro­vide a test of the hypoth­e­sis that com­mer­cial­ly avail­able brain train­ing pro­grams trans­fer to gen­er­al cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. The con­clu­sion was that, despite improve­ments on the trained tasks, “no evi­dence was found for trans­fer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cog­ni­tive­ly close­ly relat­ed.”

The exper­i­ment

The study was con­duct­ed through the show’s web site. Of 52,617 par­tic­i­pants who reg­is­tered, approx­i­mate­ly 20% (11,430) com­plet­ed full par­tic­i­pa­tion in the study, which con­sist­ed of two bench­mark­ing assess­ments 6 weeks apart with vari­ants of neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal tests and at least two train­ing ses­sions. Peo­ple were ran­dom­ly assigned to one of three groups that were asked to train for about 10 min a day three times a week for the 6-week peri­od, though they could train either more or less fre­quent­ly. One of the two exper­i­men­tal groups was a “brain train­ing” group that com­plet­ed tasks includ­ing sim­ple arith­metic, find­ing miss­ing pieces, match­ing sym­bols to a tar­get, order­ing rotat­ing num­bers by numer­i­cal val­ue, updat­ing, and mem­o­ry for items. Most of the train­ing ses­sions were 90 sec each; the rotat­ing num­bers tasks was 3 min. These activ­i­ties are sim­i­lar to those used in “edu­tain­ment” pro­grams that can be played online or with a hand­held device. The oth­er exper­i­men­tal group was trained on rea­son­ing tasks that involved iden­ti­fy­ing rel­a­tive weights of objects based on a visu­al “see­saw”, select­ing the “odd” item in a con­cept for­ma­tion type task, a task involv­ing think­ing through the effects of one action on cur­rent and future states, and three plan­ning tasks includ­ing draw­ing a con­tin­u­ous line around a grid while ascer­tain­ing that the line will not hin­der lat­er moves, a ver­sion of the Tow­er of Hanoi task, and a tile slid­ing game. The con­trol group spent time answer­ing ques­tions about obscure facts and orga­niz­ing them chrono­log­i­cal­ly based on any avail­able online resource. Results indi­cat­ed that the two exper­i­men­tal groups per­formed bet­ter than the con­trol group on only one out­come test of gram­mat­i­cal rea­son­ing; there were no dif­fer­ences between either exper­i­men­tal group and the con­trols on the remain­ing test. The exper­i­men­tal groups had improved on the trained tasks but not on the trans­fer tasks.

Sci­en­tif­ic con­cerns

Although some news reports sug­gest that these find­ings are defin­i­tive, there are a num­ber of con­cerns, many of which have to do with whether the find­ings have been over­gen­er­al­ized to all forms of brain train­ing because only a few tests were used. Sec­ond, there have been ques­tions raised about the amount of time allo­cat­ed to train­ing and the issue of test­ing in the home envi­ron­ment. The study report­ed Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Research Interview Series

We are work­ing on improv­ing sev­er­al sec­tions of our web­site, espe­cial­ly our Resources sec­tion. It will look much bet­ter in a few days. Our first step has been to re-orga­nize our Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series, and below you have how it looks today.

Dur­ing the last 18 months I have had the for­tune to inter­view over 15 cut­ting-edge neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists on their research and thoughts. Here are some of our favorite quotes (you can read the full inter­view notes by click­ing on the links):

Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health and Fitness Workshops

Today I have an announce­ment to make. You prob­a­bly are seeing all the arti­cles about Brain Fit­ness in the press and wondering, “What is this all about?”, “Can some­one help me nav­i­gate through all the pro­grams out there?”, “How is Brain Fit­ness rel­e­vant to me in my per­son­al life or at work?”. Well…we are deliv­er­ing a series of work­shops to com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions com­bin­ing mod­ules -includ­ing sci­en­tif­ic overview, the indus­try trends and key play­ers, fun team-build­ing exer­cis­es- that can be tai­lored to each organization’s spe­cif­ic needs. Ses­sions last from 1 to 6 hours, depend­ing on the group’s com­po­si­tion and agen­da and are deliv­ered either in per­son or via web con­fer­ence.

We want to be able to reach more orga­ni­za­tions, so please let us know of any ideas!

Some recent examples

1. Man­ag­ing Stress for Peak Per­for­mance (we men­tioned some notes on an Accen­ture ses­sion)

New and chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tions – such as tak­ing on new respon­si­bil­i­ties– can trig­ger reac­tions in our brain and body that lim­it or even block our deci­sion-mak­ing abil­i­ties. These reac­tions may also harm our long-term brain pow­er and health. Although we can­not avoid change and stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, we can learn how to man­age our stress lev­els to ensure peak per­for­mance-even in tough moments. The lat­est neu­ro­science research proves that stress man­age­ment is a train­able “men­tal mus­cle.” This is true for any high pres­sure pro­fes­sion, be it trad­ing, sports, or sim­ply mod­ern life.

2. The Sci­ence of Brain Health and Brain Fit­ness (sim­i­lar to what I will teach at UC Berke­ley OLLI)

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown how the human brain retains neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty to rewire itself) and neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons) dur­ing its full life­time, lead­ing to a new under­stand­ing of Read the rest of this entry »

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