If your instinctive response was that: “brain training is good for absolutely nothing” – then you might not yet be privvy to all the relevant data. Scientific evidence backing the effectiveness of brain training is slowly but surely growing, , as far as I can tell. Swedish neuroscientist Torkel Klingberg has been at the forefront of research into computer-based brain training focused on increasing the capacity of working memory for over a decade. He and his team have identified a positive correlation between working memory improvements and IQ score. In other words the better your working memory – that is, the ability to hold several pieces of information in mind for long enough to complete a mental operation – the more “intelligent” you become. Well, to be fair, that’s not quite the whole story. IQ approximates to what we commonly think of as intelligence – but it is blind to a host of cognitive abilities that are very useful for the individual and highly valued in human society; like creativity, social skills, kinesthetic abilities and so on. So a better way to describe it is that improving working memory leads to benefits in a variety of other cognitive abilities collectively known as fluid intelligence, which is vital for (amongst other things) solving problems. Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is: enhancing these mental abilities leads to benefits at school, work and play.
The last of these is the most pertinent to this particular brain post. There are lots of computer games out there which, often completely by accident, tend to improve cognitive functions that are relevant and useful in everyday life. Parents who bemoan the hundreds of hours a year “wasted” by their children playing shoot ‘em up games may be cheered by the news that such games can actually improve visual perception . They are right to be concerned, by the way. Too much time spent locked into game mode displaces much of the time that could be spent cultivating soft skills. These broadly undervalued yet completely invaluable set of social skills can only be honed properly through regular, intensive, face-to-face communication. They make many aspects of personal and professional life that take place in the real, as opposed to virtual, world function so much more smoothly that society would be well advised to place a greater emphasis on the importance of ensuring they are cultivated at all costs. However, allotting a finite period of time each day to game play can be extremely good for your brain – so long as you play the right sort of games.
MEMNEON is a good example. Even Stephen Fry – the God-of-Twitter himself – tweeted that MEMNEON was driving him “delightfully dotty.” High praise indeed! The brain behind Memneon, Steve Turnbull, may feel that for me to suggest it is Simon for the 21st century would be selling it short. I would disagree. Simon was the original brain training device and as such was decades ahead of the game. And as with all things people will inevitably take a concept and move it on to the next level. Memneon has done exactly that – it’s like Simon on a high dose of amphetamines. Much tougher on the old working memory circuits. And of course it is by regularly challenging the brain’s cognitive capacities – for several minutes, daily, for weeks on end that eventually your brain reinforces connectivity between the relevant areas and abilities improve. 49 different possible locations for each consecutive disc illumination is sooo much harder to retain in working memory, before reproducing the patter, than just the 4 quadrants of Simon.
Now that the great potential for brain training is out of the bag all sorts of digital developers are falling over each other in their scramble to capitalise on the growing interest; first catalysed by Nintendo with their launch of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Age on the Nintendo DS. Uptake may have mellowed in the handheld digital console market since 2001 but PC-based subscription services that offer a suite of cognitive training games (like Lumosity) have very much taken over the reins.
The BBC’s Bang Goes The Theory show made a big fuss of a Nature paper indicating that brain training was ineffective for the under 65′s. To make this newsworthy they, perhaps not surprisingly, felt the need to put some attention-grabbing spin on their non-findings by using the headline: “Brain Training Doesn’t Work” and I’ve written elsewhere about why I think it is too early to make such a bold statement. Finding no evidence to support a hypothesis is one thing. In this case I think that they hypothesis in question is: “computer-based brain training can improve cognitive abilities in a manner helpful and relevant to everyday life.” Disproving a hypothesis is quite another matter.
Science is all about the balance of evidence. A good rule of thumb is that you should not believe anything reported in a single scientific paper until many other experiments have been done, ideally by other unconnected independent research groups, whose findings tally with the original. There is a lot of evidence out there that brain training does work in older people, but not so much – at the moment – that it pays dividens for younger people. But it’s early days. So I think people should take sensationalist headlines with a pinch of salt and wait to see which way the balance of evidence tips.
The jury might be out on which aspects of brain training do and don’t work, but I think it is fair to say that there is every reason to believe that it has great potential to do you good and very little potential to do ill – so why not give it a go. 20 million subscribers who perceive some kind of benefit can’t all be wrong, surely?! Well they could be – but in the meantime the placebo effect is at least making them feel sharper, focused, able, etc….
Please get in touch via Twitter to let me know what you think of my brainposts. If you were kind enough to follow me you could also catch my thrice daily tweets, which headline and link to brain research breakthroughs from lay-friendly sources that I judge to be potentially compelling and relevant to all.
This is a review of “Beat City” – a Nintendo DS (2D) game that I believe has all the hallmarks of something that, although designed purely for pleasure, may actually improve brain function. A recent scientific review outlined several video games that, despite being developed only with gameplay and sales in mind, were nonetheless found to improve visual perception, sustained attention, task switching, rapid option selection and several other vital aspects of cognition. With this in mind I’ve been keeping an eye out for other games that might fall into this category.
Kids who play a musical instrument boast better language development than their peers who do not. The Einstein Aging Study found that elderly participants who regularly play a musical instrument exhibited greater cognitive reserve than those that did not – helping them keep the ravages of Alzheimer’s at bay for longer.
The upshot is that whether you’re very old, very young or somewhere in between, not only can playing a musical instrument create a torrent of activity in your brain’s pleasure pathways, but it can also be of long term benefit for a variety of different brain areas that support several cognitive functions.
Beat City involves travelling around a comic book stylised world on a mission to bring music back into the lives of local inhabitants – by tapping along to the beat of a variety of electronic tunes. You are the “Synchroniser,” a brave inhabitant of Beat City who is hell-bent on freeing his fellow citizens from their banal tuneless existence. En route you encounter several bizarre characters with whom you must do battle by tapping, swiping and holding the beat in time to music of varying complexity. Although upon first appearances it may seem to be aimed at younger audiences, this game gets tough – tough enough to provide even those naturally musical people out there (even my girlfriend who reached grade 8 in three different musical instruments!) with a challenge as you progress through harder and harder levels.
For the rest of us even the early levels can prove quite taxing. Hitting a rich vein of form is rewarded with a visual technicolour treat. The muted greys of Beat City are yanked out of their dreary and monotonous existence by your beat perfect music making, with the screen springing into life with a vivid burst of colour (and the characters ending up wearing increasingly bizarre fancy dress outfits.)
Reproducing a beat with accurate timing taxes a fair few different brain areas. The auditory cortex – distributed predominantly across the upper level of the temporal lobes (see diagram on the right) – crunches the soundwaves into what we actually hear through a division of labour across different patches of brain cortex which each extract different types of information. Firstly, the sound is separated out into its different frequencies at the cochlea in the inner ear and ferried to the primary auditory cortex (shown inset on the right). Some specialist areas are involved in establishing the rhythm. Others find and create the perception of melody. Functional units residing predominantly in left side of most people’s brain will extract the meaning from words in a song. Others, mainly in the right half of the brain, extract the emotional tone of the music. Then there are the brain areas involved in tapping along to the beat: pre-motor regions of the frontal cortex plan the movements and the motor strip triggers them. In order to get the timing just right, the cerebellum – hanging off the back of the brain – finesses the signal on its journey from brain to finger muscles to ensure that the stylus hits the touch screen precisely in time with the beat as opposed to a little too early or late. In Beat City, the accuracy with which you time each tap is indicated on screen by the size and colour of a musical note.
To recap: different brain areas simultaneously extract different features from the sounds that reach the ear to creates sense of hearing in our everyday lives. Patterns in the sound are automatically extracted and we naturally anticipate when the next sound is likely to occur, enabling us to synchronise our actions according to the patterns in the sounds. This instinctive impact of rhythmical sound on movement is where the urge to dance comes from.
Clapping, singing or playing a musical instrument requires different cognitive functions to operate simultaneously and interactively. Having to listen to, follow the rhythm of and anticipate changes in a musical score in order to producing carefully coordinated finger, hand (and for wind instruments: also mouth and respiratory tract) movements is a highly cognitively demanding task. Growth of extra connections (and therefore increased efficiency) in brain areas involved in perceiving sounds and producing accurately timed, precise, carefully coordinated movements are just the front and back ends of the brain workout.
In addition, prefrontal brain areas responsible for working memory, anticipation, vigilance, error correction and many other cognitive functions are also put through their paces by virtue of having to ensure that the two processes are properly integrated.
At the end of the day even if Beat City doesn’t inspire the desire to play a proper musical instrument, enabling the full brain-benefits of musical engagement to be earned, I believe it is nonetheless an effective way of challenging and thus improve your capacity for working memory, concentration and fine motor control that will come in useful in everyday life as well.
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Over the last few years that I have been heavily involved in science communication, whether writing up ideas for a television series, articles for newspapers, book proposals, #Braintweets and so on, I’ve stumbled upon a great variety of neuroscience-informed pearls of wisdom that can help everyone get the most out of their brains. A few months ago I decided to put together a series of hour-long presentations packed with general tips on maximising brain performance through improvements in diet and exercise, strategies for improving memory retention, dealing with stress and a highly visual and animated crash course in neuroscience. I figured that, as everyone has a brain, but take for granted all the amazing things that our brains are able to do, it was high time that people started hearing about what neuroscience and psychology have discovered about what goes on inside these skulls of ours when we see, think or move. In particular, I wanted to convey some of the many things that can be done to improve our memories, increase alertness and concentration, harness rather than worry about stress and to adopt habits that enable us to get the best out of our brains.
Earlier this month I took the first version of this talk, aimed specifically at teenagers, to a school in Somerset where I presented to a couple of hundred kids who will be taking their GCSEs next year (click here for the overview: BrainCoachLiveOverview). I demonstrated that they had already been using a a mnemonic technique for many years: BrainCoachLiveMy1stMnemonic and described another, more powerful technique that would make their revision more interesting, entertaining and effective: BrainCoachLiveChainMnemonic. I explained why stress is important (in small doses) to mobilise body and brain to deal with stressful situations and suggested various strategies that they could use to prevent stress spilling over into panic. I described why practice makes perfect in terms of processes that occur within the brain as a direct result of to regular training in any particular skill. I explained why regular exercise is not just good for the body, but also for the brain, and ways to avoid the peaks and troughs of the sugar roller coaster. In a nutshell the “sugar roller coaster” results from regular doses of sugar in the form of sweets and fizzy drinks, which produces an unhealthy alternation between too much and too little blood glucose throughout each and every day. This causes peaks and troughs in energy levels that play havoc with an adolescent’s ability to concentrate and are easily remedied with some simple dietry changes. I intend to roll this seminar out to schools throughout the UK and am planning a seminar tour for 2011, so if you are interested in having me give this talk at your school, please do click “Contact” in the top right corner and drop me a line.
On the 15th February 2011 I’ll be giving a lecture along similar lines at University College London’s School of Biosciences and intend to roll this out to other universities, in the first instance around London, but ultimately all over the UK and beyond. I am also developing a version tailored to various sectors of the corporate world. In January 2011 I’ll be putting together a bespoke seminar and workshop for a large team of pharamaceutical sales representatives at an offsite meeting in Tenerife. I have also previously given a talk tailored to the needs of an older audience, this time for regulars at an Age Concern social club in South West London, where my tips on how to Hang Onto Your Marbles well into old age went down very well indeed.
I am happy to consider any public speaking engagement where the audience might wish to better understand how their brains’ work and what they can do to optimise brain function in a wide variety of contexts. If you wish to suggest a brain-related theme that you would be interested to learn more about please do consider leaving a comment below. Perhaps you would be interested in learning the various methods that have been invented over the years for stimulating creativity. If there is a subject matter that several people would like to learn more about then I will consider creating a presentation to explain what neuroscience can tell us about the matter. I could then either deliver this to you in a live presentation, or alternatively I could film the presentation and post it on YouTube. In the past, when readers of my posts have asked to learn more about a certain subject matter, I have written a post especially for them (please see my chronic pain post).
My overall goal with these Brain Coach Live seminars are really very straightforward:
- to illuminate the secret world inside our skulls in a manner that is comprehensible and relevant to everybody’s day-to-day life
- to illustrate the mechanisms by which we learn, get stressed and make decisions
- to improve brain health and brain function with a variety of simple adjustments to our daily routine and the adoption of good brain habits
From adolescence onwards we all begin to lose brain cells. As a consequence our brains gradually and inexorably shrink (compare the “old” brain on the left to the “young” brain on the right). In fact by the age of 80 your brain will occupy 15% less of the space within your skull than in the prime of life. Yet over the course of adulthood, as our brains are losing more and more cells, our knowledge and repertoire of skills nonetheless continues to grow as we accumulate more and more experience. How is this possible? Well, despite the incremental decrease in quantity of brain cells over the years connections between neuronal networks that are in regular and intensive communication with each other are selectively reinforced. This enables increased efficiency in execution of the mental processes that those networks support. Hence we can do more with less as we age. Sadly, for all of us, there will always come a time when the degree of brain cell loss is such that mental function begins to decline. In other words, if we all could live forever, dementia will inevitably strike at some point in time.
Although we cannot halt the process of grey matter loss completely, the good news is that we can slow down its progression. This month a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and published in the journal “Neurology” describes the influence of regular exercise on the rate of reduction of brain volume and cognitive function in 299 elderly individuals.
It was observed that those individuals of this group of average age 78 who walked in excess of 6 miles per week had a significantly reduced rate of grey matter loss and consequently a lesser degree of cognitive decline. The greater the distance walked each week, the smaller the reduction in volume over a 9 year period within their frontal lobe, occipital lobe, entorhinal cortex and critically, in the hippocampus. My post last month described the vital role that the hippocampus plays in the creation and recall of long term memories.
This begs the question – how and why does exercise slow down the rate at which grey matter shrinks? An exciting possibility is that all that walking might actually increase the rate at which new brain cells are created; a process known as neurogenesis. This boost in the creation of new brain cells might help to compensate for the loss of old brain cells. Evidence to support this hypothesis comes from research conducted over a decade ago suggesting, in the mouse brain at least, that exercise does indeed increase the rate of neurogenesis.
Exactly why this happens is unclear, but I would propose that, given the hippocampus is heavily involved in navigation, particularly when it comes to flexibility in finding the best route from A to B, it would make sense for physical activity to trigger production of new cells in this brain area. A greater number of hippocampal neurons would presumably support a greater capacity to memorise routes and landmarks encountered whilst exploring the environment. This could feasibly convey a critical survival advantage by helping to prevent people from getting lost. Over the thousands of years of our species evolultion, getting lost was probably an excellent way of deleting oneself from the gene pool and so those with movement-triggered hippocampal neurogenesis may have been more likely to survive.
This seems a plausible (but by no means concrete) account of why older individuals who take regular exercise appear to have more grey matter and superior cognitive function than those who do not. Whatever the true explanation, it seems clear if you want to hang onto your marbles in the long term then it’s probably a good idea to take a regular stroll for the rest of your life.
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This review comprises my opinions, both as a consumer and a neuroscientist, of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS. I have previously (http://www.drjack.co.uk/brain-teasers-brain-training/) outlined my view that brain training is simply a matter of teasing your mental faculties with a variety of word, number and problem solving challenges on a regular basis. In this regard, the greatest advantage of the Nintendo DS brain training over the old-fashioned (but quite possibly equally effective) books of crosswords and number puzzles, is its fantastic convenience and flexibility. You can carry around with you literally thousands of mentally-taxing brain teasers for use during your daily commute, or to the far corners of the globe, and it will take up no more room in your baggage than a small book.
I have also previously described (http://www.drjack.co.uk/does-brain-training-really-work-by-dr-jack-lewis/) why I think that, despite the BBC’s headline-grabbing publication of research suggesting that “BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK”, I sincerely believe that the jury is still out on that issue. So below you will simply find my considered opinion on how this game rates – as a way to while away some spare time in a manner that probably won’t change your life, but certainly won’t do you any harm and might just sharpen up some very basic, but fundamental, cognitive abilities.
I promised to review Dr Kawashima’s “Brain Training – How Old Is Your Brain” a long time ago. Why did it take me so long to deliver on this promise? To be honest, it took me months to clock up enough days of brain training to finally unlock all the games. At the very beginning you have access to only 3 (quite dull) brain training games and then, as you complete more and more days of training, you are rewarded by being given access to more and more of the games (most of them much better than the first 3). Slightly annoying, perhaps, but ultimately an unquestionably good strategy for incentivising more regular training.
Despite being very curious to investigate this brain training phenomenon I only managed 1 session in Mar, 1 in Apr, 3 in May, 0 in June, 4 in July and 11 in Aug. It is interesting to note that the inspiration for training more regularly at the end of July was that this was the very first time I had encouraged someone else to give it a go. When I saw what my girfriend had scored I found that I was suddenly powerfully motivated to keep up my training, whilst over March-June my efforts were distinctly half-hearted. Having more than one person using the same console is clearly the key to nurturing motivation. Humans are naturally competitive and so if it worked for me it should work for you too. So my first piece of advice is, once you’ve got the hang of it, be sure to get friends and family having a go too.
I know exactly how often I trained over the past few months thanks to the scrollable calendar feature, which automatically stamps each day that you switched on and played. Not only does this allow you to see, at a glance, how dedicated (or in my case slack) you have been with your training, but the 3D floating head of Dr Kawashima, after greeting you at the beginning of each training session, takes it upon himself to praise or berate you according to how long it’s been since your last visit.
My first impressions of the game were that it was better than I had expected. I was surprised and happy to see that the floating 3D head’s opening presentation explaining the concepts of brain training included real fMRI brain data to help illustrate some of the key points. I was impressed that Nintendo were brave enough to include some real science, trusting that their customers would not be scared off by it. Quite courageous of them.
The very first session involves a preliminary brain training game to establish your inital “Brain Age”. Determined to nail it I was nonetheless shocked that I managed to get the best possible “Brain Age” of 20. All those decades of education were not wasted then! Before you start hating me for being a smart alec, let me reassure you that my “Brain Age” soon shot up to my real age and well beyond over the months that followed. The point is that this “Brain Age” score is pretty arbitrary to say the least – it shoots up and down like a roller coaster because it is based entirely on your current performance and doesn’t seem to take any of your previous performances into account. It is merely there to provide you with the impetus to keep on training. Trust me it works – it took me months and months to nail a “Brain Age” of 20 again. And then I never wanted to do it again because I knew I was almost guaranteed to do worse. Whatever your best ever “Brain Age” is – seeing a considerably worse one by your name each and every time you switch on to play makes anyone with a grain of competitiveness want to step up and take it on.
Over the weeks and months I developed a distinctly love/hate relationship with Dr Kawashima’s floating head. Some of the silly things he says, like: “What wonderful results! I might start crying here…” genuinely made me chuckle, on more than one occasion (invariably drawing quizzical looks from whoever happened to be sitting opposite me on the train). On the other hand, some of his advice on how to keep your brain in tip top condition is very weak and the extremely repetitive observation that doing calculations/reading out loud/drawing from memory/moving the stylus from target to target/counting syllables etc. etc. will “activate your prefrontal cortex and improve your general brainpower” becomes extremely tedious. But on balance, this is one of just a handful of pretty minor gripes. Overall Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training on the Nintendo DS is an extremely smart, convenient and quite technologically-advanced little game that positively encourages people to take an active interest in the health of their brain.
The Daily Training games consists of a variety of ways to tax different clusters of brain areas involved in different cognitive functions. “Calculations” involves performing simple addition, subtraction or multiplication problems that are displayed on one screen and whilst you use the pointer to scribble your answer on the other screen. The aim is to complete a predetermined number of sums as quickly as possible and the punishment for a wrong answer is a (quite severe) time penalty. The format of this challenge is unimaginative to say the least and in the first instance makes you feel like you’re back in primary school. But by the time my training was completed I had performed so many rapid calculations that, as with all things, I improved in leaps and bounds. Being able to perform simple calculations extremely quickly is a useful skill to have and comes in useful in everyday life. Trying to work out if you have enough money to pay for the items you are about to take to the till is one example. So I didn’t resent being made to feel like I was back in primary school too much. I’ve since caught my local shop keepers short changing me once or twice now as a result. I’m sure it was unintentional on their part, but I simply wouldn’t have bothered adding it up in my head if I hadn’t been put in the habit by “Calculations”. Later on you get to unlock one of the mystery games that takes the maths challenges to the next level by making you remember pairs of answers for long enough to perform calculations upon the correct answers to previous calculations. Pretty challenging and completely impossible if you are on the way home after a long session at the pub!
My two least favourite were probably “reading out loud” and “syllable count”. If I want to read out loud I have a plethora of my own books to choose from. And how anyone but rap artists might benefit from honing the ability to count the syllables in a proverb beats me. It may exercise the brain areas involved in reading and producing words, or in the parcellation of words into smaller chunks, and could therefore potentially yield some improvement in these functions under normal conditions, but they are a pretty dull way to pass the time.
“Head count” – on the other hand, is a different matter. You have to keep track of a hoard of stick men scuttling into and out of a house, which gives the old working memory a genuinely good work out. This is because it requires you to constantly update the number of stick men currently within the house despite the frantic comings and goings. On hard mode this game is particularly challenging, as the stick men leave and arrive not just through the side doors, but through the chimney as well, which means you have to count the vertical comings and goings as well as the horizontal.
Another favourite is “Low to High” – where a series of carefully spaced numbers are flashed up on the screen for a very brief period of time and, thanks to the wonders of iconic memory (the impression left on the brain by a flashed image), you find yourself able to touch the squares within which the numbers were displayed just moments before, in the correct order from lowest to highest. If you get it right an additional number is added in the next round to make it progressively more challenging. Once you get up to the heady heights of tackling 7 or 8 numbers it is really hard! A very enjoyable game and one which helps to develop a potentially useful cognitive skill of extracting information from briefly viewed images – excellent for anyone who wants to become a spy, or work in film or TV for that matter.
I was very surprised to find that the Nintendo DS was equipped with voice-recognition software that actually works fairly well. This is essential for a classic psychological mind bender called the Stroop test, which exercises brain areas involved in inhibiting impulsive responses. It involves a colour word being presented on the screen e.g. “red” or “green” or “yellow” or “black”, but the meaning of the word must be ignored and instead the colour that the word is written in must be stated out loud. In other words if the word “blue” is presented in red-coloured font, your brain has to work extra hard to suppress the temptation to say the word “blue” in order to allow the correct response to be uttered i.e. “red”.
I must admit that the first time I tackled that particular game I found myself thinking: “will this gadget really understand me?” Despite my doubts I was impressed to find that it could recognise most of my speech. Yet if there is any background noise it is completely hopeless, particularly on the train. I would definitely recommend experimenting with different ways of saying the words to help you figure out how best to deliver the word to ensure it is properly recognised. This game is one of the handful of tests used to define your brain age – an extremely arbitrary scale by all accounts – but when your brain age is given as 62 because you wasted 3 solid minutes repeating the word yellow over and over again in voice steadily becoming increasingly loud and irritable you may find that putting some time into finding a voice that it can register accurately pays dividends in the long run. The same goes for experimenting with writing numbers in such a way that no matter how fast you try to write, it is always correctly registered by the software. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is (and how often you find yourself getting frustrated in this way, particularly when on the move) when you see the sum 2+2 and your scribbled “4″ is misread as an “8″. A 5 second penalty seems pretty harsh when you knew the right answer but couldn’t get the damned thing to recognise it properly.
Another game in the battery of tests that defines your “Brain Age” includes a memory test. You are given 3 minutes to memorise a long list of words and 2 minutes to recall them. I think Nintendo missed a great opportunity here as there are some great mnemonic strategies that they could have offered here to help you improve memory performance more quickly and to a greater degree. Now that really would have been bona fide brain training! As I already know these memory tricks, I found that this test was an absolutely brilliant forum in which to practice creating memorable links between a random list of words. This is the real challenge in using memory tricks – being able to dream up a potent image of an imaginative scenario whereby two successive words are intertwined and then get on quickly to the next pair of items. If I hadn’t been playing this game I would not have had so many opportunities to practice this extremely useful skill and would not have improved to the point of being able to recall as many as 36 of the 40 words. Importantly this transferred directly into a benefit in my day-to-day life as I was able to quickly dream up some mnemonic links between 10 facts that I wanted to mention in a meeting just 15 minutes before the meeting was due to commence. All that brain training had clearly boosted my memory-making faculties as I recalled every fact effortlessly, which made a good impression on the audience and saved time shuffling through notes and papers to find the relevant information.
I’ll share some of these mnemonic tricks with you in my next post so you can try it our yourself. So watch this space!
BBC study slams brain training – but don’t throw your Nintendo DS away just yet…
Since Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training (UK) / Brain Age (US) game was launched on the Nintendo DS in 2005 a great buzz has been generated by the enticing prospect of sharpening up our mental faculties. Indeed, claims that it can improve memory, make us smarter, sharpen reaction times and improve general brain power have convinced over 3 million of us in the UK alone to buy this game (including me! – I’m in the process of writing a review on it, so watch this space). Then, in 2007, Lumos Labs launched “Lumosity” – a web-based, subscriber-accessed, brain training program with an ever-expanding range of colourful and engaging brain training games. Just one year later Lumos labs managed to attract $3,000,000 in private investment to further develop their cognitive training offerings. Brain training has become a billion dollar global industry.
In a previous blog I suggested that there is nothing special about each individual brain training game – I argued that the same benefits would be achieved by picking up a puzzle book containing number games, word puzzles and problem solving tasks on a daily basis:
However what these commercial offerings do provide is a structured training program, consisting of a wide variety of different games and puzzles, the opportunity to measure and keep track of your progress and the convenience that might encourage you to train for long enough and regularly enough to notice some benefits. The only problem is that in the 5 years since these games were launched there has not been a single shred of independent evidence (to my knowledge) that these games actually benefit brain functions useful in everyday life, rather than just the inevitable performance improvements in the games themselves. We already know that practice makes perfect. There have been reports that brain training works – but these studies were invariably linked to the very companies that had a vested interest in such findings.
Doubts started to be voiced in early 2009, for instance, Which? magazine assembled a panel of experts who concluded that Brain Training on the DS had no “functional impact on life whatsoever”. By the autumn of 2009 the BBC had clocked that is was high time that the concept of Brain Training was put to the test and set the “biggest brain training experiment ever” in motion – an independent clinical trial the results of which would be published in a suitable peer-reviewed journal. They asked distinguished scientists from the University of Cambridge (Dr Adrian Owen, MRC Cambridge Brain Unit) and King’s College London (Professor Clive Ballard, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society) to design a suitable experiment involving 11,000 participants, which ultimately led to the conclusion that “Brain Training Games Don’t Make Us Smarter”:
However, lack of proof of a brain training effect is not the same as proving beyond all reasonable doubt that brain training doesn’t work. At the bottom of this piece is a list of 5 reasons why the results of Bang Goes the Theory’s Lab UK study does not necessarily mean that brain training on consoles like the Nintendo DS is ineffective. These are centred around the following facts: they created their own games rather than using commercially-available ones (maybe their games were not as effective?), they required people to train only 3 times per week (maybe it would have worked with a more intense training regime?) and the games involved people sitting at a PC using mouse and keypad to register responses (i.e. they missed out on the technological advances of touch screen and voice recognition in the Nintendo DS). They have certainly demonstrated that the games they created, when played infrequently, across a relatively short period of time, using an outdated user control interface (that slows down the speed at which responses can be made in time-critical games), did not lead to improvements in a separate set of ‘benchmarking’ games that may or may not have been sensitive enough to detect improvements in attention, memory and problem solving skills. However, their failure to detect any improvements whatsoever (in the under 60’s at least) could boil down to any of these factors or more likely a combination of them. I’m not suggesting for a minute that these results are invalid. All I’m saying is that the proverbial jury is out regarding the putative efficacy of brain training – we must wait until more evidence has been gathered before potentially throwing the brain-train-baby out with the bathwater.
The compromises that they had to make in order to pull off such a large clinical trial are inevitable, but may have hampered their ability to capture any discernible effect. In order to get such large numbers of people to participate they clearly needed to avoid requiring people to give up their time too often and for an unnecessarily protracted period of time; otherwise people would have dropped out of the trial like flies. What led them to create their own games, rather than testing existing ones, may have involved the desire to avoid the potential wrath of powerful multinational companies. Even if they had been brave enough to wish to test the actual games to which the claims were attached the BBC would never have got away with wasting license fee payers money by coughing up the cash to issue each of these volunteers with a Nintendo DS – even if it would mean benefiting from the advances of speed-enhancing touch screen and voice-recognition technologies. Yet until further clinical trials, including some that investigate the potential of brain training in a way that gives it the best possible chance to shine, have confirmed or contradicted the current findings – I myself will not be throwing my DS away just yet.
If I was Nintendo I would wish to tackle this issue head on. I would ask an independent scientific body to find a suitable group of research scientists who could conduct a fully independent study totally uncorrupted by any conflicts of interest. This group should together combine a thorough understanding of the human brain with specific experience in measuring the cognitive abilities of healthy individuals – perhaps an education specialist, an occupational psychologist and a neuroscientist. They would oversee a further large-scale, independent, clinical trial that implements a more intense training program based on the best brain training game in the Nintendo DS armoury. I would develop a battery of tests that are able to capture improvements in brain function that actually come in useful during everyday life, as opposed to performance improvements in a rather arbitrary batch of computer games. For instance, if a person’s ability to tot up the cost of a batch of 10 items in a shopping basket improves as a result of intense brain training, they will be better able to spot when a cashier over or under charges them at the till and it would become possible to confidently state that they have benefited from the brain training in a meaningful way. If they are better able to remember a route on a map after training, then they will be less likely to suffer the stress and inconvenience of getting lost. If they are better able to pay attention to and ultimately recall verbal instructions, in an environment containing a cacophony of visual and acoustic distractions, then the benefits from brain training may actually help them in real life. To ensure participants stay with the program to the very end I would incentivise the much more intense training regime with cash rewards e.g. if they successfully completed 1 month of 2×30 minute training sessions per day they would receive a cash bonus, 2 months and they get a double cash bonus plus a further prize and if they complete the full 3 months they would get a quadrupled cash bonus. I would dish out 10,000 Nintendo DS consoles to individuals who would benefit most from the alleged cognitive improvements that are expected to occur – the chronically unemployed perhaps. That way, whether or not any improvements in cognitive function was detected, any improvement in the employment status of these 10,000 compared to a control group of another randomly selected 10,000 (who have also been receiving job seekers allowance for a prolonged period), would give Nintendo a possible second bite of the cherry by demonstrating a generic improvement in motivation levels and the power to benefit society as a whole. In addition to the milestone incentives, if they did look to keep unemployed hands and minds busy, it might also help to improve brain training dedication by dangling a carrot over the “high score leader board” – whereby those that achieve the best scores overall could be given paid work experience in a role that utilises the skills tapped by each specific game. Just think of the headlines: “Intense Brain Training DOES Improve Mental Abilities AND Gets The Chronically Unemployed Back Into Work”
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5 Potential Flaws with the Lab UK Brain Training Study:
- At least 3 times per week for 6 weeks
- POTENTIAL FLAW: the training regime is very sparse. In other words not surprising that there was no significant improvement because it didn’t tax the participants brains hard enough to benefit memory, planning, problem solving etc.
- REASONING: I would expect multiple training sessions EACH AND EVERY DAY to be necessary for significant improvements because the brain is only likely to invest resources in building better lines of communication between brain areas supporting a certain function if it is really needed (i.e. often used)
- SOLUTION: a commuter training regime – twice per day (on bus or train) on the way to and from work or school. Perhaps longer sessions at the weekend.
- BONUS: using dead time when people would otherwise be staring into space – even if it doesn’t translate into long term improvements such a brain training regime definitely helps to wake up a sleepy brain (it works for me!!)
- Brain training transfer to other brain skills like memory, planning or problem solving
- POTENTIAL FLAW: improvements in memory, planning or problem solving may have occurred but were not successfully detected
- REASONING: the selected tests may not have been sensitive enough to detect subtle improvements that occur with such a sparse training regime.
- SOLUTION: use more sensitive tests or increase frequency of training.
- Choice of brain training games
- POTENTIAL FLAW: brain training games may not have been sufficiently taxing to elicit significant improvements
- REASONING: the games were not those used by Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and so the results of this experiment might not be applicable
- SOLUTION: perform a study using the actual Nintendo DS game and console.
- No improvement in PC-based brain training games compared to just using the internet
- POTENTIAL FLAW: this does not capture the ability of the Nintendo DS to do brain training on-the-go, nor voice activated responses, nor faster responses enabled by touch screen technology – scribbling a letter/number or tapping at a certain location.
- REASONING: portability of Nintendo naturally lends itself to more intense training regime, writing on touch screen lends itself to faster responses than a keypad or mouse, voice activation allows verbal responses i.e. exercises different brain areas.
- SOLUTION: compare brain training games on Nintendo DS to normal games on Nintendo DS in order to take these important issues into account.
- Further investigation into effects of brain training in 60+ year olds
- POTENTIAL FLAW: Brain training must have shown some promise in the elderly yet it’s reported negatively to fit into “BRAIN TRAINING DOESN’T WORK” headline
- REASONING: Usually studies inflate even weak results to justify the study. Here they seem to want the negative findings and hence the improvements in the elderly are downplayed until further investigation.
- BONUS: Clearly you CAN teach an old dog new tricks!
- At least 3 times per week for 6 weeks