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.
I’ve recently developed a new live presentation on: “The Neuroscience of Creativity,” which I first presented at the Royal Society of Arts in February 2012. The rapidly expanding list of Brain Coach Live topics continues to grow.
I kick off by describing some of the features of modern life that are “Enemies of Creativity.” To help motivate this section I describe a Channel 4 architecture series I contributed to called “The Secret Life of Buildings.” In this show I used EEG to illustrate how the brain responds to a variety of sensory distractions typically encountered in a modern work environment – the open plan office. The presenter, The Independent architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff (pictured left), was wired up with an electrode studded scrum cap and plonked in the middle of a busy open plan office to write up an overdue newspaper article. When a colleague (to his left in the photograph) mentioned the word “pub,” an extensive burst of activity was triggered across his prefrontal cortices (pictured top right). His brainwaves also pulsed in response to movements in the background, conversations going on around him and especially the rattle of the trolley loaded with crockery and cutlery as the tea lady tottered by.
The point I wished to convey was that, although we might not consciously register sights and sounds that are constantly being picked up by our senses, they are nonetheless processed in the brain; diverting precious resources away from the task at hand.
This is relevant to the process of creativity because soaking up and considering vast quantities of information from a variety of sources for a prolongued period of time is often the first step towards solving a tricky problem and this requires sustained attention. And it is not just disturbances in our open plan working environments (classrooms fall into this category too, of course) that pull the brain’s attentional resources hither and thither, thus disrupting the intake of information. The demands made on us by our smartphones constantly alerting us to the arrival of endless emails, texts, calls and social networking updates also interferes with creative thinking.
The first tip for boosting creativity is thus to block out distractions by switching off smartphones, closing down email accounts and sticking in the earplugs. Take a tip from french polymath Henry Pointcaré and work in regular two hour sessions from 10:00-12:00 and 17:00-19:00 to get those distraction-free bouts of unbroken concentration in. That way you will be able to take in all the necessary input relevant to the problem at hand. Later, once the subconscious brain has mulled over the possibilities, circumventing the inevitable mental blocks, your Eureka moment will come when you least expect it.
Great thinkers have typically reached their big creative breakthroughs, usually described in the scientific literature as “Aha! moments,” at a time when they were not thinking terribly hard. For instance, Henry Pointcaré cracked one of his biggest mathematical conundrums whilst stepping onto a bus, Kekulé day-dreamed a snake biting its tail to crack the chemical structure of benzene whilst dozing by the fire and Archimedes was famously plonking himself in the bath.
The point is that when a “mental impasse” is reached i.e. you’ve done lots of work on trying to crack the problem, but don’t seem to be getting anywhere – the best thing you can possibly do is walk away from it and do something else. You must leave it to your subconscious to play with all the information you have furiously uploaded into your brain and wait for the solution to percolate up into consciousness once you are between thoughts.
The rest of the talk describes a medley of the latest neuroscientific investigations into the Aha! moment courtesy of the likes of Joydeep Bhattacharya and colleageues at Goldsmith’s University. They discovered that the moment that a problem is solved is associated with activation across the right prefrontal cortex up to 8s before the person registers their response.
I also touch upon Alan Snyder and colleage’s contraversial experiment where transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) was used to transiently deactivate brain areas over the left anterior temporal/prefrontal areas whilst stimulating right anterior temporal/prefrontal areas resulting in three-fold improvements in finding solutions to creative problems. The idea is based on the theory that, in most right handed people, the left brain controls well rehearsed over-learned behaviours, whilst the right brain is more involved in grappling with novel stimuli and generating creative behaviour.
Finally, I described what modern science knows about the hypnagogic state, where wakefulness drifts off into sleep, well know to be an incredibly fertile ground for creativity. Scientist and engineer Thomas Edison was a great believer in using the hypnagogic state to boost creativity and given his 1,093 patents and inventions that lead to electric lighting, plus the music and movie industries, I would say that his is a testimony we can all believe.
Clues as to how and why this brain state is so enormously innovative arise from very recent studies (Magnin et al, 2010) in which electrodes attached all over the surface of a human brain to measure the neuronal activity as a person falls asleep. This has revealed that the thalamus – the brain’s main junction box through which all parts of the cortex are connected to all other parts – “falls asleep” first whilst other brain areas “switch off” up to 5mins, 10mins, 15 mins and even 20 mins later! Until then these brain areas are still firing away, yet cut off as they from the rest of the brain by the absence of viable cortico-thalmo-cortical connectivity, it is surely this dissociation which leads to those magical sparkles of insight?
Edison even invented a clever device for capturing creative thoughts before they are forgotten. If you want to know more about this then you can click here to book me in to give this talk at your school, university or firm!
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