More evidence against brain training programs

4 Aug

From the Journal of Neuroscience:

Increased preference for immediate over delayed and for risky over certain rewards has been associated with unhealthy behavioral choices. Motivated by evidence that enhanced cognitive control can shift choice behavior away from immediate and risky rewards, we tested whether training executive cognitive function could influence choice behavior and brain responses. In this randomized controlled trial, 128 young adults (71 male, 57 female) participated in 10 weeks of training with either a commercial web-based cognitive training program or web-based video games that do not specifically target executive function or adapt the level of difficulty throughout training. Pre- and post-training, participants completed cognitive assessments and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during performance of validated decision-making tasks: delay discounting (choices between smaller rewards now vs. larger rewards in the future) and risk sensitivity (choices between larger riskier rewards vs. smaller certain rewards). Contrary to our hypothesis, we found no evidence that cognitive training influences neural activity during decision-making, nor did we find effects of cognitive training on measures of delay discounting or risk sensitivity. Participants in the commercial training condition improved with practice on the specific tasks they performed during training, but participants in both conditions showed similar improvement on standardized cognitive measures over time. Moreover, the degree of improvement was comparable to that observed in individuals who were reassessed without any training whatsoever. Commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to have no benefits in healthy young adults above those of standard video games for measures of brain activity, choice behavior, or cognitive performance.


(Hat tip to BoingBoing)

Looking for a good Bill of Rights Mnemonic

2 Aug

Last week, the lectures at Chautauqua focused on the Supreme Court. The roster of speakers included Linda Greenhouse, Annette Gordon-Reed, Jeffrey Rosen, Akhil Reed Amar, and Theodore B. Olson. You can see some of the talks here.

With all the talk of the Bill of Rights, it occurred to me that someone must have come up with a good mnemonic for them. But I have been disappointed by most of what I have found. Here is one of the better ones:

If you know of one that you like, please let me know.

There is a well developed literature of mnemonics for the medical profession. I am surprised that I am unable to find a similar body of work for the law.

Education Secretary increases investment in questionable neurofeedback company

31 Jul

According to Politico:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has increased her financial stake in a “neurofeedback” company that says its technology treats attention deficit disorder and the symptoms of autism. DeVos reported a new investment of between $250,001 and $500,000 in the Michigan-based Neurocore, according to a financial disclosure form that was certified by government ethics officials on Wednesday.

The whole story is here (scroll down to find the story). For background on Neurcore read this.

The Guardian’s terrible article on giftedness

28 Jul

Let me stipulate, before I begin, that I believe that most students could substantially improve their academic performance. But I cannot accept the assertion implied in a recent Guardian headline: “Why there’s no such thing as a gifted child.”

What evidence does the Guardian supply for its assertion? It’s almost entirely anecdotal. For example, we are told that:

Most Nobel laureates were unexceptional in childhood. Einstein was slow to talk and was dubbed the dopey one by the family maid. He failed the general part of the entry test to Zurich Polytechnic – though they let him in because of high physics and maths scores. He struggled at work initially, failing to get academic post and being passed over for promotion at the Swiss Patent Office because he wasn’t good enough at machine technology. But he kept plugging away and eventually rewrote the laws of Newtonian mechanics with his theory of relativity.

There is a lot wrong with this account. The story of a family maid years after Einstein was a grown and famous man is hardly strong evidence. Just how slow was he to talk? Doesn’t “high physics and maths scores” count as evidence of giftedness? As a child Einstein taught himself calculus and his employment problems were largely due to Antisemitism.

Te article also says:

Lewis Terman, a pioneering American educational psychologist, set up a study in 1921 following 1,470 Californians, who excelled in the newly available IQ tests, throughout their lives. None ended up as the great thinkers of their age that Terman expected they would. But he did miss two future Nobel prize winners – Luis Alvarez and William Shockley, both physicists – whom he dismissed from the study as their test scores were not high enough.

I didn’t know about Luis Alvarez, but I did know the story about Shockley. Terman study was a longitudinal study of gifted children who had an IQ above a defined cut score. Shockley’s IQ was high but just not high enough to be in Terman group. The students identified by Terman did well in life, having above average academic and professional achievement. It might be worth pointing out that Nobel prizes are not that common and while IQ does a good job of capturing highly valued cognitive skills it may not be a good measure of creativity.

Later the article makes this astonishing admission:

While the jury is out on giftedness being innate and other factors potentially making the difference, what is certain is that the behaviours associated with high levels of performance are replicable and most can be taught – even traits such as curiosity.

Wait a second, the article is supposed to be arguing that giftedness doesn’t exist, but the author not only concedes that it exists, but also that some aspects could be innate. There certainly are “behaviours associated with high levels of performance” but we do not know to what extent these behaviors can be taught.



61 Books in a Year

26 Jul

Ken Norton explains how he did it:

When I analyzed my reading habits, I realized that despite only finishing five or six books a year, I was already spending a big portion of my evening reading: social media, the news, Silicon Valley think pieces, and my Pocket backlog. Some of it would be worthwhile, but I wasn’t deliberate in how I chose to spend my time (ahem, Wikipedia wormholes). Junk reading, like junk food, is momentarily satisfying but terrible for you in the long term. I didn’t need to read more, I thought, I just needed to read healthier.

He has four other suggestions. I wonder how much of my reading is junk reading? There are certain blogs I look at everyday, but I think I mostly profit from that. I don’t spend time on Twitter or Facebook, but I do spend a lot of time reading newspapers on my Kindle. Norton seems to have the same issue:

I’m still a news junkie when it comes to politics, but I’ve metered the time I spend reading the news (primarily to keep my blood pressure down). I subscribe to important publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and I try to pepper short bursts of news over the course of the day. I also don’t load news or articles on my Kindle.



Language learning: Vocabulary more important than grammar

24 Jul

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann makes this important point:

The importance of a large vocabulary in your target language can’t be overstated. Some are convinced we can converse quite comfortably with just a few hundred words. There are lots of articles on the topic. I don’t agree. You can communicate with a few words, but you can’t say much and you understand even less, and that means a very limited form of communication.

My views have been formed through my own experience of learning 15 languages. I constantly find my lack of words to be the greatest obstacle to enjoying the language more. Why? Because the words I am missing prevent me from understanding things that I hear, read and want to understand. With enough vocabulary and comprehension comes confidence; the confidence that I can defend myself in the language. With this confidence to sustain me, the speaking part develops naturally as I have more and more opportunity to speak.

I get apoplectic when people say that we should de-emphasize memory in education. Language learning is exhibit A in the case for the continuing importance of memory. Fortunately, memorization of vocabulary is made much easier by the availability of tools like Anki and Memrise.

Check out Kaufmann’s YouTube channel here.



Two Americas, One Pseudoscience

21 Jul

A fascinating piece in Quartz comparing pseudoscience health claims on websites oriented to Red or Blue Americans.

We at Quartz have created a compendium, from Ashwagandha to zizyphus, of the magical healing ingredients both sides of the political spectrum are buying, and how they are presented to each. We looked at the ingredients used in products sold on the Infowars store, and compared them to products on the wellness shops Moon Juice and Goop. All make similar claims about the health benefits of these ingredients, but what gets called “Super Male Vitality” by Infowars is branded as “Sex Dust” by Moon Juice.

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