Tag Archives: brain training

Does music or chess enhance cognitive skills?

27 Dec

The idea that playing chess and studying music improves cognition in other domains, such as math, is called far transfer. It is a very seductive idea with a strong intuitive appeal. “Teach the kids chess and it will improve their academic performance.”

A recent meta-analysis published in Current Directions of Psychological Science, casts doubt on this popular belief. The paper is both persuasive and well written and I encourage educators to read it. Here is the abstract:

Chess masters and expert musicians appear to be, on average, more intelligent than the general population. Some researchers have thus claimed that playing chess or learning music enhances children’s cognitive abilities and academic attainment. We here present two meta-analyses assessing the effect of chess and music instruction on children’s cognitive and academic skills. A third meta-analysis evaluated the effects of working memory training—a cognitive skill correlated with music and chess expertise—on the same variables. The results show small to moderate effects. However, the effect sizes are inversely related to the quality of the experimental design (e.g., presence of active control groups). This pattern of results casts serious doubts on the effectiveness of chess, music, and working memory training. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings; extend the debate to other types of training such as spatial training, brain training, and video games; and conclude that far transfer of learning rarely occurs.

In an era of scarce educational resources, teachers in fields like art and music often defend their place in the curriculum by using far transfer arguments. Music we are told will improve math scores. This research calls into question these kinds of claims.

Art and music belong in the curriculum because they are valuable in their own right. Not everything needs to justified by how it affects math scores.

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)

Brain training may harm recognition memory

23 Dec

A study published in the journal Memory and Cognition suggests that working memory training (the kind offered by brain training software) may actually harm some kinds of memory performance. Here is the abstract:

There is a great deal of debate concerning the benefits of working memory (WM) training and whether that training can transfer to other tasks. Although a consistent finding is that WM training programs elicit a short-term near-transfer effect (i.e., improvement in WM skills), results are inconsistent when considering persistence of such improvement and far transfer effects. In this study, we compared three groups of participants: a group that received WM training, a group that received training on how to use a mental imagery memory strategy, and a control group that received no training. Although the WM training group improved on the trained task, their posttraining performance on nontrained WM tasks did not differ from that of the other two groups. In addition, although the imagery training group’s performance on a recognition memory task increased after training, the WM training group’s performance on the task decreased after training. Participants’ descriptions of the strategies they used to remember the studied items indicated that WM training may lead people to adopt memory strategies that are less effective for other types of memory tasks. These results indicate that WM training may have unintended consequences for other types of memory performance.

I am intrigued by the finding that the mental imagery memory strategy had positive effects. Unfortunately, my university library has a one year delay before making full text articles from this journal available. Thus, I don’t have any description of the mental imagery memory strategy. Nor am I able to judge the quality of the study.

Regular readers will know that I am skeptical of the benefits of brain training software. But until now, there was no evidence to suggest any harm from this approach. For the time being, we should wait until we have all the evidence and the findings have been replicated.

Brain training?

17 Jun

I had not planned to write about brain and memory training right away, but my friend Sridhar had sent me this article from Science News and I definitely want to be responsive to my readership.

In the past few years,  a number of studies have suggested that memory can be improved by practicing certain demanding cognitive tasks. These suggestive findings have spurred the creation of commercial software products that claim to train your brain and improve your memory. However, as the Science News article points out, there have been negative findings and this remains an area of scientific controversy.

It is rare in science for one study to decisively settle a question and there is always a temptation to believe the studies that conform to your current opinion and dismiss those that challenge your preconceptions. We need to look at the research as a whole, not just a single study, and we need to be willing to change our  minds in the face of new evidence. At this point I would make the following recommendations:

If you enjoy brain training games I certainly would not discourage you from using them. Just be aware that the jury is still out. We do have evidence that cognitive engagement may reduce your risks of dementia in later life. However, I like to recommend language learning or similar cognitively demanding learning projects as the best form of brain training. There is evidence of the protective effect of bilingualism against dementia. While, once again, our evidence is not definitive, language learning is valuable on its own terms. So rather than brain training software, I encourage you to take up a new language, learn a musical instrument, or take a college course. What ever your learning project you want to pick something that is challenging.

Finally, there is one type of memory training and associated software that has very strong scientific support, it is called spaced repetition learning. I use it everyday and will have a lot to say about it in future posts.

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