When Brain Training Works – Points of Controversy, by Betsy Hill and Roger Stark

August 23, 2016

Pre-publication publicity for a new book on the value of brain training claims that there are 5 conditions that make it effective.  While it surfaces some important considerations, it is likely to disappoint anyone who adheres strictly to the five conditions.

Here’s where the advice falls short:

  1. It must engage and exercise a core brain-based capacity or neural circuit identified to be relevant to real-life outcomes.

Response:  First of all, if there is a brain-based capacity or neural circuit that hasn’t been identified as relevant to real-life outcomes, then it probably doesn’t exist.  The purpose of our brain is survival, so all mental capacities are arguably relevant to real-life outcomes.  But more importantly, it is insufficient to say that training must target a mental process shown in research to be relevant to real-life performance.  The training should actually be able to demonstrate improvement in whatever that real-life performance is.   This is actually where much brain training falls down.  It’s not that the training doesn’t connect the exercise to a specific neural process, but that it can’t demonstrate actual change in real life application.

2.  It must target a performance bottleneck.

Response: The issue here is the model of brain functioning that underlies the statement.  A bottleneck is relevant for a linear process.  If step 2 of 10 in a manufacturing plant is slow, then that produces a “bottleneck.”  Speeding up step 2 will speed up the whole manufacturing process.  But our brains are not manufacturing processes.  Rather, they are complex systems with multiple processes occurring simultaneously (and hopefully in coordination).  In fact, recent research supports the idea that multiple mental processes are involved in just about everything we do and they have to work together.  While there is some truth to targeting weaker functions, it is at least as true that brain training, to be effective, is about integrating multiple systems.

3.  It requires a minimum “dose” of 15 hours total per targeted brain function performed over 8 weeks or less.

Response:  It’s refreshing, actually, to see a consensus emerging that a few minutes or hours of training here and there won’t do much for cognitive fitness.  But there is a fundamental flaw in the implication that each brain function must be trained independently.  If that were the case, then a training regimen of 150 hours would be required to address 10 targeted brain functions.  In our research, we have found that a dramatic impact on multiple brain functions is achieved in 35 to 50 hours of training multiple cognitive skill areas in an integrated fashion (using BrainWare SAFARI 3 to 5 times per week, in 30-45 minutes sessions over about 12 weeks).  We can agree that noticeable differences start to appear at the 6-8 week mark, but much more can be accomplished than this description of the book suggests.

4.  Training must adapt to performance, require effortful attention, and increase in difficulty.

Response:  This is all true, but it neglects what we know about what actually motivates effortful attention and persistence in training.  Parents and clinicians we talk to tell us, over and over, that most other brain training programs they have experienced are BORING.  Even when they are adaptive, increase in difficulty, and require focus (effortful attention).  Human beings don’t expend effortful attention when things are not engaging.  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  The design of the training program needs to be motivational, engaging and reward, not just demand, persistence.

5.  Continued practice is required for continued benefits.

Response:  This condition suggests that one needs to continue training essentially forever.  First, we want to say, “Wrong,” but then we want to relent and acknowledge that, “It depends.”  It also requires that we consider what “practice” means.

When children complete a brain training program (which we think is better termed cognitive training), they bring their improved attention skills, working memory, or visual-spatial processing to an educational environment that, in most cases, continues to put demands on those very cognitive skills.  In other words, they are using and practicing those enhanced cognitive skills every day.

If you are an adult in the workplace, the same would be true, by and large.  You are in an environment where you “practice” your improved skills constantly.  After all, if they haven’t transferred to real life, what’s the point?  If your goal, as an adult, is not to perform better, but to be a “high functioning couch potato,” then that is another story altogether.

One situation where continued benefits may require ongoing training is for those who want to build cognitive reserve and/or mitigate the effects of the declining demands of everyday life as they age.  For many individuals who are not as active as they used to be in intellectually demanding activities, ongoing training makes sense.

The idea behind brain training is that getting skills to the level of automaticity so that they are used in real life, means that real life becomes the practice.  While continued training may be useful for some, the better the training, the better the transfer, the better the individual applies their stronger cognitive functions in everyday life, the more challenges they take on, the more problems they solve … and the less need they will have for ongoing training.

We welcome the opportunity to explore the fascinating topic of brain training – and everything we know and don’t know – with you.  Please comment or feel free to email us at bhill@mybrainware.com or rstark@mybrainware.com.

Cognitive Skills Development as a Supplement to Vision Therapy, by Betsy Hill

July 7, 2016

I am a graduate of vision therapy myself.  And I will never forget the moment when my vision, which had been blurry my entire life, suddenly became clear, following many months of hard work with a vision therapist.  At the time, I thought it was a miracle.  Today, I know that the “miracle” is the ability of our brains to “rewire” themselves with the right kind of training.  When our eyes work together, or when visual focus improves, it transforms our ability to function in the world.

For some individuals, vision therapy is a vital first step, but there may still be more work to be done to integrate stronger visual skills with other mental processes, such as selective attention, working memory, sequential processing, directionality and other foundational cognitive skills and executive functions. That integration is what enables the stronger visual skills to be used directly in reading and math and other academic and life tasks.

BrainWare SAFARI is a cognitive skills training program that evolved from multi-disciplinary clinical therapy.  It is different from other cognitive training programs because it is both comprehensive and integrated.  In peer-reviewed published research, gains of 2 to 4 years of cognitive growth, and 1 to 2 years of academic growth, have been shown when the program is used 3 to 5 times a week for 12 weeks.

Once someone has completed (or has made sufficient progress in) a course of vision therapy and it is time to integrate their stronger visual processing with other cognitive processes, BrainWare SAFARI can provide that additional boost towards strong academic performance and success with everyday tasks.

Clinicians have found a variety of ways to work with clients using BrainWare SAFARI.  While the recommended protocol is 3 to 5 times a week, that doesn’t mean 3 to 5 office visits.  Because it is a software program, clients can use the program from any computer that has the program installed.  BrainWare captures and reports real-time data on progress in the program, to help clinicians check on compliance with the recommended protocol, and weekly or biweekly visits can assess and reinforce progress and the application of newly developing skills.

Clinicians can learn more about using BrainWare SAFARI in conjunction with vision therapy at: Cognitive Skills Training Webinar.

The Mystery of Reading Comprehension, by Betsy Hill

June 18, 2016

Many students can read a passage,but afterwards are unable to tell you what they read.  Or perhaps they can answer simple factual questions (regurgitate), but it really has no meaning for them and will be forgotten the next day.

How students make the leap from decoding to understanding is something that has challenged teachers since the very beginning of reading and writing (I don’t really have a reference for comprehension problems with the Dead Sea Scrolls, but I suspect that I’m not far off the truth).

And what is reading comprehension, anyway?

The way our minds comprehend what we hear or read is to connect what we are hearing or reading to knowledge and information we already know.  Regurgitating is not comprehending.  Regurgitation only involves short-term memory.  Our brains are designed to discard what is held in short-term memory if we haven’t found a way to make it meaningful.  So, of course, we can “read” but still not have understood a darn thing.

Comprehending involves making meaning, by visualizing and applying the information from the text being read, relating ideas to what is already known, and holding ideas in mind while we think about them.  But most reading instruction doesn’t address “visualizing”, or “holding ideas in mind.”  In fact, those mental processes are only two, although a very important two, of the cognitive skills (or mental processes) that must be working efficiently and accurately for comprehension to take place.

More importantly, these are the very skills that stand int he way of that leap to comprehension for many students.  It isn’t enough to hope that students will magically solve the mystery of comprehension themselves and make that leap.  Reading comprehension requires a mind prepared for that challenge.

Learn more at http://www.mybrainware.com/Skate-Kids-and-Ramps-to-Reading.


Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam, by Betsy Hill

February 4, 2015

A recent article asked the question: Are Brain Training Programs a Scam? Like many articles on the subject these days, the analysis was right in some respects, but missed several key points. The numbered statements below in italics are from the article. The comments following each point are mine.

1.  Most brain training programs are based on well known neuroscience and cognitive science research tests.

This is a fundamental flaw of many brain training programs. They involve training on the tests themselves. We know that our brains become better at what they do over and over. So, if we practice the very same skills that we will be tested on, you will get better at them and perform better on the test. The real question is how you train skills so that they will be available in everything you do in life.

2.  Brain training companies may claim unique or revolutionary training techniques, but they typically are offering more complex and appealing variations of these basic neurocognitive tests.

This is one of the important ways BrainWare SAFARI is different from other brain training programs. It was built on clinical therapy practices from multiple disciplines over several decades designed to help people function better in school or the workplace or in life, not to perform better on a test.

3.  Cognitive training relies on the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the biological method for how the brain responds to its environment – learning the skills and adaptive behavior necessary to survive. This pattern of learned behavior, skill acquisition, and memory encoding is also known as experience and wisdom.

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all brain training; that is clear. Neuroplasticity is not a method; it is an attribute or property of brains and means that they are constantly changing. Everything we do changes our brains physiologically. Every interaction with the outside environment changes our brains. The purpose of a brain is survival. Brains learn from experience, but I think that the word “wisdom” is misapplied here. Does being able to walk or drive a car connote wisdom? Most brain training programs are about skill acquisition and automaticity, not about judgment, perspective, complex analysis and other hallmarks of wisdom. In discussions of these topics, it is very important to use terminology correctly.

4.  The more specialized a cognitive training program can be will increase the likelihood of effective skills transfer. A good example is immersive cognitive training for military and commercial airline pilots. This is true in one sense. When skills are very specific to a situation, like knowing how to land a plane, then it is important to practice that skill. However, another analogy is executing a football play. Football players do training of basic skills and then apply them in a variety of situations so that the skills generalize. There is a distinction between transfer and generalization.

But will immersive cognitive training in a simulated flight deck improve the pilot’s ability to learn a foreign language faster or be better at playing blackjack? This is an excellent question. Another question is, are there skills that can be developed that are more basic than landing a plane or speaking a language or playing blackjack that, if developed, will help performance in all those activities? That doesn’t mean that training of basic cognitive skills is sufficient to be able to land a plane, but the right kind of training in visual-spatial processing, visual span, oculomotor skills, attention, reaction time, etc., might, and probably would, drive improvement in landing a plane … AND taking off … AND changing course during flight … AND dealing with a sick passenger … AND communicating with passengers when there is a delay  … AND …

5.  Highly specialized cognitive training (for highly specialized occupations) can be effective, and also tends to be very expensive. DARPA, the research and technology arm of the US Department of Defense is working on several cognitive training efforts to boost focus, coordination and control for drone pilots as an example. 

R&D is expensive. That doesn’t mean that it will be expensive to deliver once they develop it, and in fact will probably result in tremendous cost savings once developed because everything else they do will be more efficient and effective.

6.  Structured cognitive training holds the future promise of addressing a host of neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric conditions. There is a substantial amount of venture capital and government research dollars flowing into this area, but independent research validation for most structured cognitive training is still lacking and off in the future.

It is true that independent research validation is not conclusive yet for many training programs. Different programs are at different stages of proof. Research reports on BrainWare SAFARI, which include both peer-reviewed published research and field studies, are available at http://www.mybrainware.com/research.

7. The brain training industry as a whole faces a serious problem that will be hard to solve, namely, the barrier to market entry for brain training services and products is very low. Any company can create a few online brain games “based on neuroscience” and then market them as a cure-all for Alzheimer’s or dyslexia, or as a quick and easy way to raise your IQ.

This is very true. This is why I take this time to clarify some very important points.

There is new territory for all of us. Consumers, educators, health care practitioners and the media themselves will need to become educated in this area so that they can make appropriate judgments. It will require that people be open but skeptical. And it will require some standards or principles of how to make decisions about brain training programs. For a list of criteria for an effective brain-training programs, click here.

Giving Every Student the Equivalent of a Time Turner — by Betsy Hill

October 28, 2014

In The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book in the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger manages to attend extra classes with the help of a Time Turner. The Time Turner allows her to go back in time so that she can, in effect, take two classes at once. To use the parlance of renowned education Robert Marzano and others, it gave her “more time on task.” Of course, Hermione was “quite the brightest witch of her age” and so learned an even more prodigious amount with extra class time.

Many educators would like to figure out how to put more hours in the day – both for teachers and students. But, of course, the time-space continuum is what it is, using a Time Turner isn’t an option. Sometimes, schools look at extending the school day, or the school year, and that seems to have helped in some situations, but perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the time-on-task equation in a slightly different way.

Here is the equation. If Johnny needs an hour to learn to a particular concept, or a series of steps to solve a problem, or set of vocabulary words, then 30 minutes of instruction and study time will leave Johnny short of mastery. The problem for many teachers is that they are pressed to simply “cover” the material. If “covering” a topic takes 30 minutes, that’s just the way it is. The question then becomes whether there is a way to help students learn more material in less time.

I can think of two, and neither of them is a Time Turner. Both ways of helping students learn more material in less time can be effective for those that are the “brightest of their age” and those that are not.

The first is to teach more effectively. It may be that students will “get” whatever it is more quickly if the material is presented in a more effective way. Teachers who understand how learning happens in the brain can often get more and better learning to happen for their students in less time.

The other is to improve the efficiency of learning by building a student’s learning capacity.   What if Johnny could grasp that concept in less time, or manipulate the steps of a story problem more effectively? What if he could sustain his attention better so that he is actually attending to the instruction rather than needing it to be repeated multiple times? What if he could take notes while listening to the teacher? What if he could monitor his own pacing and progress to finish his work?

Many teachers assume that they are stuck with their students’ learning capacity, leaving them to choose between just “covering” the material or taking more time to teach. That assumption no longer holds. Dramatic improvements in students’ capacity to learn are possible in a very short period of time. In 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI, for example, students have improved their cognitive skills by an average of 4 years, according to peer-reviewed published research.

So, if we can help students learn more in less time, how much time will we spend helping them get to that point? Is it worth the investment of time?

Let’s do the math again. The time spent using BrainWare SAFARI is typically 30 to 50 hours over those 12 weeks – usually no more than 30 hours.

If we assume that a typical school year involves 1,000 hours of instruction, 30 hours of cognitive skill development is a one-time investment of 3 percent of instructional time in that particular school year. If one considers that the improvement could be amortized over three years of elementary school (since 3rd grade is a common year in which to incorporate BrainWare SAFARI in the curriculum), the investment of time diminishes to about one percent of instructional time. If learning capacity, then, is only one percent more efficient, it would be an even trade, but learning capacity is likely to be much more efficient than that because learning is not linear and learning one thing better provides the groundwork for learning everything that comes afterward more efficiently. It also doesn’t account for the cumulative effects of students who go on to middle school and high school with the capacity and preparation to succeed at those levels.

Maybe, Time Turners aren’t an option, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enable our students to learn more than they currently do.

Deal with the Big Rocks First … Prioritizing — by Betsy Hill

May 27, 2014

This activity is one of several End Summer Brain Drain activities available at http://www.mybrainware.com/how-it-works/end-summer-brain-drain/

Have you ever noticed that some people just drift through life dealing with each problem as it comes along and then wonder where all the time has gone, and why they haven’t accomplished more?

Other people seem to live lives that are very well organized and are able to accomplish a great deal.

You can do this activity just by imagining it, but it will be even more memorable if you actually try this with your child.  Assemble a large jar, a pile of big rocks (ones that will fit through the mouth of the jar), a pile of medium-size rocks, a bunch of pebbles, some sand and some water.  Your job with your child is to get all of the rocks, pebbles, sand and water into the jar.

It is good to let your child experiment with different ways to do this, even if they decide they need to start over several times.  What your child will discover is that If they start with the sand and then add the pebbles and then the medium-size rocks, the jar will fill up before they can get to the big rocks.  But if they start with the big rocks, they can get them all in and the smaller items will fill in the spaces in between.

You can point out to your child that it’s the same with things in your life.  You can begin to take charge of your life a lot more if you take the time to decide what is most important to you.

It’s not that you have to decide once for all time.  What’s important can change from minute to minute, or at least from day to day.  But at a particular time, it’s good to know what is important and what isn’t.  That way, you can take care of the important things first and let the less important ones fill in the cracks.

One way to get started on prioritizing with your child is for you each to make a list of things in some category that you both enjoy or know about.  For example, you could make a list of your friends, books that you like, things around the house that you want to change, events that have happened in the past few weeks or that are expected to happen in the next few.

Try to get at least ten items on your list, but you can still do this if you have only three or four.

Once you each have your list, number the items in order of importance.

Then take turns telling each other why you have put them in that order.  What makes one thing more important than another?

If you and your child continue to practice prioritizing from time to time, referring back to your experiment with the jar and the rocks, you will probably find that it becomes a way to focus everyone’s attention on the important things.  Maybe next time, your child is worried about something trivial, all you will have to say is, “Is that one of the big rocks?”

Cognitive Skills Development in an Accelerated Curriculum – by Betsy Hill

April 10, 2014

Much of our work has dealt with helping struggling students — those who are behind or have identified cognitive deficits — but it is important to remember that very bright students can also benefit from developing their cognitive skills and executive functions.  Here’s a story that explains what this can look like:

Dr. Sara Fraser, a clinical psychologist and Director of Students Services at Curtis School in Los Angeles, California, had been following the literature on executive functions for some time before she encountered BrainWare SAFARI at a Leaning and the Brain Conference in 2012. What she had seen up until that point was not all that encouraging – training on working memory that didn’t seem to transfer beyond short-term memory. It was also labor-intensive and would require a pull-out approach in their school setting.

What appealed to Dr. Fraser about BrainWare SAFARI was that its video-game format would appeal to their students, that it was supported by research showing that the breadth of cognitive skills developed meant that they could expect to see transfer to academic tasks, and that it could be implemented by teachers within the classroom.

The next step was to bring some teachers into the process – enter Joan Cashel and Susie Sobul, two of Curtis School’s third-grade teachers. Following a webinar demonstration, both teachers used BrainWare SAFARI themselves over the summer, with Joan finishing all but a few levels (we’re impressed!). An implementation webinar in the fall prepared them to kick things off with their students, which they did by reading Your Fantastic Elastic Brain and talking about brains as a learning muscle. The students heard that getting better at something means going for the sense of frustration that is inevitable when you’re moving up a learning curve.

Later, students would get the opportunity to learn that lesson at a deeper level. After building confidence as they passed the early, easiest levels of BrainWare, they would each find an area that was truly difficult for them. Joan found it fascinating to see some of her students easily complete levels she had struggled with and struggling with others.

Knowing that it was important that their students move around through the different games and taking to heart the admonition in their implementation webinar not to let students avoid the hardest games*, Susie and Joan had a timer running on their SmarBoard to help students switch games every ten minutes and came up with a chart that let the students plan and keep track of their own progress and. During each of their thrice-weekly sessions, students would pick one of the Key 5, and then ensure that they rotated through all the other games before repeating. The students used the program over 14 weeks, completing 30 or more sessions, the kind of usage that has been shown to drive substantial growth in cognitive skills.

A second cohort of students is using BrainWare SAFARI during the second half of the year. While the school won’t see the data on impact on student’s cognitive and academic skills until the end of the school year, a couple of things already apparent. First, the students started talking with each other outside of class … “How far did you get?” “Isn’t it fun?” The program became a real conversation piece. The other observation relates to the fact that the Curtis School offers an accelerated curriculum and serves high-level learners. As Dr. Fraser explains, many of those students haven’t experienced much in the way of frustration by the time they get to third grade. Giving students the experience of something where everyone gets challenged and learns to understand and tolerate frustration as a part of learning, has been, in her words, “incredibly helpful.”

Congratulations to all the third grade students at Curtis School for working hard at BrainWare SAFARI (and it’s ok if you think its fun!), and for learning that vital lesson – that challenge and frustration are essential in learning, and that persistence is key to accomplishing their goals.