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.


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.


I Smell Something Amazing! – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

November 6, 2014

I do smell something amazing … success! A man paralyzed from the chest down from a knife attack in 2010, can now walk! Doctors transplanted nerve cells from his nose into his severed spinal cord resulting in a first of its kind regenerative medicine. Darek Fidyka is walking again after having a completely severed spinal cord! Awesome! How did they do that?

I often get asked if neurons are regenerated. And my answer is that we are all born with billions of neurons and as we age, and for the most part, those are all the neurons we will ever have. But there are two places that undergo neurogenesis (birth of neurons) throughout life: Our hippocampus and the area of the brain called the olfactory bulb. I have always had a way to explain how to use new neurons in the hippocampus to our advantage. The hippocampus is often referred to as the memory center in our brains and it undergoes neurogenesis when we exercise. So, regular exercise is important for your brain, not just your body.

However, until last week, I did not have a great way to talk about the olfactory bulb neurogenesis except to explain why that location needs regenerated . After all, without those nerve bundles behind our eyes, known as the olfactory bulbs, we would not be able to smell anything! The nerve cells in our noses are shed daily. It is part of life. We need to replace them as frequently as we shed them in order to smell grandmas’ pumpkin pie, the roast in the oven … or that sweet smell of success.

What is amazing and exciting about this latest medical development is the use of Fidyka’s own olfactory nerve cells to heal his spinal cord. It was not as simple as blowing his nose, though! It took years. And it will take years more before the procedure is widespread, since the procedure need to repeated and undergo medical trials. Professor Geoffrey Raisman at the University of College London, who performed the technique, is hopeful that this procedure will be a historic change for spinal cord injuries.

Next time you stop to smell the roses, don’t forget the potential power in that nose. The world is changing, and now we know those regenerating neurons in our noses are useful for so much more.


What are Cognitve Skills? — by Betsy Hill

May 31, 2013

We hear the term “cognitive skills” more frequently these days as we all become more aware that our brains perform a variety of functions critical to helping us navigate school, work, personal relationships … in fact, everything we do.  How can we start to understand what these skills are and how they relate to how successfully we interact with our world?  Here are some basics:

Cognitive Skills…are “thinking” or mental processing skills.  They allow us to take in, process, understand and apply information. Some of the important cognitive skills for learning include:

  • Attention skills.  Attention refers, in part, to the “executive control” function of our minds, for instance, the ability to focus on one input without being distracted, as well as the ability to pay attention to two activities at the same time, such as taking notes while listening to the teacher.  Good attention skills also enable us to move from one activity to another with ease and to focus on the most important information with which we are presented, for instance, to identify the key clues in a math story problem.
  • Visual/spatial processing skills.  These functions include the various skills related to processing and making sense of visual inputs.  Examples include the ability to interpret the concepts of “left” and “right,” to process a volume of visual information at a glance, and to get meaning from information received sequentially – all critical for reading.  Strong visual processing skills enable us to recognize patterns, such as in a science experiment or in analyzing a set of historical facts, and to distinguish specific features or forms from a distracting background, such as identifying a bird in a tree.
  • Auditory processing skills.  Auditory skills are similar to visual processing skills, but deal with information that is heard. These skills include the ability to distinguish differences in sounds, such as the inflection in the voice for a question versus an exclamation, as well as the ability to identify the most important sounds, just as the conductor’s tapping his baton signals the musicians to cease warming up and prepare to perform.  Good auditory processing skills allow us to learn from what we hear and follow a series of directions.
  • Sensory integration skills.  These types of skills include the ability to combine sensory skills with motor activity, such as hand-eye coordination, rhythm and timing.  These skills directly relate to our ability to use our eyes and hands together efficiently, as in writing, drawing or typing.  They also enable our visual or auditory and our attention and memory systems to work effectively and smoothly together, such as keep a mental map in mind while we listen to a set of auditory instructions.
  • Memory skills.  Memory is one of the cognitive skill areas that seems the most familiar, but it covers a spectrum of skills that may not always come to mind when we use the word.  These include the ability to manage information and retain it for different lengths of time.  Long-term memory refers to our abilities to permanently store information and retrieve it when needed, such as math facts, locker combinations or grammar rules.  A different type of long-term memory allows us to perform procedures automatically, like walking, driving a car or playing a familiar piano piece.  Working memory is the ability to hold information in the mind while performing a mental operation, such as remembering the alphabet while alphabetizing spelling words.  Short-term memory is nonconscious memory where the brain decides what information to discard or what to retain in working memory, within 1/1000 of a second.  Sequential memory refers to the ability to recall a sequence of information, in order, such as remembering the historical series of events leading up to the Revolutionary War or what happened at the beginning, the middle and the end of a story.  Memory skills also allow us to remember the relationships between bits of information and keep them straight, such as learning a foreign language or solving an algebra problem.  Memory is the essence of learning, because information that is not remembered has not been learned.
  • Thinking skills involve abilities such as logic, reasoning, problem solving, conceptual thinking and the ability to make decisions quickly.  These skills, in which information is manipulated and applied, include such processes as planning, for example, how to tackle a multi-part science experiment; concept development, such as deductive reasoning; and the ability to use thinking skills quickly to make correct decisions, such as in responding to questions on a test.

Research continues to make clear both just how important these skills are, but how we can develop them and build our capacity to learn.  One very effective tool for developing these skills is BrainWare Safari. How strong are your cognitive skills?


Thoughts on the Value of President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative – by The BrainWare SAFARI Team

April 13, 2013

The BRAIN Initiative announced recently by President Barack Obama has underscored the importance of better understanding brain-behavior relationships and it holds potential for deeper knowledge of the mechanisms involved in the development of the cognitive skills involved in learning and thinking.

President Barack Obama this week announced that his 2014 budget proposal will contain $100 million in funding for a research initiative with the acronym BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), a 10-year $3 billion initiative previewed in the President’s State of the Union Address.  The purpose of BRAIN is to develop technologies to expand our understanding of how brain cells (neurons) interact to produce thought and learning.

Here are some of our thoughts:

Betsy Hill, President & COO, BrainWare SAFARI:  The BRAIN initiative has been likened to the Human Genome mapping project, but there are some important differences.  The order of proteins in the human genome can be determined and will be the same the next time you look at it.  There is a basic sequence that applies to all of us.  The principle of neuroplasticity means that the organization of our brains – the neural networks that account for learning and thought – are unique and constantly changing.  Our brains literally construct themselves.  In fact, the creation and strengthening of neural networks is the definition of learning.  It is vital that we learn more about how the brain processes, uses, stores, and retrieves such enormous quantities of information.

Roger Stark, CEO, BrainWare SAFARI:  A key to technological exploration of brain-behavior relationships will likely be the use of tools and techniques that have already been developed to impact brain function and behaviors, such as attention, working memory, visual-spatial processing, auditory processing and the integration of cognitive functions.  BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software is just such a tool and has been shown in research and clinical practice to develop brain processes that enable us to take in, store, retrieve and manipulate information, the very processes the BRAIN initiative is designed to explore.  The BRAIN initiative could help explain in a much more detailed way than is currently available to exactly how key cognitive processes involved in learning and memory are developed and modified, leading to even better approaches.

Dr. Sara Sawtelle, Director of Scientific Affairs, BrainWare SAFARI:  We know that the brain develops in interaction with our environment.  BrainWare Safari helps the brain interact with the environment (in this case a software program, in a video-game format) in a way that develops cognitive processes critical for learning and thinking.  This could be a valuable tool in helping researchers working in the BRAIN initiative to examine how the brain develops and uses these key processes.  We look forward to collaborating with researchers on this exciting initiative with so much promise for our entire society.

What are your thoughts about the President’s BRAIN initiative?


Questions to Ask Your Chronically Stressed Students – by Dr. Lori Desautels

March 6, 2013

This morning I sat in two middle-school inner-city classrooms in Indianapolis, as I do most weeks.  But today, something struck me deep in the center of my chest as I was observing the boredom and apathy on those detached, sleepy and seemingly sad faces.  What struck me was an arrow filled with questions … as I literally sensed and felt a feeling of “ask me” from all parties in the classroom.

Even with all the talk in Indiana and across the nation about the effectiveness of charter schools vs public schools, voucher initiatives and private schools, our children most in need are often the first to be rejected, socially and emotionally.  They are the first to be expelled and the first to be relegated to sub-standard services.  Children with learning and emotional challenges may choose a charter or private school option, only to discover that the available services are unable to meet the legal requirements, let alone the emotional, cognitive and least restrictive environment needs for these students.  Too often, they are met with zero-tolerance policies and coercive behavior management practices that basically are fighting pain-based behavior with more pain.

Are six hours of compliance, a tucked in shirt, and walking in a straight line quietly through a hallway the behaviors of students who are learning to listen to their hearts, to use their intuitive knowledge or to live outside the walls of school?  Or are they the signs of the way chronic stress affects their learning long- and short-term memory systems and their immune systems and health?  Where are the behaviors that would signify engagement, passionate and question-filled learning, and creative problem-solving?

School stress levels may be worse than ever.  Over 20% of adolescents nationwide (ages 11-17) have some type of a stress disorder (depression, reactive attachment disorder, learned helplessness, bipolar, etc.)  Kids’ top three stressors are 1) school academic pressures 2) family pressure and 3) bullying (kidshealth.org).  Among kids from poverty, 60-95% have chronic stress.

Chronic stress hurts student achievement. It is well known that chronic stress contributes to over half of all school absences (Johnston-Brooks, et al. 1998).

I have seen amazing things happen when we adults start with questions rather than directives.  While the questions themselves do not solve problems, they explore what cannot be seen with the eyes.  They  propel social and emotional self-reflection and foster a dialogue that may bring to the surface negative emotions and beliefs  that have barricaded learning, blocked active school motivation and hijacked feelings of well-being.   Choose two or three questions from this list and try working on posing and discussing them with those students who trigger your emotions and leave you sleepless at night.

What do I need?

What resources (people, activities or things) could assist me in reaching my small and larger goals?

How can I show that I am progressing to bigger goals?

What can my class do to assist me?

What can my teacher do to assist me?

How do I handle negative situations? When these situations occur, what do I typically say to myself?

What would be a statement that would encourage me?

Who are my heroes?  What are the character traits I admire in these people that make them my heroes?

How will I personally know I am on the right track? What will tell me I strayed off the track to my goals?

What are three negative emotions I feel most often?

What are three positive emotions I feel often or sometimes?

How could creative visualization help me?

How could I learn to begin again even after a day of small mistakes?

Name three strategies that my school-teacher could begin that would assist me in moving toward my goals?

What are two or three challenges or obstacles that prevent me from reaching small or big goals?    

What are my strengths?

What are my challenges?

How will I plan to focus on my strengths knowing that my thoughts and feelings drive all my behaviors and words with others?

Questions can be powerful.   What are the questions that have helped you and your students?


Does Physical Exercise Trump Mental Exercise? — by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

October 25, 2012

A recent article in Time Health and Family, “Exercise Trumps Brain Games in Keeping our Minds Intact”, reports on the findings from a study in Scotland.  The study compared MRIs of adults to see how much brain shrinkage occurred over a three-year period, from age 70 to age 73.  The subjects filled out a survey that asked about their exercise habits and their mental and social activities. According to the article, the researchers concluded that brain shrinkage was less for those who were physically active than for those who participated in mentally engaging and social activities, with the least amount of shrinkage for those who were most physically active.

The article did not report some key information.  For example, for the most physically active persons in the study, was the physical activity also social in nature?   How mentally active were they?  And how healthy were they overall?

Yes, as we grow older our brains get smaller, brain cells die, and our neural network in our 40s (to say nothing of our 70s) is not as connected as it was in our teens.   And, yes, the aging process can be slowed, but suggesting that physical exercise is all we need is a one-sided picture.

There is not just one single thing that changes the ways our brains function. Physical activity is important to help keep brains and minds healthy, but exercise does not “trump brain training,” as the article claims. It takes exercise, social interaction, healthy food choices, plenty of water and it takes mental activity. Most of the research says it is not either/or; it is ALL.  It is balance.

When it comes to mental activity, the kind of activity is just as important. Reading a book, or doing a crossword puzzle or Sudoku, if those are things we always do, just reinforces existing connections.  Our brains like new and complex things that are unexpected and require work to process.  That is when our brains grow. Our brains grow when what we are doing requires integration of multiple processes, such as  visual, auditory and memory.  And it cannot be an occasional activity. The mental activity needs to be as regular as the physical activity. That is the kind of mental exercise that makes a difference.

Well, since I am closer to 70 than I am to my teens, it is time to stop this particular mental activity, eat an apple, drink some water and go for a walk with a friend. Here’s to engaging our brains and bodies  in every way!