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.


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.


Closing the Achievement Gaps: The Need for a Cognitive Intervention

March 29, 2014

Despite great effort, the achievement gaps in education persist. While some progress has been made increasing the percentage of students performing at grade level in reading and math, the national average is only about 35% for 3rd graders. That’s one big gap. And the gaps are even bigger for historically low-performing students – students who are economically disadvantaged, students with learning disabilities, and English Language Learners.

Here is what some recent research suggests about these populations and the potential to make dramatic, rather than incremental, strides in raising performance levels.

Economically Disadvantaged Students

The gap for economically disadvantaged students is not just an achievement gap; it is a cognitive gap. Low-SES (socioeconomic status) students have less well developed cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts. This impacts their ability to visualize and see patterns, to manage spatial relationships and sequence, to control the focus of their attention, to learn and understand words, to hold and manipulate information in the mind. These cognitive skills are essential in reading and math, in particular, and in being a successful and organized student, in general.

Consider the situation of two classes of 4th and 5th grade boys, low-SES, and with a history of behavior problems. The students were tested and shown to be performing, cognitively, 3 years behind their chronological age. Understanding that these students’ minds were functioning like those of 1st and 2nd graders, what would you predict for their academic performance (and their behavior) when challenged with 4th or 5th grade work? Twelve weeks later, following a cognitive intervention, these students were performing on average 3 years ahead of their chronological age. What would you predict now for their potential for academic performance?

Students with Learning Disabilities

The gap for a large portion of students in Special Education – those with learning disabilities – is also not just an achievement gap, but a cognitive gap. Working memory, short-term memory, attention, processing speed and similar cognitive functions are what stand in the way of making adequate academic progress for these students.

A group of students in 2nd through 4th grades, identified as having specific learning disabilities, were tested and shown to be performing cognitively at just above 60% proficiency, where 90% proficiency is the level expected of a normally developing student. These students were reading at about 28% proficiency and performed in math at about 45% proficiency. Twelve weeks later, the students who received a cognitive intervention were performing at 89% proficiency cognitively, 68% proficiency in reading, and 77% proficiency in math.

ELL Students

Cognitive processes play a role in language acquisition and the ability to function in a second language. Working memory, visualization, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility are especially important.

ELL students who received a cognitive intervention in various studies accelerated gains in reading comprehension, performed better than students in a control group on state tests in reading and math, and performed better on measures of academic performance in reading, writing and math.

The cognitive intervention: BrainWare SAFARI

Learn more at www.MyBrainWare.com.

 


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?


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!