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.

Changing Your Child’s Life Forever – by Karen Buccola

September 9, 2010

Recently, I suggested a new question to ask at your child’s next IEP meeting – to see the trend data not just for your child, but for all the students in the school, compared to the norms and standards the school and district use.  Your child’s school may be surprised when you ask to see this data.  In fact, they might not have ever even looked at your child in this manner before, but it will speak volumes.  If your child’s growth rate is in line with the growth rate of the standard and other students, then your child is not making the kind of gains needed to change their ability to succeed.  At that rate, he or she will always be behind their peers, always  struggling to catch up.

BrainWare Safari has been shown in recently completed studies to actually change the trend and narrow the gap that students with IEPs have been living with.  

My own daughter proved this to me many years ago and I am so excited to see the research that explains what she experienced.  My daughter had an IEP and was making progress every year but she never seemed to gain the foothold that would let her jump up to where her classmates were.  She was constantly treading water just to stay behind.  Then she used BrainWare Safari at home and after only a month, she told me of some of the things she was noticing.  For example, she could now take notes in class!  This was huge for her and it is one of things that changed her academic career.  From the time she finished BrainWare Safari, she was on the honor roll for the rest of her high school career and now attends college.  BrainWare Safari changed the trajectory of her progress; without it, I know she would have continued moving along at the same rate of growth she always had.  Improvement yes, but never getting to the point where she could make the leap to competing with her classmates. 

When I discussed my daughter’s results at one of her IEP meetings, the teachers seemed reluctant to attribute the changes to BrainWare Safari (after all, it wasn’t something they had done!).  But continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  And if they weren’t prepared to do something different, then I knew I had to.  That has been my experience as a parent of two children with learning issues and IEPs.  It’s a struggle and a fight sometimes but if the status quo is not challenged, then there can be no meaningful change. 

Using BrainWare is not doing the same thing expecting new results – it’s doing something very different that your child’s school has never been able to offer before.  It changes the trend, it can help close the gap, changing a child’s life forever.

Your Child Has an IEP, but Is the Gap Closing? – by Karen Buccola

September 7, 2010

Statistics and charts are standard fare at an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting.  The teachers and professionals are likely to show you where your child is performing relative to the standard for his/her grade and relative to where he/she used to be.  Parents are usually happy to see their child making improvement.  But is that enough? 

Next time, ask to see your child’s data compared to the overall trend for students in the school.  Why?  Because improvement is great, but it may not be the best measure of your child’s path in his/her academic career. 

Looking at some recent research from a school, I came away with a new insight.  If your child is making progress but the rate of progress is not keeping up with the pace at which a student is supposed to progress during a school year, he or she will remain standing still (or even losing ground) compared to his/her classmates.   If your student is currently behind in reading comprehension or math skills, and nothing the school is doing to help your child is any different from what they were doing in previous interventions, then the rate of change and improvement will always be about the same and your child may never “catch up” to where they should be.  This gap actually may increase as your child moves to higher grades where the content becomes increasingly more important and they build upon previous learning. 

The faculty and staff who participate in your child’s IEP may not know immediately what to do if there is evidence that the gap is widening.  But having a clear understanding of whether the gap is closing or not is an important first step.

Tips for Getting the Most from Your Child’s IEP Meeting – by Karen Buccola

June 10, 2010

You’ve pressed your child’s school for testing and some learning issues have been uncovered.  Your child’s school has put a plan, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), in place and you’re going to the IEP meeting.  What should you expect?

IEP meetings are very professional with reports that have been prepared by each of your child’s teachers.  Mountains of paperwork are generated at these meetings with everyone signing off on everything discussed.  It can seem overwhelming and you may feel that these meetings become a “them vs. us” situation with the teachers and administration ganging up on you and your son or daughter.  You might feel that you don’t have a say in what they’ve decided and that you have to go along with everything they’ve said or plan to do.

One word of advice as a veteran of IEP meetings is to remember that you are your child’s advocate and that no one will fight harder for your child than you will.  If you feel that your child is not getting the help or services he or she needs in order to learn and meet their potential, then politely state that and ask what else can be done. 

  1. Consider an alternative placement.  It is possible that your child’s school may not have the resources to address your child’s needs.  If that’s the case, then the school will have to provide the proper school setting for your son or daughter and it will be paid for out of the school’s budget.  These alternative placements can be very expensive and with budgets being so tight, you may meet with some resistance.  If you find yourself in this situation, don’t panic and threaten legal action.  That can actually be the worst thing to do because it will halt ALL services being provided to your child until the legal issues are resolved.   
  2. Bring in a third party.  Instead, bring your child’s outside therapist, social worker or doctor to the meeting.  Simply having an expert in the room will often change the tone completely.  Your child’s clinician can offer an independent assessment of his or her needs and will be less emotional than you’re probably feeling at this point.  It can make all the difference when the situation is more complicated than the school is used to.  You may have to pay for your expert’s time and travel to attend the IEP meeting, but often this can be covered by your insurance as one of your child’s therapy sessions.  It’s money well spent. 
  3. Suggest resources the school may not be aware of.  Don’t be intimidated by a conference room full of teachers and administrators.  You know your child better than anyone on the planet.  Follow your gut and don’t hesitate to suggest resources you may be aware of that are new to the school.  For example, BrainWare Safari will often be introduced to a school through a parent who has heard about how this software program can help address learning issues such as attention problems, visual and auditory processing deficits, poor memory and other underlying barriers to learning.  With BrainWare Safari, the implementation is easy and it’s less expensive than most other interventions the school could provide.   
  4. Include your child in the meeting.  It is often very helpful to have your student sit in on his or her IEP meetings so they can contribute to the discussion and help plan for the following year.

 If you have other suggestions for how to get the most from an IEP meeting, please share them!

Your Child May Need an Individualized Education Plan – by Karen Buccola

June 8, 2010

How did your child do this year in school?  Were you disappointed when you saw the grades on that final report card?   It can be a letdown from that feeling most of us have in the fall when the school year is just beginning and your child is starting off the year with a clean slate.  Now it’s the end of the year and you find yourself asking, “What happened?” Or you may have been frustrated because you’ve been watching your son or daughter struggle but haven’t known why or how to help.

It’s hard to face up to the reality that your child may not be living the dream you had when you first held them as an infant and you thought they could be a doctor, lawyer or even President of the United States.  But life and school often turn out to be much more of a struggle than we remember it being when we were kids. 

Take heart.  Next year CAN be different.  The first step is not to be afraid to ask your child’s school for help.  Ask the school to test your child to see if there are any learning issues, such as attention problems, dyslexia, poor working memory, or visual or auditory processing deficits.  Sometimes a request for testing is met with a less-than-enthusiastic response by the school administration, because testing is an involved and expensive process.  However, by law, you have the right to ask to have these tests conducted and within a reasonable amount of time.  The results will be shared with you at a formal meeting where everything should be explained to your satisfaction.  If an issue is found, then an IEP or Individualized Education Plan is created for your student.  Each year this plan will be reviewed in a meeting with the school and your family.

In a future blog, we’ll provide some helpful hints on how to get the most from your child’s IEP meeting.  In the meantime, don’t wait to get the process started.  Your child needs help and help is there if you ask for it.