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.


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?


Helping Homework-Trapped Students — by Betsy Hill

April 25, 2012

An article in the Washington Post newspaper caught my attention recently.  It talked about “homework-trapped students.”  In the article, Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist and author, describes students who struggle to get homework done but whose efforts fall short.  The problem, as he explains it is not motivation (these students and their parents are trying very hard), but under-the-radar learning problems, particularly processing speed.  In his words, “The most important issue is the child’s work pace. No one would question that a slow running child truly wants to win the race, yet we somehow believe that homework trapped children lack the desire to get their work done.”

The incidence of homework-trapped students may be even greater than Dr. Goldberg’s description implies since there are also many, many children who get acceptable grades but only because they labor from the moment they get home from school into the middle of the night.

Dr. Goldberg suggests a number of strategies for parents and teachers, including setting time limits and reducing the penalties for homework not completed or done poorly. This, of course, begs the question of whether all homework is useful (or whether there should be homework at all), but if homework is an important part of the learning experience, then simply saying that some students don’t have to do it doesn’t seem to make sense either.

What really is missing is helping these students overcome their learning issues and improve their cognitive abilities and processing speed.  This can be done with a cognitive skills development program such as BrainWare Safari.  Parents of students who have used the program frequently say that they have “gotten their child back.”  If we believe that homework is useful and that all students therefore should be doing it, we need to ensure that they actually have the capacity to do so.


Title I: Closing the Achievement Gap by Closing the Capacity Gap — by Betsy Hill

January 3, 2011

 Since it was first introduced in 1965, Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education has sought to even the playing field by providing supplemental funding for schools with populations of students with low socio-economic status (SES).  The underlying assumption is that students with different SES status are essentially the same, with the same capacity to learn and the same ability to benefit from good educational resources.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  In fact, students from low-SES families are functionally different from their more advantaged peers in cognitive abilities.  They come to school with less capacity to learn and to be successful in school and in life. 

That does not mean, however, that the achievement gap is permanent.  In fact, there is now substantial evidence that cognitive skills can be developed. Before students with deficits can learn, they must develop the capacity to learn. 

Deficits in cognitive capacity do not disappear immediately when children are exposed to good teaching and good curriculum.  In fact, such deficits are important barriers to being able to learn and often constitute limitations to the amount and pace of learning.

Interventions for Title I students have traditionally focused on external factors such as teaching, curriculum, environment, technology and other resources.  Interventions that address students’ internal capacity to learn and develop critical cognitive skills are required to enable students to “catch up” and to be able to benefit from those resources. 

 A new white paper that details the cognitive deficits of students of low SES, the implications for academic achievement and the effectiveness of BrainWare Safari cognitive skills development software is now available.  This is must reading for teachers and administrators dealing with the perennial challenge of closing the achievement gap.  A first step is recognizing that the achievement gap cannot be closed without first addressing the capacity gap.


When Charter School Students Don’t Succeed – by Betsy Hill

November 11, 2010

According to a report on NPR (WBEZ) two days ago, the reason that test scores in many Chicago charter schools are higher than their traditional CPS (Chicago Public School) counterparts is that they systematically push low-performing students out.  The euphoria of being admitted to one of the city’s sought-after charters via lottery is followed in too many cases by failure and by students being actively counseled to withdraw and return to a local public school.  The unfortunate students are those who struggle and need, but don’t get, the kind of support they require to meet the very high expectations of the charters.  Thus, while the charter schools admit students of all ability levels, they manage to force out those who bring their test scores down and keep a more able student body.  At least that’s how the story goes.

The charter school administrators and teachers I know care too much about kids to intentionally crush their hopes and dreams with such a system.  At the same time, there are certainly students who arrive in their classrooms without the capacity to be meet the high performance expectations that attracted them there in the first place. 

If student capacity were unchangeable, then one might conclude that those struggling students would be better off back in their neighborhood schools in a less challenging environment.  But it’s not.  We have shown that the right kind of brain training can dramatically, over the course of a semester, change a student’s cognitive ability and their capacity to benefit from good curriculum and good teachers. 

Superior performance on high-stakes tests is not just a matter of selecting the most capable students but of developing them.


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.


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!