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.


What Great Teachers and Great Salespeople Have in Common – by Betsy Hill

March 28, 2016

For some, this comparison will seem obvious.  For some it will seem curious, at first blush.  For some it will seem preposterous, or even insulting.  I hope that, like most good analogies, the aptness of the comparison ultimately enlightens.

My interest in revisiting this topic was prompted by two events.  The first (which was really the second chronologically) was reading the words of a professor quoted in What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004).  ‘Teaching is “above all,” about commanding attention and holding it.  Our task is not unlike that of a commercial for a soft drink or any other product.’  The book goes on to suggest that professors and salespeople might do different things once they have that attention, but more on that later.

The second (which was really the first chronologically) was watching well-meaning educators become interested in a new technology and then reject learning more about it because of too much “salesmannship.”

These two events caused me to reflect again on the parallels between the two professions and what would have to be true for the analogy to hold.  I came up with the following:

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson believe in the value of their subject.  They believe deeply in the importance of understanding what they have to convey about it.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson spend considerable effort to understand their audience.  In teaching, we call it identifying prior knowledge and students’ motivation.  In selling, we call it “knowing your customer.”

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson have a hook to get our attention.  Unless there is a hook, we won’t pay attention and the message will be lost.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson manage to convince is that we have a personal stake in what they are saying and that makes us want to know more about it.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson want anyone to “buy” anything unless it is relevant, important and fills a need.  In fact, the key element to each of their interactions with their audience is to support the thinking process, to see how what they are teaching/selling applies to things we care about.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson use a variety of communications techniques – including visuals, audio, music, mnemonics, simulations, experiments discussion (and, yes, sometimes lecture) to help us learn and understand.

Both the great teacher and the great salesperson encourage questions and probing.

Neither the great teacher nor the great salesperson wants the end result of their efforts to be a return and a refund, to hear, “that wasn’t worth the time or money spent on it.”

So what is it that might be different, once the salesperson and the teacher have our attention?

In the case of salesperson, we might buy something.  If the salesperson is not ethical or doesn’t really understand us, or just pushes too hard, we might possibly buy something we don’t need or can’t afford.  But that wouldn’t be the intention of a good salesperson because they too care about keeping the sale.

In the case of a teacher, we might become interested in some topic we didn’t know we would be interested in.  It’s possible we might later regret pursuing that interest or feel that we didn’t fully understand the consequences (e.g., problems finding a job).  But that wouldn’t be the intention of a good teacher because they too care about their students.  In fact, if the great teacher is successful enough, we might end up devoting our life to it.  We might not have known we needed it, but the need to understand, to master, and to share with others was engendered by that teacher.

We only have so much time.  We only have so much money.  Thanks to all the great teachers and salespeople in the world for helping us spend well.


A True Growth Mindset Requires a One-Two Punch, by Roger Stark

November 17, 2015

People who have a growth mindset believe they can develop their intelligence and their abilities and that’s what enables them to become much more effective learners, according to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Carol Dweck, explained succinctly athttp://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2015/11/16/growth-mindset-clearing-up-some-common-confusions/?.

That’s the first punch.

People with a growth mindset who have teachers or trainers who provide explicit opportunities for them to develop their intelligence and their abilities will become even more effective learners.

That’s the second punch.

The combination of those two punches can be a knockout, but we need to figure out how to deliver that one-two combination on a regular basis, day in and day out for our students.

Sometimes as educators and leaders, we get sucked into believing that our students cannot do or learn certain things and we forget to structure opportunities to develop their intelligence.  Even when we know better, we can fall into thinking that there is nothing we can do to change the way our students learn.

Recently, students in Hammond, Indiana were supported by teachers and educational leaders who structured an opportunity for them to develop their intelligence and it changed the way they learn in a dramatic way.  These students, who struggled with reading, and whose teachers had not figured out how to teach them to read, because of their low cognitive ability in areas of processing related to language and reading, increased their learning ability from the bottom third to close the national median in 12 weeks of using BrainWare SAFARI.  A report of the study can be accessed at http://www.mybrainware.com/media/resources/results/BWResearch_BWS_Cngnitive_Skills_Development_in_Before_and_After_School_Programs_with_Low-Performing_Readers_20.pdf

Having a growth mindset means helping children understand that they can change their cognitive abilities – that was the first punch the teachers in Hammond delivered with these students.  And then they threw the second punch — providing BrainWare SAFARI cognitive skills development software to build the abilities these students needed to overcome their struggles.  This was not about more facts, or more content, but about building students’ ability to learn.

Schools should not be about teaching to the test, but developing children’s ability to learn, to grow and prosper.  It should be about empowering them with tools that are engaging and result in sustainable growth that transfers to measurable outcomes and leads to a life of choice, not chance.  Or as Einstein, albeit without the benefit of Dweck’s research, said “Education is not the learning of facts. It’s rather the training of the mind to think.”


Five Tips for a Better Brain, by Betsy Hill

July 6, 2015

Just about every adult I meet wants to know how to strengthen their perception, thinking and acuity.  I believe in practicing what I preach, so here a five things I practice on a daily basis.

  1. Our brains become what brains do, so do wonderful, interesting and beautiful things.  When my youngest son went to college, the dean welcomed parents and shared with us some of the advice he was giving to our children in other meetings … That the mind is like your living room and that your job is to decorate it.  One thing we know is that what decorates our minds best is doing things that are challenging for us – not the just the same old comfortable things.  Sometime this summer, try something you’ve never done before.  BrainWare SAFARI is one great way to redecorate your mind.  If you haven’t tried it, what are you waiting for?
  2. Practice what is called abductive thinking.  You’ve probably heard of deductive thinking – the kind of thinking police detectives are supposed to do – that is drawing conclusions from multiple facts that point in the same direction.  It’s pretty much what happens when you conclude that there can’t be any other cause or reason for what you’re seeing.  You’ve probably heard of inductive thinking – predictive thinking based on a set of facts.  You have also probably engaged in both inductive and deductive reasoning.  But what about abductive thinking?  That is thinking that takes seemingly inconsistent facts and does not insist on choosing among then – but comes up with a brand new truth.  This is the kind of thinking that you need when you hear about the same incident from two different friends whose stories are very different.  What kind of overarching truth can you find that accounts for all of it?  Or consider how to compare things that you initially think have nothing in common … what do you think a triple-decker ice-cream cone has in common with a political campaign?
  3. While this may sound like hard to do, get enough sleep.  Adults with mild sleep deprivation (being awake for 19 hours) perform on cognitive tests like they were legally intoxicated.  Moreover, your brain actually solves problems and consolidates memory during sleep (during the REM cycle) – so an extra hour or two of sleep may make that problem you’ve been wrestling with easier to solve.  Physical exercise is also very important to brain health and stronger cognitive functioning, so get out and enjoy our beautiful summer weather.  Besides, it’ll tire you out so you’ll sleep better.
  4. Challenge your assumptions.  We all make assumptions all the time and we take information for granted.  When you listen to the news or a speaker at a conference, play devil’s advocate.  Think about what would have to be true for that point of view to be accurate?  Is it complete?  Does it jump too far from basic truths to a conclusion.  Ask yourself what evidence you have that it is true and what evidence you have that might tend to disprove it.  Think about the difference between evidence, opinions, and judgments.
  5. Whatever it is that seems like a puzzle, put it down on paper.  If you are a writer, write.  If you are most comfortable with visual images, draw a  mind map.  Writing is nature’s way of showing us how sloppy our thinking is (paraphrased from someone brilliant … but I haven’t been able to track down the source).  Putting things down on paper forces us to be much more specific about the relationships among things, particularly cause and effect relationships, and a mind map can help us keep a large amount of complex information in an order.  Draw a circle on a piece of paper with the main idea or question in the center.  Draw more circles and connect them to the first and so on.  Don’t forget the connections between the second- and third-order circles.  There is likely to be a new insight somewhere in that map.

There’s plenty of time between now and September to make one or more of these a new habit and have a great summer!


Neuroscience and the U.S. Education System, by Betsy Hill

February 16, 2015

Education informed by neuroscience can give new and real meaning to our desire as a nation to leave no child behind.  Moreover, it may offer the only true opportunity for the disruptive change that education needs for current and future generations to be educated to face the challenges ahead.    It can do this in at least three specific ways:

1.  By improving learning at the level of basic cognitive functioning, changing students’ capacity to learn.

Better teaching, better facilities, better technology, etc., are important, but those are external factors.  What about the internal capabilities and stumbling blocks that each student brings to the learning experience?  Neuroscience shows us how to impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process by improving each individual’s underlying mental processing – that is, by changing the experience of learning from the inside out.

One of the things we know from neuroscience is that the brain is plastic, which means it constantly changes, building new pathways and connections.  We also know that every brain is unique – formed and constantly evolving through our experiences.  Experience is not just about facts and declarative knowledge, but about how the brain does what it does.  What one student can do or understand easily escapes another.  Neuroscience helps explain why that is and what to do about it.  Science no longer accepts that intelligence is fixed.  Rather, it continues to document the critical role of experience in developing intellectual ability.

Despite the fact that underlying cognitive skills are essential to all learning, they are not generally taught in schools.  Schools assume that every student brings the necessary cognitive skills to the learning process, or as much of those skills as they will ever have.   The fact that cognitive skills are not explicitly taught in schools does not mean that they cannot be taught, however.  For over half a century, techniques to develop basic cognitive skills have been known and used in various clinical therapies.  Today, these techniques can be delivered via computer-based programs effectively and on a much broader scale, making the delivery of cognitive training programs viable in a classroom setting to all students.  The intellectual gains delivered by a program like BrainWare SAFARI are substantial.

2.  By making schools and teaching more brain-friendly.

Here neuroscience can help us understand and change our practices in a number of ways, including:

  • Better presenting information so that students’ immediate sensory memory lets the right information into the brain.
  • Taking advantage of the relationship between working memory, where we consciously process what we learn, and long-term memory storage.
  • Integrating multiple senses and media to enhance learning, since the brain processes information in multiple ways simultaneously.
  • Incorporating emotion and mnemonics to aid in long-term memory consolidation
  • Making curriculum meaningful, since meaning and relating new information to old are what enable new information to be stored.
  • Understanding the different ways declarative memory and procedural memory are stored and used (retrieved).

The reason to engage students with more meaningful and relevant curriculum and through problems, projects and simulations is not simply because that makes learning more fun, but because it is, in fact, student engagement that results in learning.  And higher levels of engagement result in more and better learning and the ability to apply what is learned in the real world.

3. By helping students develop so-called 21st century skills, the keys to college and career-readiness.

Developing problem-solving ability, communication skills and creativity is fundamentally about developing the brain and its processing ability in each individual student.  These are skills that cannot be taught through pure direct instruction.  One wouldn’t, for example, assume that explaining the principles of pole-vaulting would suddenly imbue a student with the ability to coordinate muscles, brain, strength and balance to clear a bar.  The same holds true for critical thinking and other prized 21st century skills.

While there is broad consensus regarding the importance of these skills, there is much uncertainty about how to help students develop them and over how to measure them.  However, as we move away from measuring content absorbed and toward measuring the effectiveness of mental processes, neuroscience is likely to be indispensable.

Are other ways that you can see neuroscience helping improve the U.S. education system?  Let us hear what you think!


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

May 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.