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.


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?


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.


The Case of the Accidental Control Group – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

June 22, 2010

If you Google “Accidental Control Group” or look it up in Wikipedia, you will not find a definition.  But the “Accidental Control Group” exists.  And it can actually be very useful.

Control groups are something we are told we need for a good scientific study, along with gold-standard research, double-blind designs, and placebos.  A control group allows us to compare the results of a treatment with a similar untreated group.  It allows us to conclude that the results we see are caused by our treatment.  Despite their importance, control groups are many times either impractical or unwelcome.  In real life, if you have a treatment or remediation that you believe will work — like improving their attention, memory or processing speed — why would you want to provide it to only half of your clients or students?  We often find ourselves in this situation when implementing BrainWare Safari in a study situation.

So, with the best of intentions, studies sometimes proceed without a control group built into the design.  But, as I have learned, even without planning, “Control Groups happen!”  These accidental control groups crop up when some of the individuals who planned to implement BrainWare Safari, don’t, or at least don’t follow through with fidelity to the protocol shown to deliver such strong improvement in cognitive skills.

Accidental control groups have always provided us with a learning experience.  For one thing, they have yielded compelling evidence that how you use BrainWare Safari makes a huge difference.  We recommend using BrainWare 3 to 5 times a week for 30 to 60 minutes over a 10- to 12-week period.  Across a variety of individual starting levels and across various settings, using the program according to the protocol leads to improvements in cognitive and academic abilities.  We learned from the Study Groups what happens when BrainWare Safari is used as recommended.  And we learned from the Accidental Control Groups that not doing the program as recommended yields much diminished benefits.

Accidents happen.  The key is to learn from them!