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.


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?”


Executive Functions and Reading Comprehension – by Betsy Hill

November 4, 2013

There are varied opinions among education and neuroscience researchers regarding how many executive functions are involved in human cognitive processing, but the role that executive functions play in reading comprehension has become much clearer in recent years.  This is important to recognize for a number of reasons.  First, students with less developed executive functions struggle with comprehension, even when they are able to decode and read with fluency.  Second, practicing decoding and fluency does not automatically develop comprehension.  And third, executive functions can be developed with the right kind of mental exercise in a way that translates to rapid gains in reading comprehension.

Here are some examples of executive functions that are required for reading comprehension:

  1. Planning.  This is what we do when we read a text and are looking for specific information.
  2. Working Memory.  Working memory is the ability to hold information in our minds while we manipulate it.  In many ways, this is the essence of comprehension – the ability to think about what we are reading, while we are reading it.  The role of working memory can also be as simple as remembering the beginning of the sentence until we get to the end.
  3. Sustained and Selective Attention.  While we are reading, we need to sustain attention for an extended period of time and filter out distractions.  The ability to select the information that we are looking for (using our Planning skills) is also an aspect of Selective Attention.
  4. Response Inhibition.  This is the self-regulatory part of our cognitive processing that we put to use when we correct something we’ve misread or when we continue to bear in mind multiple possibilities until we reach the conclusion and can be sure there is no additional information that might change our understanding of the text.
  5. Sequential Processing.  Keeping the order of events in mind as we read and grasping which happened before and after are essential to reading comprehension.

Another obvious but important aspect of executive functions is that they apply to everything we do, not just reading, of course.  We have to sustain attention when listening to a weather alert on the radio.  We have to plan when we are preparing a recipe for a family dinner.  We use working memory to follow a set of verbal instructions, such as how to get to a friend’s house.  We inhibit responses when we are angry but don’t lash out.  We use sequencing skills when we organize our work.  It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that students with reading problems also commonly exhibit problems with organizing their work, following set of instructions, and staying on task.

Just how integrally executive functions are involved in reading comprehension can be appreciated by looking at some of the recent research on programs that develop executive functions.  For example, students who used BrainWare SAFARI, a comprehensive and integrated cognitive skills development program (www.mybrainware.com) for 12 weeks improved their performance on the Woodcock Johnson III Passage Comprehension subtest by 1 year 11 months, compared to no change for a control group.  Ramps to Reading and SkateKids (http://www.mybrainware.com/skate-kids-and-ramps-to-reading/) are reading programs that explicitly develop key cognitive skills, along with phonics and comprehension application.  They have shown a dramatic impact on the development of reading comprehension.

Our education system has gotten really good at teaching phonics and phonemic awareness and at giving students plenty of practice to develop fluency.  Now it’s time to get just as good at developing the executive functions required for the ultimate goal of reading – Comprehension.


Working Memory Limits Affect College Students’ Reading — by Betsy Hill

February 1, 2012

A researcher from the University of Alberta describes the problem this way, “The students invest most of their time on reading and they forget the meaning.  They read and they decode the whole passage.  So, by the time they get to the end, they forget what the first paragraph was talking about.”  Startlingly, the students he is discussing are college students.  After screening 400 students at the University of Alberta, George Georgiou and J.P. Das found that five percent of them were experiencing problems reading.  But the description sounds much like the problems of students at much earlier stages of their academic careers – all the way back to learning to read in the first place.

As the researchers analyzed the students’ difficulties, the culprits emerged.  Difficulties in working memory and simultaneous processing were noted.  Working memory and a variety of other cognitive skills are essential for comprehension: seeing the big picture, visualizing the relationships among ideas, and the sequence of events, as examples.  These cognitive skills are essential for remembering the beginning of the paragraph until we get to the end of the paragraph, and building meaning as we go along.

Another culprit is the absence of relevant content knowledge to provide context for what the students are reading.  Georgiou recommends reading more to build background knowledge, but there are many ways that students can build background knowledge that will then aid them in building meaning and relevancy out of text that they encounter in school or elsewhere.  This would seem particularly important for younger students as they practice decoding, fluency and comprehension.

The solution to developing content knowledge in a subject area is part and parcel of our education system.  Unfortunately, building working memory, attention, simultaneous and sequential processing, visualization, and other cognitive skills is not.  Knowing that deficits persist into college and surmising that the problems are much more pervasive earlier on, the need for cognitive skills training to improve reading comprehension is increasingly evident.


Helping a Child with Severe ADHD – By Carol Brown

December 13, 2010

Nine-year-old Steven looks like any active, charming little boy – or he would if he could sit still long enough for you to get a good look at him.  Steven had been diagnosed with ADHD which, even with his medication, was preventing him from making progress in school.  When I took on the challenge of helping Steven, I didn’t know anyone could fidget in so many different positions in their chair and not fall out!

The school had tried all of the interventions they had in their bag of tricks and he still struggled.  Steven wasn’t able to do all 20 spelling words, so the school  reduced the number to 5.  He has had limited homework for the last 3 years. 

I started working with Steven in August 2010 on a one-on-one basis.  It took every bit of patience I could muster and even then, he still needed a coach sitting next to him in class to keep him focused.  I knew he needed something else.

I turned to BrainWare Safari, a software program that develops skills such as attention, memory and visual processing.  I put him on BrainWare Safari, and he loved it.  He was so captivated by the characters and the graphics and seeing his character grow up, he would keep trying even though it has been challenging for him.

Now, Steven has passed 144 of the 168 levels of the levels in the program, and he’s still working to complete the ones that are left.  Whenever he’s working on an exercise that’s particularly hard for him, I hear my own words parroted back to me as he digs in and tries again.  “Mrs. Brown,” he’ll say, “If we don’t do the hard ones, it won’t train our brain.”

For Steven, the turning point was Jungle Labyrinth, a series of mazes in BrainWare Safari that require planning, mouse control and plenty of patience.  It took Steven 44 attempts to pass Level 1.  It forced him to learn control of the mouse and control of his attention. 

Now Steven can sit and read a book.  When he reads  aloud and starts off on a tangent, he’ll catch himself and say something like, “Oh, I’m wasting time,” and get himself back on task.  He reads with fluency and expression, something his parents and teachers weren’t sure would ever happen. 

Being able to sit and read isn’t the only thing that’s changed.  Steven just took his first full spelling test with 20 words.  He only missed one.  His overall grades are improving as well.  His parents report that the morning routine is much more manageable. 

Steven is very proud of how far he’s progressed, so much so that he took one of the character cards that came with the program and put it in his wallet.  “When I’m in college,” he told me, “I’m going to pull this out and say, ‘I did this when I was nine.’”

Steven has made tremendous strides.  I couldn’t have done his therapy without BrainWare Safari.

Carol is the founder and executive director of the Academic Success Center of Kentucky.


Begone, Summer Reading Achievement Gap! – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

July 27, 2010

“Summer reading lowers the summer reading achievement gap.”  It sounds like something Yogi Berra would famously have said.  But it contains a ticklish problem: how to get kids to read in the summer.

All over the country, schools experience lower reading scores in the fall than they got from the same students at the end of the preceding school year.  Having worked with and in schools for most of my career, I am not surprised by this.  If you don’t use a skill, your ability will actually decrease a little, especially in the early stages of learning that skill. 

 What does surprise me is the difficulty educators have had in figuring out how to change the outcome. What doesn’t work?  Summer school , summer reading lists, books suggestions, and summer book reports.  Local libraries try to attract kids and other programs may throw in a little reading.  What haven’t we tried?

Here’s what’s new.  Science Codex (July 21) reports a study to be published  this fall from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  Over the three years of the study, young readers were offered a choice of summer reading materials and then they were given the reading materials. The results?  The students who had access to the reading material of their choice began to close the summer reading achievement gap compared to students who didn’t choose their own materials. 

It makes total sense.  Access matters.  Interest in the material matters.    No other task, no tests, no essay, nothing mandatory.  

Let kids pick their material and then let them take it with them.  Reading will happen.  If we give students access to books they’re interested in that’s as easy as the access they have to the television, we don’t have to rely on parents taking them somewhere or a mandatory assignment.  Imagine a summer filled with …. sports, mystery, animals, science fiction, pop culture … topics kids want to read about that aren’t part of the standard curriculum.

What are your kids reading this summer?


Boys and Girls: How Different Are Their Brains? – by Dr. Sara Sawtelle

May 25, 2010

“Boys are good at math and science – they’re not very good at attention and emotions.  Girls are good at language and reading – they’re not so good at visual processing and being aggressive.”  Have you ever been in a conversation that starts out that way?  While we all recognize cognitive gender differences, the real question is whether these differences are hard-wired into our neurons or culturally derived?  Are we born with scientific ability or language ability or are our skills and preferences influenced by experience and societal expectations? 

While some gender differences seem innate, the evidence suggests they are not.  For example, infant boys like dolls as much as girls do, because of the natural attraction to faces.  Some girls like trucks.  I did.  Some boys like dolls and clothes.   I even know some men who have more shoes than I do.  However, as a society, we have expectations of what girls play with and what boys play with.  Scientifically there is no evidence that preferences for dolls and trucks are genetically predetermined. 

When it comes to mental abilities, males and females overlap more than they are different.  Boys may start out reading later and may not show the same fluency when  young.  But as adults, both genders speak about the same number of words on average and the overlap in reading ability is much larger than the differences. 

Moreover, research is beginning to show how the right experiences enable mental processing skills to be developed.  With the right training, girls can develop the same targeting skills that boys seem to come by naturally.  Boys can develop stronger attention skills, allowing them to divide their attention like girls seem to do with little effort.  The key is to recognize that the experience that causes those skills to develop doesn’t need to be left to chance.  Quality training (such as with BrainWare Safari) can enhance many skills that underlie our ability to succeed in the world around us – whether or not they seem to be gender-associated.