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What Is Peculiar About Brain Training?

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‘Brain training’ is a program of consistent mental exercises purported to improve cognitive abilities and protect from neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. It is of particular interest to cognitive psychologists researching the potential benefits it has for cognitive development across age groups. If found effective, this would open new research into understanding the limits of the human mind and possibly slowing the process of mental decline associated with aging. Collating evidence from two separate studies, it will be argued that brain training can improve specific task-based performance, however there is still insufficient evidence supporting near-transfer and/ or far-transfer to underlying cognitive abilities. Ackerman, Kanfer and Cadlewood (2010) recruited middle-aged participants to practice Wii brain exercises and reading for domain knowledge. The results indicated considerable improvements on the Wii exercises, less favourable progress for the domain knowledge tests and inconsequential transfer of training from either task to measures of intelligence and perceptual speed abilities (Ackerman, 2010). The second study, by Kable and Caulfield (2017), tested the influence of training executive function on choice behaviour and brain responses in young adults. The researchers identified that commercial adaptive cognitive training has no apparent effects on neural activity, choice behaviour or cognition (Kable, 2017). Together, the evidence is inconclusive on whether brain training produces near transfer to a range of cognitive abilities for both older and younger populations, though it certainly has an effect on specific practice-related tasks.

In Ackerman’s study, the researchers aimed to assess the ‘use it or lose it’ concept, which suggests that older adults tend to process and retain new information less efficiently than young adults. Middle-aged participants were chosen to practice with Wii Big Brain Academy Software and to complete reading for domain knowledge tests, i.e. the two practice conditions comprising the independent variables of the study. The study was targeted at contrasting the effects of these two exercises on three cognitive ability measures-crystallised intelligence (Gc), fluid intelligence (Gf) and perceptual speed (PS) abilities; i.e. the dependent variables within the study. 78 adults between the ages of 50 and 71 were carefully selected via local newspaper and advertisements to perform 20 one-hour Wii training sessions over the course of 1 month. The Wii training exercises involved 15 mini-games that were designed to measure response accuracy and speed. They were also to complete 20 one-hour reading sessions, covering articles on 4 different topics; medical drugs, food, going green and technology. The sample population included 42 men and 36 women, none of whom had prior experience with Wii software. They were all native English speakers, with corrected to normal vision and had each completed at least 1 college-level course. The results indicated that practice affected performance levels, however there was no indication of a Matthew effect-meaning that the repetition of a specific behaviour corresponds to an ‘accumulated advantage’. Moreover, reading during the interim and after the testing periods for domain knowledge resulted in higher performance than during pre-testing. However, neither the Wii training nor the reading assessments conclusively caused specific transfer of training to the three ability tests (Ackerman, 2010).

Ackerman’s study had many strengths and a few minor limitations. The research methodology was reliable, as the researchers took account of practice-only effects on the transfer tasks to accurately assess whether positive transfer occurred in older adults. Through the use of a control group, they minimised any variables that might otherwise occur. The order of assignment for the domain knowledge tests and Wii training exercises was also counterbalanced for the participants, strengthening the credibility of the study by reducing the impact of order. Unlike previous studies conducted to assess transfer of cognitive training in older adults, this study selected participants who were closer to middle-age (no one >80) and therefore whom were more likely to acquire new skills and report positive transfer. The generalisability of these findings may be considered a limitation, because the Wii training tasks may be unrelated to the sorts of cognitive activities that are normally associated with the referent measures for intellectual and perceptual speed abilities. However, there was a substantial degree of variation among the ability composites and Wii task performances. Arguably the cognitive abilities measured may have been irrelevant to the everyday functioning of the middle-aged sample population, although such an argument would logically also extend to any standardised intellectual ability tests administered to adults. The results of the study suggest that the benefits of ‘using it’ in short time periods may be limited to the specific tasks the individual has practiced, rather than to actual cognitive abilities (Ackerman, 2010).

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In Kable and Caulfield’s study, they aimed to determine whether training executive cognitive function had any influence on choice behaviour and brain responses by having their participants complete 10 weeks of training with either a commercial web-based cognitive training program or web-based video games. 128 young adults between 18-35 years were recruited after completing a brief IQ test and an in-person eligibility screen. Participants completed blood-oxygen level-dependent fMRI sessions at baseline and following the 10-week training period. Of the 128, 64 active control participants were instructed to complete games 5 times/ week for 30 minutes/ day during a 1-week pre-training period. All of the participants were assigned identical games by Luminosity in a standardised order that rotated among 5 cognitive domains: working memory, attention, flexibility, problem solving, short-term memory and speed. Each game lasted for approximately 2-3 minutes and the 30-minute training sessions comprised of 10-15 games. Within the active control condition, participants received active intervention to account for any nonspecific effects of cognitive stimulation. They experienced the same completion incentives and a weekly review, however their user performance was not tracked and the game difficulty was not adapted within each session to current user abilities. For the non-control group, they experienced adaptive cognitive training, meaning the difficulty of the games increased corresponding to improved performance. The participants also completed a total of 50 sessions over the 10 weeks, performing baseline assessments of delay discounting (i.e., choices between smaller rewards now vs larger rewards in the future) and risk sensitivity (i.e., choices between larger, riskier rewards vs smaller, certain rewards). The basic hypothesis was that executive functions may promote the choice of delayed over immediate rewards. A follow-up study was finally conducted with 35 participants performing cognitive testing battery on 3 occasions, separated by 1 week intervals. The results of the study found no effects of the training condition-the independent variable, on decision-making nor on degrees of sensitivity or in changes of neural activity-the dependent variables. Participants from both groups displayed a similar degree of improved cognitive performance post-treatment, suggesting no real transfer of training. Conclusively, commercial adaptive cognitive training appears to display no substantial effects on neural activity, choice behaviour or cognition (Kable, 2017).

Similar to the previous study, the second study had more strengths than limitations. For one, the researchers used exclusion criteria in selecting their participants, with those exhibiting extreme choice behaviour, such as a self-reported history of neurological, psychiatric or addictive disorders; a positive breath alcohol reading; colour blindness, etc., being ineligible to participate. Secondly, the researchers ensured that the participants in the active control condition were blinded to their specific training condition, indicating that the test performance of these games was more likely to reflect accurately on the participants’ true abilities. The effectiveness of adaptive cognitive training may vary across populations and it is possible that the participants were already functioning at high levels and subsequently would derive little benefit from cognitive training. Another potential limitation is that different results could also be found if different cognitive domains were targeted. Overall, the observed improvements within the study were owing to practice with the cognitive assessments rather than a beneficial effect of commercial training (Kable, 2017).

The data collected from the two studies indicates that although brain training may enhance performance for specific tasks, the possibility that it may serve as an effective tool for developing cognitive abilities across all ages is currently unsubstantiated. The first study investigated the impact of Wii training on an older population’s intelligence and perceptual speed abilities and the second examined the effects of adaptive cognitive training programs, such as Luminosity, on improving decision-making skills and choice behaviour relating to risk sensitivity and delay discounting in younger adults. Neither study identified that brain training can effectively produce near or far transfer to underlying cognitive abilities, indicating that research is still necessary in the domain of cognitive development. Both studies address the issue that variability exists within the cognition of population samples, and therefore it is difficult to ascertain accurately whether cognitive training programs are ineffective or simply redundant. For future research, it may be beneficial to explore ways to control this variable to avoid any inaccuracies in the data, such as through prerequisite IQ tests or long-term testing conditions. As studied, the efficacy of brain training in increasing cognitive abilities remains highly contentious, although the evidence for specific task-based improvement is overwhelmingly positive.

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What Is Peculiar About Brain Training? (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from
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