Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cognitive training and brain games

There has been a lot of controversy lately about the impact of cognitive training on tangible improvements in performance.  Specifically, I am referring to Gareth Cook’srecent piece in the New Yorker, Scott Kaufman’s article in Scientific American, and many heated debates in social media communities that cover this area. 

On one hand, there is a lot of evidence that many “brain games” are just marketing hype that sell electronic toys to parents for their kids in the hopes of developing the next Einstein and sell games to the typical consumer hoping to get a leg up in the workplace by improving their abilities.  Many of these games don’t really improve anything except the vendor’s bottom line.

On another hand, Scott Kaufman’s article cites many thorough, peer-reviewed studies that show specific benefits of cognitive training on performance.  Targeted training in working memory capacity really does improve working memory capacity.  So does this lead to tangible improvement in the real world?  Only for activities that rely on working memory.  But it turns out that high level reasoning does use working memory.  It takes good working memory to keep several hypotheses in mind, which is a key component of effective high level reasoning.  It is not a panacea to all cognitive activities but who would expect it to be?  Training your bicep muscle will make you stronger at some things, but is not going to improve your long distance running skills. 

Clearly, this is a rich area for future research and more work is necessary.  It demonstrates what we all should already know – that there are no shortcuts.  Getting better at something requires work.  Getting better at something that is multi-dimensional takes multi-dimensional (and thus a lot more) work. 

It also demonstrates something else we should all know.  When a company wants to sell you something, it may not work as well as advertised.  But that doesn’t mean the approach is fundamentally flawed.  Just because the brain games currently on the market don’t work all that well doesn’t mean that cognitive training is a failure across the board. 

So in the future, let’s take an honest approach to evaluating domains such as cognitive training and cognitive ability.  Don’t fall for the hype, but don’t disregard the positive results just because the hype is wrong.