In their words: Jared Cooney Horvath & Does brain-training work? - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

In their words: Jared Cooney Horvath & Does brain-training work?

Written by on September 7, 2015 in Learning with 0 Comments

UnknownBrain-training products such as Luminsoty and CogMed represent a billion dollar industry. Accordingly, determining whether or not these programs work as advertised is of tremendous importance. Interestingly, although developers and marketers are convinced that these tools can enhance learning, memory, and wellbeing, scientists are a bit more reserved.

Recently, the Stanford Center for Longevity released a scientific consensus stating that brain-training programs do not work, and that any reported gains are small, ephemeral, and largely irrelevant to the larger goals of product users.

But – here’s where things get fun.

Several months after this statement was released, a second statement was released by a different group of scientists. This statement, signed by 117 researchers, argued there is irrefutable data demonstrating brain-training games confer measurable, meaningful effects.

At first blush, these ‘counter’ statements appear irreconcilable. But, a closer look at the signatories reveals something interesting – and helps clarify what we can expect from brain-training programs.

Of the 65 researchers to sign the ‘anti’ brain-training statement, 83 percent are behavioral researchers (the remaining 17 percent are brain/medical researchers). This means the majority of researchers who believe brain-training does not work are looking at behavioral evidence – tests of memory, learning, attention, flow, etc.

Conversely, of the 117 scientists to sign the ‘pro’ brain-training statement, 75 percent are brain/medical researchers (the remaining 25 percent are behavioral researchers). This means the majority of researchers who believe brain-training does work are looking at neural evidence – tests of plasticity, blood flow, metabolic action, etc.

Put simply, when we measure an individual’s cognitive and behavioral performance, brain-training programs appear to be ineffective. However, when we measure an individual’s neural activity and change, brain-training programs appear to be effective.

From this, three important lessons can be derived.

1) If you’re considering utilising a brain-training program, be clear about your goals before you begin. If you want to improve memory performance, enhance focus, and accelerate learning speed, it appears brain-training programs will be of little use. But, if you want to change the way your brain is wired (regardless of behavioral outcome), then it appears brain-training may be a good tool.

2) The idea that ‘brain change’ automatically leads to ‘behavioral change’ is overly simplistic. If these brain-training consensus papers demonstrate anything, it is that one can change neural structure without any measureable behavioral or cognitive change.

3) If brain-change does not necessarily confer behavioral change, then any program created to impact the former will have no predictable bearing on the latter. In this instance, any talk of ‘brain change’ or ‘plasticity’ with regards to a product is, at best, irrelevant.

A very important question remains: why is all this so? How can brain-training change the brain without changing behavior? Why doesn’t brain-training do what so many think it should?

The answers to these questions are important, enlightening, and empowering, and I will be exploring them during my talk at Mind & It’s Potential 2015. See you there!


Jared Cooney Horvath is co-founder of The Education Neuroscience Initiative. He will be presenting at Mind & Its Potential in October. For more information and to register, please click here.

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