The following is a guest post by Martin Walker of Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro. About a month ago he and I exchanged comments, and I am delighted that he was amenable to writing this post discussing some of the research behind his company’s brain fitness program.
“I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” – Socrates
Anyone who has read Plato’s Socratic dialogues, by choice or otherwise, knows that puzzles and mind-twisters are nothing new. Thousands of years ago, Socrates encouraged his fellow Greeks to think more logically by coaxing and goading them along elegant spirals of reasoning. I would imagine that the modern concept of neuroplasticity would confirm in Socrates the belief that the mind is malleable and trainable.
Philosophy led me to brain training. As I culled the news for interesting subjects for my philosophy blog I kept bumping up against the new science of the brain. Study after study seemed to confirm that scientists had been wrong in their model of an adult brain that didn’t change. Here were rodents learning to use rakes, and monkeys controlling robotic arms with their minds. And fMRI scans showed that these neat tricks were accompanied by changes in the animals’ brains.
But the report that converted me from an interested bystander to an active participant in what I can only describe as a revolution came from a joint study by scientists from the Universities of Michigan and Bern. With a rigorous nineteen day program of brain exercise the team showed that training one executive function – working memory – transferred to improvements in another executive function – fluid intelligence, or problem-solving ability.
These improvements weren’t just statistically interesting; the fluid intelligence of the study participants (measured by administering timed IQ test questions) increased by a whopping 40% more than that of a control group. Imagine, a training method that can make someone smarter. Less than two months later my newly formed company had a faithful version of the study’s “dual n-back” training protocol available for sale to the general public. [For more on “dual n-back” see the bottom of this page.]
Why and how does such training work? How can we be sure that the results aren’t an illusion or a temporary boost? And what can other brain training products do for us?
There’s currently a bit of a backlash against brain training from within the scientific community, attempting to mute the hubbub of enthusiasm. This is natural. There will always be inertia against radical innovations. Many scientists are habitually and commendably cautious. Skeptics tried to stop the first polio vaccine from being introduced in a national program, for instance; but the risk proved well-worth taking, saving thousands of lives while the ‘safer’ vaccine was under development.
It’s long been known that working memory capacity in particular – how many things we can hold in our mind at once – plays a key role in executive function. Working memory has been correlated to IQ and academic success. Studies have also shown that a powerful working memory helps us with impulse control. The Michigan / Bern study proposed that strengthening working memory capacity may leave the brain with more processing power. This theory was borne out by the study’s results.
Although the Michigan / Bern team didn’t perform brain scans on the participants before and after working memory training, a more recent study at the Swedish Karolinska Institutet has done just that, showing that intensive working memory training increases the number of dopamine receptors in the trainee. In simpler terms, it changes the brain. The results are long lasting, and can be sustained or increased by further training.
Prior efforts to show increased intelligence with training had been unsuccessful. The “dual n-back” approach works because it’s deliberately tough on working memory, demands incredible focus, and trains two working memory functions simultaneously (visual and aural).
Not that other brain training programs don’t have merit. Offerings by the well-respected Posit Science, for instance, have been endorsed by the Australian Alzheimer’s Association, and are being used by tens of thousands of people in therapeutic and preventive programs.
Potential consumers of brain training software must keep in mind several critical aspects of a worthwhile brain training program: It should be founded on good science. It should demand focus and attention (if it’s too easy, it won’t do anything). And it should be rewarding. A sense of achievement or satisfaction will help stimulate the brain to produce new nerve cells.
Not that brain training holds the franchise on cognitive improvement and neurogenesis. Physical exercise is essential to maintaining good brain health. Regular social interaction and involvement in life-long learning help, too. And the usual advice on a healthy diet and avoidance of narcotics applies. But I firmly believe that brain training should be and will be better understood and more widely used in the future. It can help people stay mentally alert in middle and later life. It can be used to correct or mitigate learning dysfunctions. And it can improve people’s quality of life at any age by allowing them the pleasure of increased brain power.
The practical advantages that customers report from using our training program give me the most pleasure and satisfaction – the man who can spend more time with his kids because he’s more focused on his work, for instance, the high school student who is excited to take his college entrance exam because he’s feeling more confident doing the practice tests, the elderly woman who has restored her self-confidence after feeling that her memory had started to fail her. These are the kinds of benefits that change people’s lives.
Martin Walker is a member of The British Neuroscience Association, Learning and The Brain, and MENSA. His company, Mind Evolve, LLC, publishes free information on the field of neuroscience and brain fitness, as well as one of the most effective, affordable brain training software programs available — Mind Sparke Brain Fitness Pro.
You can learn more about the “dual n-back” process at these sites:
New Zealand’s Science Learning Hub – Student Activity – n-Back test
Soak Your Head online open source Dual NBack Application