Tag Archives: feedback

On Brain Fitness Programs – from someone in the field

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.

Editor’s Note:
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


Motivational Reflection

A search on this blog for “dopamine” will return a post about Feedback & Motivation along with most of my posts about neurotransmitters, of which dopamine is but one. In rereading my posts, I was reminded of the role of dopamine – one of the “feel good” neurotransmitters – in motivation.To quote myself:

If you’ve been following this blog then you know that the “feel good” neurotransmitters–serotonin, dopamine and endorphin–can be released by the brain in response to external stimuli such as exercise, laughter, singing, listening to music, and, perhaps the most powerful of all, positive feedback.

Positive feedback can make most of us feel good, and receiving that feedback can be motivational. In December, 2006, I applied to the Google Teacher Academy and part of the application process was to make a movie on one of two topics. I chose “Motivation and Learning” and made a Flash animation on the topic. Dopamine plays a starring role in the animation. (For the curious, I was accepted and attended the academy in February of this year. Quite stimulating!)

This past Wednesday, August 29, was the opening day faculty meeting at my school, and the debut of the professional development activity that I created back in June. (The Prof Dev Series link at the top of the page will take you to a listing of the posts about that activity.)

Being asked to create the activity was in and of itself a hugely motivating force. The actual time spent on creating the activity, and writing blog entries for each portion, proved to be an enormously satisfying and creative endeavor. Each day’s efforts and results motivated me to want to return the next day to continue the process. It was the very act of creating that provided my intrinsic motivation, and if there was any extrinsic motivation involved it was purely seeing the blog post and seeing the updated digital file for the activity.

My next several posts will be about the activity and the following day’s speaker. For now, I am off to enjoy the glorious sunshine of this Saturday morning!

STATES of Mind & the Small Yet Mighty Amygdala

Throughout your life you have probably experienced a vast range of emotions, and on a daily basis you undoubtedly go through a variety of states. Emotions are a chemical response to an external stimulus; they are a physiological and biological happening. From what I gather, states are like moods, making them a combination of how you feel emotionally, physically, and generally. If that’s the case, it would seem we are always in one state or another, or progressing from one state to another.

With our “selves” experiencing emotions and states, you can begin to understand how feedback can be so important. According to Eric Jensen, “the longer a person is [in] a stable state, the more likely he or she is to re-enter that state at another time.” This is a clear case of the more you do something, the better you are bound to get at doing it. Learning is Heavily Influenced by Brain Chemistry, an article on the Oshkosh Area School District site, provides a clear rationale as to why and suggestions for how to manage states.

There is a part of our brain that handles our emotions. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped nugget located underneath the hypothalamus and next to the hippocampus. While the amygdala is very small and buried deep within the center of the brain, it has a very large responsibility – to monitor your emotions and process your memories. According to Sprenger, “emotional stimulus and novelty are the two biggest attention-getters. … Active emotional engagement appears to be a key to learning.” Given the powerful combination of these tasks, it is no wonder that emotional memory is the strongest memory we have, and therefore something we would want to be able to positively manage.

Jensen provides some practical suggestions for how we can help students to become metacognitive about their emotional states by considering:

• The questions we ask students.
• The postures, movement, and activities we use and incorporate in classroom activities.
• The personal encouragement we provide.
• The attitudes and opinions we hold of them.
• The respect and affirmation we give them.
• The hobbies and habits we encourage and support.
• The learning and successes they gain.

Feedback & Motivation

Marilee Sprenger notes in her book Learning & Memory – The Brain in Action that “the single most dynamic influence on the brain’s chemistry may be positive feedback.” If you’ve been following this blog then you know that the “feel good” neurotransmitters–serotonin, dopamine and endorphin–can be released by the brain in response to external stimuli such as exercise, laughter, singing, listening to music, and, perhaps the most powerful of all, positive feedback.

This brings me to my previous post, Intentional Wording, where I suggest that the words we use in providing feedback make a difference in how that feedback is perceived and valued. Generic statements usually are devalued because they are said too often to too many people, do not contain any specific comments that cause the listener to feel they are known by the speaker, and do not provide sufficient useful information.

In Teaching with the brain in mind, Eric Jensen states that feedback must be of good quality, accurate, timely, corrective and positive. Since more mistakes in learning tend to happen when something is first being learned, there are a number of ways to provide regular feedback that will assist the learner in making changes to their learning. Some of Jensen’s suggestions (page 55) for providing feedback include:

• model building
• peer editing
• pair-sharing
• using spell-check
• student presentations with audience feedback
• using a video, audio tape or mirror
• using a checklist or rubric

Besides using words as feedback, it is not uncommon to use a reward system as a motivator or as feedback. You’ve probably heard the spiel: if you perform such and such, then we will do thus and thus, or you will receive this and that. The implication of these words is that the activity should be done in order to receive the reward. Unfortunately, such a system impedes the goal of learning, which is learning for learning’s sake. Ideally, we want to foster intrinsic motivation and not extrinsic motivation. Purdue University Calumet’s School of Education has an online textbook by Edward Vockell, Educational Psychology: A Practical Approach, that contains much useful information. In particular, I refer you to Chapter 5, which is all about motivation, or skip directly to the chapter on Intrinsic Motivation.

Returning to Sprenger’s book, she sums this up in a paragraph that says it all:

Positive feedback raises serotonin levels and is itself a reward. We need to talk more with our students and give them the feedback they need. Recognition is more powerful than rewards. Celebrating at the end of a unit gives students an emotional memory that may help motivate them for the next unit. This celebration cannot be based on test results or behavior, however–or it becomes a reward.

And I love Sprenger’s solution for dealing with students who ask her what they will “get” if they score well on something.

I simply walk up to the student, take his hand, and shake it. The issue is usually dropped.