Cognitive Training: Questions Frequently Asked by Skeptics
By Betsy Hill and Roger Stark
There continues to be controversy regarding cognitive training (sometimes called brain training) programs, and there continue to be many skeptics. Skepticism is generally a healthy attitude, particularly when health and wellbeing are involved. It also means that the skeptic is open to a variety of possibilities. Here are some comments and questions we often hear from skeptics of cognitive training and the way we answer them:
- I can’t find enough research on the value of these programs.
Some cognitive training programs have strong research support; others have none or very little published research. Look for programs that are supported by peer-reviewed published research, field studies in schools, and individual/small group case studies.
When it comes to research support, it is also important to ask whether the research looks at the impact on both cognitive measures and academic or some other measures that reflect transfer to real-life application. This is why many studies use both independent cognitive assessments and academic and behavioral measures.
Another question that typically arises in this context is the degree to which the research conducted is independent. Look for studies that are completely independent, or mostly independent. For example, field studies in schools should have someone other than company representatives administering the assessments (often standard assessments that are already administered in those schools and not just for the purpose of evaluating the impact of the cognitive training).
- How will I really know if the program is delivering meaningful results?
Many brain-training programs include built-in measures of performance and report your improvement on those measures. Unfortunately, growth on those built-in measures doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve accomplished anything meaningful. If you work at something, like a specific brain-training game, you will most likely improve your performance on that game. But often that doesn’t translate into improvements in academic or workplace performance or improved life outcomes. This is why we are such strong advocates of providing an independent measure of cognitive growth and using academic and other behavioral measures to evaluate the impact of cognitive training.
- My student’s IQ is already high; I doubt it would have much of an effect.
IQ and cognitive skills are related but not the same. An individual can perform extremely well in some areas of cognitive processing and poorly in others. For example, the term “twice exceptional” is used for individuals who have high IQ’s but some form of learning disability. In fact, everyone has cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Intelligence is not fixed and cognitive skills can be strengthened, including for individuals who are already high performing. In fact, we see impacts across a wide spectrum of abilities – with more students qualifying for gifted programs and remediation of underlying skills for individuals with specific learning disabilities.
- My student’s IQ is low; I doubt it would have much of an effect.
This is the flip side of the question above, but the implications may be slightly different. For individuals with previous low IQ scores, it has generally been assumed that the only way for them to be successful academically is through the use of accommodations, adjustments to the curriculum and supportive strategies. These approaches all involve working around weaker cognitive skills. The idea of working around them, of course, implies that nothing much can be done to change them. But cognitive skills can be developed. In peer-reviewed published research, students with specific learning disabilities have improved underlying cognitive processes, including working memory and attention, virtually to the level of typically developing students.
The best thing about skepticism is that you leave the door open to “see it with your own eyes.” The other day, we heard from a clinician who had been in discussion with a very skeptical mother.
“I recently communicated with you about a mom who was really questioning cognitive training. Thank you for sending me the follow-up information that I shared with her. Interesting update: I just had a coaching session with the young man, and I can’t tell you the positive shift I have seen in him. His mom was almost speechless with how he was performing on some of the exercises.
The young man has dyscalculia. Now, in the exercise where you put the numbers in order, he has started doing it automatically. Before, he had strategies to visually help him, but now he doesn’t need them anymore. I looked at his mom and told her, ‘I’d say the program is helping him.’ She nodded in agreement. She was literally open-mouthed shaking her head at what she was seeing.”
Here’s to skepticism!
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari