Brain training is big business! Web-based programs like Lumosity and BrainHQ are designed to help adults keep mentally sharp, and and maybe even improve it–making the brain smarter, faster, and more cognitively facile.
Video games and game-like programs have been developed to help children improve cognitive skills such as working memory. While there is some controversy over the effectiveness of these programs, the latest clinical research suggests modest gains from brain training. Less than 50 years ago, scientists did not believe that brain training was possible, that human brain capacity was fixed by nature and genetics. At that time most psychologists and medical professionals believed that individuals were born with hard and fast brain-based abilities that could not be expanded. Neuroscientists were certain that neural connections in the brain were immutable and that new neurons could not be born into an adult brain.
Since the 1970’s, thousands of studies have demonstrated this theory to be incorrect. We now know that that neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, occurs in the adult brain. This means that humans can expand and improve our brains, increase the efficiency of neural connections, and grow our brains to improve processing speed, intelligence, memory, and other cognitive skills.
That we can grow our brain seems intuitively obvious. We can train our bodies to get stronger; see better; read faster; and discern differences in sound, taste, and smell, so why wouldn’t we be able to train our brains? Training our brains to process information faster fits with our new understanding of neurogenesis. It’s simply a question of finding the right types of exercises to make this happen.
But there are limits to the benefits and amount of improvement one might expect from brain training. Just as a 125-pound man could train to lift heavy amounts of weight, it is unlikely that this man would be able to lift the same amount of weight as a 250-pound man who received the same training. Similarly, we can train kids who run very slowly to become faster at running but are unlikely to be able to train them into becoming world class sprinters or even to make them among the fastest runners in their classroom. There is also evidence that brain training is most effective when it addresses a specific weakness, in part because this leaves more room for improvement.
The same holds true for training processing speed. Training kids with slow processing speed is unlikely to make them into whizzes at getting their homework done very quickly or being the first member of their family to be ready to leave the house each morning. Kids who are born with slow processing speed might be expected to make modest gains through processing-speed training. Even with training, they may not achieve average scores on measures of processing speed. Nonetheless, they can make improvement in their skills in this area.
This finding is generally unreported because of the complexity of what is meant by processing speed and what specific training programs address. There are dozens of studies demonstrating how training programs that use exercise, video games, board games, and attention strategies can improve processing speed. While the improvements in processing speed observed in the research have been impressive, they are typically limited to performance on psychological tests of processing speed. The long-term transfer of processing-speed training skills to real-world academic, social, communication, and self-help skills is not yet established. Nonetheless these are very promising findings that will help to determine which games, technologies, and activities will be best at improving slow processing speed for an individual child.
For more on brain-training, read “Does Brain-Training Work?” Plus, find out what science says about video games and the brain, whether video games can change the brain, and how to cross-train your brain with video games.
Featured image: Flickr user Dierk Schaefer