7 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Brain Training Program
Today is National Train Your Brain Day. So how will you train your brain?
There are so many options – from clinical therapy to apps for your smartphone… from single-skill memory training to reading software for learning disabilities… and from crossword puzzles to neurofeedback. It’s confusing, to say the least. So here are the top 7 train your brain questions to ask when you’re considering any kind of brain training program or tool.
Why do you want to engage in brain training? Yes, the first question is for you. If you are looking at brain training for a child with learning disabilities, it is a different matter than an adult who simply wants to keep their mind active and challenged. For many people the goal is likely to be one of the following:
Strengthen weaker cognitive skills to become a better learner. This is the reason lots of children use a brain training program. We all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and while the weaknesses may or may not amount to a learning disability, cognitive skills can be improved for just about anyone.
Rehabilitation of cognitive processes following an injury, like a concussion or a stroke or chemotherapy
Enhancing academic or workplace performance and training for adults
Keep your mind strong and active throughout adult life.
Does the program or tool you are considering explain how it will help someone like you achieve your specific goal? If it isn’t clear, ask. If the users they talk about don’t sound like you, it may be wise to look at other options.
What is the evidence that the program is effective? Ask questions like the following:
Where does the methodology come from?
What research is there that the program improves cognitive skills (mental processes like attention or memory)?
Which skills are improved and how much improvement has been shown in the research?
Is there research that shows the transfer of cognitive improvement to real life? That, is do individuals who use the training as recommended perform better academically or in the workplace or in other real-life tasks?
How often and for how long do you need to use the program to see results? “Use it when you feel like it” is not a good recipe for cognitive change. The program’s developers should be able to be fairly specific on what you can expect to gain and what the investment of your time will need to be. Also, beware of claims that sound too good to be true. If someone suggests you can get results in a week or 5 minutes a day, be very skeptical. Experts agree that it will take regular usage of 3 to 5 times per week for 10 weeks or more to see really substantial gains. Make sure you know what to expect and that you will be able to follow the protocol to get the results you want.
What will keep you “in the game?” Sustaining motivation when the brain training gets hard is an issue for many people. If you’re a dogged self-starter, then you may be fine on your own, but most people need something more. Some brain training programs, like BrainWare SAFARI, are built like video-games, and that makes them inherently engaging. A video-game format offers instantaneous feedback, which is great because we learn from our mistakes and can make immediate adjustments and try again. It’s also helpful that computer feedback is not judgmental. For many people, even if the program itself is motivating, it may also be helpful to have a coach, whether a parent at home, a teacher with students at school, or a clinician or therapist in their office. Ask what kinds of personal coaching or training of coaches is available if that is something you want to be able to access.
How will the program adapt to your growing cognitive capacity? Not only is it boring to do the same things at the same level of difficulty over and over, but it probably won’t do much for you. Brain training should be challenging. It should put demands on cognitive functions that are initially just slightly harder than you can do. The concept is referred to as the “zone of proximal development.” The user needs to be challenged but not too far above his or her current ability level. But there’s more to it than simply getting more difficult at each level because what really drives cognitive growth are novelty and changed expectations. The program needs to include these.
How will you measure your success in meeting your goals? This is a tricky one because many game-type programs tell you how much better you’re getting by simply measuring performance in the program itself. Remember that just because you’re improving in the game doesn’t automatically mean it will translate to real life. Another option is a cognitive assessment before starting the program and then repeating it a number of months later to see progress on an independent, objective test. Be aware that cognitive functioning can be difficult or expensive to measure, especially if you decide to go for testing by a psychologist or other professional. Fortunately, there are now some free or lower cost ways to evaluate cognitive skills as a pre- and post-test. Parents of children between 8 and 21 might consider the Mindprint cognitive assessment, which not only measures cognitive ability in multiple areas, it produces an individual learning profile and a personalized toolbox of resources. Among the free options are rating scales like the BrainWare Cognitive Rating Scale. While rating scales typically won’t tell you where you stand compared to the broader population, it can show areas of improvement over time.
As you embark on whatever brain training adventure you choose, remember that this is all based on the plasticity of the brain. Plasticity simply means that it is constantly changing. And that is why the best brain training techniques work. It’s great news for all of us seekers of better, stronger brains.
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