Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam

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Brain Training Programs: Neither Silver Bullet nor Scam

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A recent article asked the question: Are Brain Training Programs a Scam? Like many articles on the subject these days, the analysis was right in some respects, but missed several key points. The numbered statements below in italics are from the article. The comments following each point are mine.

1.  Most brain training programs are based on well known neuroscience and cognitive science research tests.

This is a fundamental flaw of many brain training programs. They involve training on the tests themselves. We know that our brains become better at what they do over and over. So, if we practice the very same skills that we will be tested on, you will get better at them and perform better on the test. The real question is how you train skills so that they will be available in everything you do in life.

2.  Brain training companies may claim unique or revolutionary training techniques, but they typically are offering more complex and appealing variations of these basic neurocognitive tests.

This is one of the important ways BrainWare SAFARI is different from other brain training programs. It was built on clinical therapy practices from multiple disciplines over several decades designed to help people function better in school or the workplace or in life, not to perform better on a test.

3.  Cognitive training relies on the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the biological method for how the brain responds to its environment – learning the skills and adaptive behavior necessary to survive. This pattern of learned behavior, skill acquisition, and memory encoding is also known as experience and wisdom.

Neuroplasticity is the basis for all brain training; that is clear. Neuroplasticity is not a method; it is an attribute or property of brains and means that they are constantly changing. Everything we do changes our brains physiologically. Every interaction with the outside environment changes our brains. The purpose of a brain is survival. Brains learn from experience, but I think that the word “wisdom” is misapplied here. Does being able to walk or drive a car connote wisdom? Most brain training programs are about skill acquisition and automaticity, not about judgment, perspective, complex analysis and other hallmarks of wisdom. In discussions of these topics, it is very important to use terminology correctly.

4.  The more specialized a cognitive training program can be will increase the likelihood of effective skills transfer. A good example is immersive cognitive training for military and commercial airline pilots. This is true in one sense. When skills are very specific to a situation, like knowing how to land a plane, then it is important to practice that skill. However, another analogy is executing a football play. Football players do training of basic skills and then apply them in a variety of situations so that the skills generalize. There is a distinction between transfer and generalization.

But will immersive cognitive training in a simulated flight deck improve the pilot’s ability to learn a foreign language faster or be better at playing blackjack? This is an excellent question. Another question is, are there skills that can be developed that are more basic than landing a plane or speaking a language or playing blackjack that, if developed, will help performance in all those activities? That doesn’t mean that training of basic cognitive skills is sufficient to be able to land a plane, but the right kind of training in visual-spatial processing, visual span, oculomotor skills, attention, reaction time, etc., might, and probably would, drive improvement in landing a plane … AND taking off … AND changing course during flight … AND dealing with a sick passenger … AND communicating with passengers when there is a delay  … AND …

5.  Highly specialized cognitive training (for highly specialized occupations) can be effective, and also tends to be very expensive. DARPA, the research and technology arm of the US Department of Defense is working on several cognitive training efforts to boost focus, coordination and control for drone pilots as an example. 

R&D is expensive. That doesn’t mean that it will be expensive to deliver once they develop it, and in fact will probably result in tremendous cost savings once developed because everything else they do will be more efficient and effective.

6.  Structured cognitive training holds the future promise of addressing a host of neurocognitive and neuropsychiatric conditions. There is a substantial amount of venture capital and government research dollars flowing into this area, but independent research validation for most structured cognitive training is still lacking and off in the future.

It is true that independent research validation is not conclusive yet for many training programs. Different programs are at different stages of proof. Research reports on BrainWare SAFARI, which include both peer-reviewed published research and field studies.

7. The brain training industry as a whole faces a serious problem that will be hard to solve, namely, the barrier to market entry for brain training services and products is very low. Any company can create a few online brain games “based on neuroscience” and then market them as a cure-all for Alzheimer’s or dyslexia, or as a quick and easy way to raise your IQ.

This is very true. This is why I take this time to clarify some very important points.

There is new territory for all of us. Consumers, educators, health care practitioners and the media themselves will need to become educated in this area so that they can make appropriate judgments. It will require that people be open but skeptical. And it will require some standards or principles of how to make decisions about brain training programs.