Every program we offer is based on neuroscience research and the following basic principles.
Principle 1: Neuroplasticity.
The general term for the brain’s ability to change and to develop in response to its environment and the demands being placed on it is “neuroplasticity.” Essentially, our brains develop by organizing themselves, creating and pruning neural pathways, connections, and networks in response to the environment and our individual experience. Brain development and specific patterns of neural connections are not genetically predetermined in the way that attributes like red hair or blue eyes are determined. While intellect and learning ability are guided by our genetic code, they arise in significant part through the process of development. The plasticity of the brain is greater in children, but the brain exhibits the ability to change and develop throughout life.
A number of recent studies have focused on the use of computerized techniques, especially video games, to deliver training that can leverage neuroplasticity to enhance brain function and have shown that learning from video games can transfer to nongame situations. For example, in one study, training designed to improve working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind) was reflected in improvements in fluid intelligence. The study also documented a relationship between the amount of training and the magnitude of the improvement.
Principle 2: Automaticity.
Neuroscience has distinguished multiple types of memory, including declarative and procedural memory. When a certain set of steps or processes are performed repeatedly, the processes are embedded in procedural memory and do not require conscious thought to execute (like riding a bike or driving to a familiar location). When a skill or process becomes embedded in procedural memory, it is said to have become automatic. Neural connections are strengthened by repetition, leading to the ability to perform a function without consciously thinking about it and requiring less energy than if the skill is not automatic.
Our brains can only perform one skill consciously at a time. When multiple cognitive skills are required, as in most learning situations, all but one of those skills must be performed automatically, at the non-conscious level. When a skill becomes automatic and does not require conscious thought, it is possible for an individual to perform that skill at the same time as other skills. Basic skills, such as shifting our attention, keeping information in a sequence and visual span (as examples) must be functioning at the automatic level in order to enable an individual to allocate conscious thought to other activities, such as learning, comparing, deciding, and planning drawing conclusions and the like.
Principle 3: Integration (cross-training).
Mental processing (cognitive) skills are highly integrated in effective brain functioning. When our brains perform a variety of automatic functions simultaneously, those activities must be coordinated to be effective (seeing and motor control, to give a simple example, in eye-hand coordination). If certain skills are weak or deficient, that will impact the efficiency of other mental processes and the overall effectiveness of mental functioning.
Repeating a single skill over and over can lead to improvement in that skill and ultimately automaticity, but the integration of multiple skills is what pushes critical skills more quickly to the nonconscious level. The approach of putting demands on multiple skills at the same time, referred to as “cognitive loading,” is exploited in a comprehensive “cross-training” approach that integrates multiples skills within an exercise and across exercises. It is believed that effective cross-training significantly enhances the transfer of stronger cognitive skills to tasks beyond the specific tasks that are trained.
Principle 4: Progressive challenge.
Cognitive development occurs at the outer edges of our competence. Therefore, sequenced challenges that address the range of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses are required to provide the appropriate levels of challenge and intensity. If a task is too far above our current state of development, we will become frustrated and may not persist. If tasks are too easy, we become bored. The optimal level of challenge is sometimes called the Zone of Proximal Development.
The programs we offer use methodical sequencing need for “smart practice” (intense and rewarding repetition). This means that they avoid the kind of predictable progression that would cause the brain would to lose interest and engage with less intensity.
Principle 5: Frequency and intensity.
Development of any physical or mental function requires the discipline of repeated challenge over time at an appropriate level of intensity. The brains of experts consume less energy to perform a practiced activity and, in fact, can often do the activity without thinking or without conscious evaluation. We may talk about “muscle memory’ (for example for a concert pianist or Tiger Woods on the golf course) but we are actually describing the development of procedural memory in the brain. Frequent practice with intensity leads to automaticity of skills.
Each of our programs has a recommended protocol, based on the frequency and intensity that has been shown to drive rapid skill development and significant cognitive growth for the user in research.
Principle 6: Feedback.
Immediate feedback is necessary to enable error correction and faster, more accurate learning. The speed of feedback also enables more repetitions to be executed in a given amount of time. In addition to the feedback overtly provided by a video game, there is evidence that success in a video game is related to release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in learning and feelings of reward.
Our programs provide immediate feedback to the user through various mechanisms built into the game. There is no waiting to have a challenge or level scored; the computer response is instantaneous. Positive encouragement is offered continuously as the user progresses through the program. Human coaching is an important aspect of feedback and we emphasize the best practices of coaching (teaching) for all programs we offer and in all settings.
Principle 7: Engagement.
Stimulation is an important factor in motivating attention and meaningful participation in a learning activity. In fact, the science and education communities are increasingly recognizing the value of digital game-based learning. The compelling characteristics of good video games motivate initial engagement with a challenging activity and can help sustain motivation as the challenge progresses. Persistence motivated by a feedback loop reinforces and supports the natural mechanisms in the brain that reward us for accomplishing something challenging.
Our programs incorporate multimedia video-gaming technology with entertaining themes, characters, animation, and interactive elements to stimulate interest. The inherently interesting features of the program help provide intrinsic motivation to persist and overcome more difficult levels.
The principles of neuroscience, some would argue, stemmed from the work of Donald Hebb in the 1940s and his book, The Organization of Behavior, published in 1949. Other ground-breaking researchers in the field include Eric R Kandel, Adele Diamond, Joseph LeDoux, Robert Sapolsky, and Antonio Damasio. These are just a few of the stars of the exploding field of neuroscience which continues to fascinate us. As the research explodes, it can be tempting to extrapolate beyond the science and to speculate about what it means. There is a basis in neuroscience or education research for all of the neuromyths or misconcpetions discussed above. So it is critical to evaluate principles and ensure they are applied in the right ways.
What happens when we apply the principles of neuroscience in the right ways? Learning becomes less effortful, even joyful. We strengthen instructional effecitveness along with the brain, the command center of the nervous sytem, in the ways the brain learns best.