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Brain Training - Science Over Marketing

  • 20-Aug-2014

When discussing brain training, people should not confuse silly marketing claims for bad science. Brain training is probably one of the fastest growing sections in modern psychology. To put this in context, we are talking about the development of low cost software products, apps or games that claim to be able to increase peoples intelligence or IQ, something that some psychologists like to think of as a trait that cannot be improved.
Researchers (such as Chancellor and Chatterjee from the University of Pennsylvania, see Brain Branding: When Neuroscience and Commerce Collide) have argued that the relationship between neuroscience research and the marketing of brain training products has become too close for comfort, raising ethical questions about how academic research is related to commercial gain. Probably in no other area of psychological research have we seen such a use and abuse of neuroscience terminology for marketing purposes. The web is full of promises that neural processes that brain training game and tool developers cannot support, sometimes based on spurious theories and poor scientific reasoning.
The challenge for brain training companies and products is to find the very specific tasks that stimulate the brain in such a way that it leads to improvements in general brain health and intellectual functioning. Evidence for this has not been so easy to come by as most brain training companies do not undertake any scientific research.

SO LETS SEPARATE THE SCIENCE FROM THE MARKETING. We have all heard of the various reviews of brain training programs, that most often conclude that the effects are not worth getting too excited over. The main finding is that while brain training improves skills in the precise domain being targeted, the effects do not generalize to related skills or everyday life. In other words, brain training games simply make you better at brain training games. These reviews are welcome and an important part of the scientific process, and in many cases they are well conducted. However, there is an important point that can be easily missed when particular programs are assessed in large randomized controlled trials. That is, that the effectiveness or otherwise of a particular tool, does not inform us about the principles involved in brain training. The real question is; in principle, can forms of intellectual stimulation lead to generalized improvements in other related but dissimilar areas of intellectual functioning? One series of studies that answer a resounding YES to this question are those conducted by John Jonides and colleagues at the University of Michigan. Their research has found improvements in objective measures of fluid intelligence (one important aspect of intelligence) resulting from training on a free and easily obtainable task called the n-back task. There is no commercial interest held by these researchers in the n-back task, which is in the public domain. These effects on intelligence have even been found to last over the longer term (several months at least). While we do not yet fully understand how the n-back tasks serves to improve fluid intelligence, the finding now offers the opportunity for more focused empirical and conceptual work to understand the processes involved. RaiseYourIQ's own research (we are first and foremost psychologists and educators) into intellectual improvements does not fit easily into a neuroscience paradigm, but it nevertheless represents another example of basic bottom-up research, done on fundamental cognitive processes (specifically, skills known as relational framing skills which our own Doctor Bryan Roche has edited), that appear to underlie intellectual ability. We are concerned about whether or not intelligence does rely on the fluency of these particular skills sets, and how to best train those skills. The concern over the effectiveness or otherwise of particular Brain Training products, could easily obscure the great advances being made in our basic understanding of intelligence and how to increase it. Missing the bigger questions in this arena, would be as disastrous as giving up on cancer research just because a bunch of maverick pharmaceutical companies made premature promises about particular commercially available treatments for cancer. Let’s not mistake the commerce for the science, and let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. To read more on the science behind RaiseYourIQ visit Brain Training Science

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