Tag Archives: brain training

Can playing video games improve general cognitive function?

UnknownThere’s been a lot of discussion this week about a new article in Nature by Anguera et al. titled “Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults”. This paper appears to demonstrate what a lot of brain training programs promise, but few seem to deliver; genuine cognitive benefits that generalised to additional untrained cognitive domains/abilities, in older adults.

The positive effects seen are quite large, and as such, the results appear to be quite promising. There are still some reasons for scepticism though. Firstly, this result stands in contrast to other research which shows no effect of similar training programs (including another study by Adrian Owen et al., also published in Nature a few years ago). Secondly, the number of subjects in this study is pretty small, with only 15 per group. As Button et al. (2013)  have pointed out recently, small sample sizes can lead to an inflation of the estimates of effect sizes.

There are several other issues with the paper, but they have been most ably covered by others, notably Christian Jarrett on the BPS Research Digest, and Daniel Simons on his own blog, so I encourage interested readers to go and check out those sources rather than repeat them here. It would be wonderful if such a simple intervention could halt or slow cognitive decline in older adults, however (as usual) more work is needed with larger groups of people before we’ll know for sure if that’s the case.

A short video from Nature that explains the study is embedded below:


The SMART program promises to raise your IQ by 20-odd points

schoolforthegiftedA write-up in The (Irish) Sun yesterday (posted on Twitter by Simon Dymond)  has brought a site called Raise Your IQ to my attention. It’s a brain-training site that makes a startling claim; that their SMART (Strengthening Mental Abilities with Relational Training) program can raise IQ, by an average of 23 points.  Those are some pretty big words, right there.

The business is a spin-out company from the National University of Ireland, and was started by Bryan Roche and Sarah Cassidy, of the psychology department at NUI. Dr Roche is an expert in a fairly niche area of psychological inquiry known as Relational Frame Theory. RFT is a theoretical framework that seeks to extend the radical behaviourist ideas of BF Skinner to encompass and adequately explain  complex cognitive processes (language, abstract thought, etc.). Skinner himself was firmly of the opinion that cognitive processes are in fact aggregations of lower-level behavioural responses, and that things like our sense of free-will, and our awareness of our own phenomenal consciousness are entirely illusory (views he expressed in his classic book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, as well as in many more academic works). RFT is essentially a neo-Skinnerian approach which takes into account the accumulated evidence for complex (i.e. nominally non-associative) cognition.

As a theoretical approach RFT has some interest then, however Dr Roche has managed to add a practical twist and come up with something marketable, dubbed ‘relational training’. Essentially it’s a set of questions and tests that are based on relationships between different objects, words or categories. Some examples are below (pasted from The Sun article):

LEVEL 1: If a broad bean is a type of bean, is a bean a type of broad bean?

LEVEL 2: If an Alsatian is a type of dog, and a dog is a type of mammal, is an Alsatian a type of mammal? Is a mammal a type of Alsatian?

LEVEL 3: If yesterday I felt sad and today I feel happy, and if now was then and then was now, how did I feel then?

LEVEL 4: “Car” is the English word for the Swedish word “Bil”. “Car” is also the English word for the Italian word “auto”. “Coche” is the Spanish word for the Italian word “auto”. What is a Coche in Swedish?

Readers who were fortunate enough to have endured a Classical education will immediately recognise the broad form of these as a kind of logical puzzle known as a syllogism, the formal description of which dates back to at least Aristotle; plus ça change. Syllogistic reasoning is also a mainstay in various IQ-type tests.

So, what about these pretty radical claims of raising your IQ by 20 or even 30 points? Does it work? What’s the evidence? As usual I’m afraid, the answer is ‘scant, to non-existent’. A prominent page on the Raise Your IQ site is titled ‘Scientific Evidence’ and discusses in some detail this paper by Cassidy et al (2011; PDF), which does indeed show some impressive effects in two separate experiments. However, experiment one had only four participants in each group (training vs. control), and experiment two had only eight participants (with no control group). These are tiny samples and (as has been extensively discussed, very recently) small samples can lead to the ‘winner’s curse’; an inflation of the apparent effect size. The effects reported in this paper are very large indeed, but honestly, I’m surprised the reviewers didn’t flag up the fact that you just can’t do ANOVAs with four data points! It’s a massive violation of the assumptions of the central limit theorem. In addition, the control group in experiment one was an ‘inactive’ control i.e. one that received no training at all, rather than some kind of placebo training.

The rest of the papers listed on the Scientific Evidence page of the site appear to be fairly theoretical, or only tangentially related to the SMART program. The available evidence from the Cassidy et al. (2011) paper is wafer-thin, compared to the startlingly bold claims being made. One other thought that occurred to me is that because the form of the training is so similar to the form of some questions used on many IQ test, it might represent a form of training-to-the-test; practicing IQ tests makes you better at performing IQ tests – well, duh.

I find myself unable to completely condemn these guys though. Maybe I’m going soft, or maybe I’m just a sucker for some good old-school radical-behaviourism-based interventions. The program does have the (somewhat unusual) virtue of being based on a fairly coherent (if not widely-accepted) theoretical foundation. This doesn’t change the fact that the big claims it makes are wildly out of sync with the available evidence, and in this sense, it’s precisely the same as all the other brain-training neurobollocks-merchants out there fighting for a slice of the gullible consumers cash.



‘Brain Power Miracle’ will make you an Einstein-level genius

There’s a hell of a lot of bullshit self-help brain-training, memory-boosting, whatever products out there and most of them I don’t even bother looking at in any detail, because I value my emotional stability and life’s just too short. Brain Power Miracle  though is worth a mention, purely because of the hilarity of their claims.

The start off with the old canard that we only use a part of our brain – but they go one better than the normal jokers – they say we may only use 2% (but that it ‘isn’t conclusive’). Then:

“Just think about it: what if you could turn your brain into an unstoppable success machine—bringing you all the wealth, success and happiness that you had previously never thought possible?”

And if that wasn’t enough:

“We will show you how to become a genius like Einstein, Mozart, Da Vinci…”

It’s a shame they didn’t employ one of their genius-level users to copy-edit their webpage and remove all the spelling mistakes.

And to finish off, some nice sciencey-looking pictures of frequency spectra:

Screen Shot 2013-04-21 at 21.15.03

Only $37.95 for seven CDs full of white-noise and synthesised dying-whale-noises! What are you waiting for people?! Go get it!

Some excellent articles on the neurobollocks of brain training

Another short post just to link to a couple of articles on the brain-training trend, and why it’s all highly suspicious.

First up is a really good piece in the New Yorker titled ‘Brain games are bogus’. The piece mostly focuses on CogMed (who are currently launching programs in American schools) and has some good, and damning, quotes from independent researchers who work in the area of working memory.

This post on the Computing for Psychologists blog mentions another company called LearningRX who are also making a play for a slice of the lucrative education sector.

Finally, this blog post focuses on Lumosity, which is perhaps the most well-known (and well-marketed) online brain-training service.

All three articles make very good points, which I won’t bother to repeat here, but the upshot is that brain training is (very likely) bogus. The science behind it is shaky at best, and these companies cannot possibly deliver on the promises they make in their slick marketing videos, like this one:

*Uncontrollable projectile vomiting* Urgh. For God’s sake, just take the ten hours you’d spend pointlessly clicking buttons on the Lumosity website and use it to read a book instead. Science, history, fiction, anything… you’ll get more ‘brain training’ out of that than anything these jokers can produce with their ‘science of neuroplasticity’ and their self-consciously quirky hipster hand-drawn graphics and carefully selected not-too-hot-and-not-too-geeky-looking fresh-faced spokesmodel from central casting.

Except if it’s something by Stephanie Meyer. Seriously, don’t read those Twilight things. They’re adolescent fucking garbage.

A Quantum of Bollocks

Oh noes, my brainwaves be confuzed!

Oh noes, my brainwaves be confuzed! Note: Actual bird eye’s-view brainscans = actual cartoons with pretty colours on.

‘Quantum’ has been one of the favourite weapons in the pseudo-science douchebag’s arsenal for some time now.  Back in the late 80s, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff made a serious attempt to fashion a theory of consciousness that involved interactions between quantum-entangled molecules in cytoskeletal microtubules. At least, the authors seemed to take it pretty seriously, if nobody else actually did.

Of course, some neuro-snake-oil merchants have jumped on the quantum band-wagon, because… well… because quantum sounds all sciencey, I expect. Plus it has things called ‘leaps’ associated with it (even though that was really just a TV show about time-travellers) which sounds cool, too, right?

First up is a website called ‘QDreams’ with the achingly cheesy tagline “Success at the speed of thought!”. Their product is:

“Quantum Brain Fitness training lets the user simply relax and listen to empowering mind message audio-sessions that are strategically encoded with Neuro-Sensory Algorithms for optimizing brain wave activity”

Riiight. Reading on a bit further reveals that the main man behind QDreams is Richard Bandler, one of the inventors of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, back in the 70s. NLP is a widely-discredited branch of pseudo-science that was popular back in the 70s and 80s among the self-help, motivational-speaking crowd.

I noted in my previous post that Brain Balance Centers seem to be just a re-packaging of some old ideas from chiropractic, re-packaged for the modern neuro-aware world. QDreams seems to be similar – the same old NLP neurobollocks re-packaged to sell once again to fit the current fad of ‘Brain Training’.

Another similar system is being touted over at quantum-mind-power-system.com. This system of ‘monaural and isochronic tones’ will apparently reorganise your brainwaves into a harmonious order and make you rich, successful, better in bed, etc. etc. blah, blah. Urgh. This site even has the nerve to rag on other brain training systems based on binaural beats, saying that they’re ‘just a brainwave placebo—it’s nothing but a sugar pill!’. Whereas their system is baed on ‘proven’ monaural beats. Hilariously they illustrate this point by waveforms of each type of sound, essentially making the point that monaural beats look different in terms of frequency spectra to binaural. Well, duh. This ‘quantum-mind-power system’ costs a whopping $232 for a few CDs and books filled with incoherent gibberish – what a bargain!

Both these companies earn a solid 10 out of 10 on the neurobollocks product rating scale, and both represent the same old bullshit, cynically re-packaged for a modern audience.