Thursday, November 1, 2012

Can We Train Our Brains to Function Better?

Maybe.  The New York Times has an article today entitled The Brain Trainers: A New Kind of Tutoring Aims to Make Students Smarter, which concerns several franchises that have recently opened up, which claim to improve cognitive skills for adults, children, and those with learning disabilities.  "On this Wednesday evening at the Upper Montclair, N.J., outlet of LearningRx, a chain of 83 “brain training” franchises across the United States, the goal is to improve cognitive skills. . . .  Unlike traditional tutoring services that seek to help students master a subject, brain training purports to enhance comprehension and the ability to analyze and mentally manipulate concepts, images, sounds and instructions. In a word, it seeks to make students smarter."

The article continues: "'We measure every student pre- and post-training with a version of the Woodcock-Johnson general intelligence test,' said Ken Gibson, who began franchising LearningRx centers in 2003, and has data on more than 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 students who have been trained. The average gain on I.Q. is 15 points after 24 weeks of training, and 20 points in less than 32 weeks.'  The three other large cognitive training services — Lumosity, Cogmed and Posit Science — dance around the question of whether they truly raise I.Q. but do assert that they improve cognitive performance."  "Those results are achieved, the companies say, by repurposing cognitive tasks initially developed by psychologists as tests of mental abilities. With technical names like the antisaccade, the N-back and the complex working memory span task, the exercises are dressed up as games that become increasingly difficult as students gain mastery."

Others are skeptical: "Whether the results last beyond the blush of training — indeed, whether I.Q. can truly be bolstered in a meaningful way — are questions on which serious scientists still disagree. Studies have been published in recent years finding that intelligence can be improved through training, but not enough of them are of sufficient scientific quality to convince everyone in the field." Similarly, "The catch, however, is that Dr. Detterman believes that cognitive training only makes people better at taking tests, without improving their underlying intelligence. Dr. Detterman said of brain training, 'It’s probably not harmful. But I would tell parents: Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.'"

As those who read this blog know, for the past few years, I have been studying the latest research in education for application to legal education.  (here and I also have recently finished a self-training textbook for students and lawyers on how to improve their legal reasoning skills, which will be published by ABA Publishing next year.)  These studies demonstrate that we have not been using the best methods of teaching our students in general and in law school.  In particular, students need to become active learners, by immediately applying the doctrine they have learned to problem solving.

I do not know how much success these commercial franchises are having in improving cognitive skills.  I do think they are probably doing some good.  The article mentions that some of the exercises they use help students focus attention.  If true, this certainly helps learning.  Studies have shown that attention is very important in short-term memory efficiency.

I question whether the methods employed by these franchises, using test taking techniques and games to improve cognition, is the best approach.  The question is whether the skills obtained there apply to other areas, such as the law.  This depends on domain transference--taking a skill from one domain and using it within another domain (e.g., using techniques of literary analysis to analyze statues).  It is probable that skills transfer more easily from one domain to another when the domains are similar.  For law students, I think the best thing is to learn reasoning skills within the legal domains and domain transfer skills to apply them to another legal domain (e.g., taking skills learned in property and applying them to a wills class).

In any event, the article is fascinating, and I welcome all reasonable attempts to improve human learning.

(Scott Fruehwald)

| Permalink


It might make more sense to look at actual biological mechanisms linking learning or cognitive activities to neural changes. Correlations between training and IQ are not really "good science" regardless of the results.

Posted by: Hemal Pathak | Jan 22, 2013 8:12:26 AM

Post a comment