Understanding how and for whom brain training works

If you’re adept at playing puzzles on your smartphone or tablet, what does this say about how quickly you learn new puzzles, or, more generally, how well you can concentrate, for example at school or work? Or, in the language of psychologists, does “near transmission” predict “distant transmission”?

A team of psychologists from UC Riverside and UC Irvine reports in: Nature Human behavior that people who show a transfer up close are more likely to show a transfer at a distance. For someone who is adept at playing a game, such as Wordle, near-transfer refers to being adept at similar games, such as a crossword puzzle. An example of distant transference for this person is better focus in daily activities.

Some people do very well in training, such as playing a video game, but they don’t come close to transfer, perhaps because they use very specific strategies. For these people, a distant transmission is unlikely. By better understanding why this type of memory training or ‘intervention’ works for some people but not others, we can move forward with a new generation of working memory training games or use approaches more tailored to the needs of individuals.”

Anja Pahor, first author, assistant research psychologist at UCR and project scientist, Department of Psychology, University of Maribor in Slovenia

The researchers conducted three randomized control trials involving nearly 500 participants and reiterated the same finding: the extent to which people improve on untrained tasks, i.e. tasks they do not know (near handover), determines whether going far to an abstract reasoning task is successful. By analogy, if a person running on a treadmill at the gym (training or intervention) can run faster outdoors (near transfer), this improvement predicts whether this person would be better prepared for other physical activities (distant transfer), such as cycling or sports.

Whether and the extent to which working memory training improves performance on untrained tasks, such as in “fluid intelligence,” the ability to think and reason abstractly, and solve problems remains a hotly debated topic. Some meta-analyses show a small but significant positive effect on fluid intelligence; others argue that there is no evidence that training generalizes to fluid intelligence.

What working memory researchers are most excited about is whether there is transference to fluid intelligence. What we say in our paper is simple: if you get close to a transfer, chances are you’ll get a distant transfer as well. But not everyone comes close to transfer for various reasons, such as participants dropping out during training or because that specific training is not effective for them. These people don’t seem to be making the switch very far.”

Aaron Seitz, co-author, professor of psychology at UCR and director of the UCR Brain Game Center for Mental Fitness and Well-Being

Seitz noted that people are constantly being sold brain training games.

“Some studies argue that these games work; other studies claim the opposite, making it difficult to interpret the interventions,” he said. “Furthermore, some of these studies have lumped people who exhibit near-transmission into one with people who do not exhibit near-transmission. Our article clarifies some of this confusion.”

To further explore these issues, the team has launched a large-scale citizen science project that will involve 30,000 participants in various forms of brain training. The researchers invite anyone over the age of 18 to participate by applying or learning about their ongoing work.

Susanne Jaeggi, professor of education at UCI and director of the UCI Working Memory and Plasticity Lab and co-author of the research paper, cautioned that companies’ claims that their games improve key cognitive functions should be carefully evaluated.

“Almost everyone has access to an app or plays a game on a computer and it’s easy to be tempted by some companies’ claims,” ​​she said. “If we can understand how and for whom brain training apps work, we can improve them to get more out of them than just fun. Such improved apps would be especially useful for older adults and certain patient groups.”

The research was funded by a grant to UCR and UCI from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health.


Reference magazine:

Pahor, A., et al. (2022) Near-transfer to an unrelated N-back task mediates the effect of N-back working memory training on matrix reasoning. Nature human behavior. doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01384-w

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