Is Cognitive Training for Real?

December 4, 2012 by Geoff Nixon

cognitive trainingCan video and online brain training games really make you smarter? This is the question that David Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, poses in a recent NY Times article, “I.Q. Points for Sale, Cheap.”

IQ Can Be Changed, But By How Much?

The article’s main point focuses more on the claims of some cognitive training firms, most particularly the now infamous Jaeggi study where the equivalent of 6 IQ points were added after only 6 hours of brain training, a study that incidentally has not been replicated. Hambrick points to successful efforts to change cognitive skills made in the Abecedarian Early Intervention study, where 6 IQ points were added on average after five years of training, from birth to entering elementary school.

We are also somewhat circumspect about the potential to change IQ with training.  IQ limits seem akin to natural physical talent limits on the sports field — while they can be developed with practice, there are limits.

Is IQ a Distraction?

It appears that Hambrick chooses to link cognitive training to IQ because it is more controversial.  But achievement is not defined entirely by IQ or natural talent. Skill development through good technique and practice are perhaps equally important.

In academics, essential skills are reading, learning and focus.  While the ability to change IQ is questionable, these learning skills can be helped by cognitive training — processing, memory, sequencing and other skills can be exercised and improved to some absolute levels for most individuals.  This is proven science, established by fMRI images that show changed neural activity after cognitive training.

The fact that learning skills can be improved with brain training is reason enough to consider trying a brain-based intervention if your child has learning difficulties.

The fact that these gains sometimes translate into higher testing on IQ tests is a sideshow, a distraction.  Improving IQ is not the reason to try Fast ForWord or some other cognitive software.  However, just as practice makes perfect on the sports field, improving the outcomes of natural sports talent, cognitive training improves learning and reading skills.

Brain Change — A Quick, Easy Project?

“I.Q. Points for Sale, Cheap” also mentions how the Jaeggi study was able to produce major gains in only 6 hours of exercise.  This is treated with suspicion.  We agree.

In our world of cognitive training for reading and learning using Fast ForWord software, our benchmarks are 20 hours for any material change, 30-40 hours for the best outcomes.

Furthermore, cognitive training requires consistent practice and an “aerobic” effort each time, pushing cognitive skills to new levels each and every time.  This is another area where we think these off-the-shelf brain game programs fall down.  Consistent attendance requires consistently engaging material and personal trainer oversight, and we use remote educators to support Fast ForWord at home.