Understand how and for whom brain training works

If you’re good at playing puzzles on your smartphone or tablet, what does that say about the speed at which you learn new puzzles or, more generally, your ability to concentrate, for example, to school or at work? Or, in the language of psychologists, does “near transference” predict “distant transference”?

A team of psychologists from UC Riverside and UC Irvine report in Nature Human behavior that people who show near transference are more likely to show far transference. For someone skilled at playing a game, such as Wordle, quasi-transfer refers to being skilled at similar games, such as a crossword puzzle. An example of distant transference for this person is better concentration in the activities of daily living.

Some people do very well in practice, like playing a video game, but they don’t show close transfer, perhaps because they’re using very specific strategies. For these people, a remote transfer 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 suited 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 controlled trials involving nearly 500 participants and replicated the same outcome: the extent to which people improve on untrained tasks, that is, tasks with which they are not familiar (quasi transfer), determines whether the transfer to an abstract reasoning task is successful. By analogy, if a person who runs on a treadmill in the gym (training or intervention) manages to be able to run faster outside (quasi transfer), then this improvement predicts whether this person would be better prepared to engage in other physical activities (far transfer), such as cycling or playing sports.

Whether and to what extent working memory training improves performance on untrained tasks, such as in “fluid intelligence”, the ability to think and reason abstractly and to solve problems, remains a subject. much debated. 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 excites working memory researchers the most is whether there’s a transfer to fluid intelligence,” said co-author Aaron Seitz, professor of psychology at UCR and director from the UCR Brain Game Center for Mental Fitness and Well-Being. “What we say in our article is simple: if you get a close transfer, you are very likely to get a far transfer as well.

“But not everyone comes close to transferring for a variety of reasons, such as participants disengaging during the training or because that particular training is ineffective for them. These people don’t seem to transfer far.”

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

“Some studies claim these games work; other studies claim the opposite, making it difficult to interpret the interventions,” he said. “Furthermore, some of these studies have grouped people who show close transference with people who show no close transference. Our article clarifies some of that confusion.”

To dig deeper into these questions, the team has launched a large-scale citizen science project that will engage 30,000 participants in various forms of brain training. The researchers invite anyone over the age of 18 to participate by registering or learning more about their work in progress.

Susanne Jaeggi, UCI Professor of Education and Director of the UCI Working Memory and Plasticity Laboratory and co-author of the research paper, warned that the companies’ claims that their games improve cognitive functions essentials must be carefully assessed.

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

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


University of California – Riverside

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