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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

[Wherein our hero considers how he might think himself smarter. Yet it appears Brain-Training might just be woo.]

At this time of year I start wondering how to get an edge in my exams. Is studying really the best way about it? Last exam period I examined the best way to use caffiene, and I ran a series of informal experiments to figure my own personal method out [here]. 

This time round I was thinking - how can I improve my working memory / fluid intelligence. I'd heard a bit in the pop media about some tasks that can improve some general capacities and I thought sounds reasonable.

Fluid intelligence / working memory is your capacity to hold things in mind and access them quickely and efficiently; it's the capacity 'to hold a representation active in the face of distraction and interference'. I may be using those terms [working memory, fluid intelligence] incorrectly, so please correct me if that's the case. For instance I have a heavily weighted multichoice stats exam coming up. It would be useful to be able to peruse the whole sheet and kind of keep a running log of here are the questions on x, here are the questions on y... and be able to identify common threads. Now when you have a large number of variables and things to keep track of this becomes very difficult, but it sounds reasonable to assume one can improve that ability.

So I looked into it. I started with Jaeggi (2008) who claimed her dual N-back task was capable of improving ones fluid intelligence, generally speaking. The N-back is an attention and working memory arse-kicker. Play it here: [it's a safe download, and a fairly involving task]. It involves holding and constantly updating a spatial and audio memory and matching congruence against incongruence.

Well, the big thing was that Jaeggi claimed the skills practiced here transfered generally to working memory, and weren't limited to the N-back itself. This is meaningful given that all data up to that point suggested that one can improve one's capacity at a certain activity, but only on that activity. Memory training and everything of that ilk is non-transferable. For instance I was once told to improve my memory I might take a deck of cards and turn a card over every day. Each day I ought to memorize that card. Each day the list of cards I'm supposed to hold in mind gets longer, and as a result my 'memory' improves. That sounds reasonable - I practice remembering and my capacity to remember improves.  However, the science suggests that I will only improve at my capacity to recall x on an x+1 daily basis. It's not going to allow me to hold shopping lists or phone number in mind any better. Jaeggi claimed her dual N-back task could transfer its benefit - that is, training in it would improve all kinds of working memory tasks.

It's a bit of a murky area. Those who stand to benefit from it the most - older adults who are staving off mental decline, and younger children who are yet to fully realize their capacities - may benefit from such training. According Carretti, Borella and De Beni such practise (at a working memory task) improved their capacity at the task to a significant degree. This is meaningful, some older adults may need such training. Dahlin, Nyberg and Backman (2008) looked more closely at children and found that a working memory tasked transfered to an untrained 3-back working memory task.  That sounds limited, but is pretty amazing - the kids did one thing, and got better at another.

But what about the young, educated, white male? How am I supposed to get an edge? How am I supposed to handle moderated multiple and heirarchical regression? What about mediation? Screw the -diation, what about me?

Owen, Hampshire and six others (2010) conducted a huge study, from which the following excerpt is ripped from their abstract:

Here we report the results of a six-week online study in which 11,430 participants trained several times each week on cognitive tasks designed to improve reasoning, memory, planning, visuospatial skills and attention. Although improvement were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.

...and this mirrors the wider sentiment. Such cognitive training does not transfer. I'm sorry to all you nintendo DS owners out there engaging in your Brain Training, but the science suggests you're only getting good at improving your high score, not your general cognitive ability.

That's not to say it has no benefit - particularly for older individuals; and that's not to say it doesn't have other benefits, such as staving off cognitive decline (that's a whole different blog post, for sure). But if you're hoping to be able to remember someone's birthday a little better, I suggest google calendars.

So this is the first time this has happened to me. I went out looking for a way to improve myself, or use some science to my advantage, and I turned up nothing! I'm reasonably convinced that not only can I not improve my general working intelligence with a quick, easy 6-minute daily mental workout, but that nintendo and all those other clowns are ripping us off. In my mind you might as well stick with the Sodoku or the daily Cryptic.

...and so I'm afraid that's all I can offer today. Non-significance.

Oh well, such is science.

Owen, A., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A., Howard, R., & Ballard, C. (2010). Putting brain training to the test Nature, 465 (7299), 775-778 DOI: 10.1038/nature09042

Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, & Perrig WJ (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 105 (19), 6829-33 PMID: 18443283

Dahlin, E., Nyberg, L., Bäckman, L., & Neely, A. (2008). Plasticity of executive functioning in young and older adults: Immediate training gains, transfer, and long-term maintenance. Psychology and Aging, 23 (4), 720-730 DOI: 10.1037/a0014296

Carretti, B., Borella, E., & De Beni, R. (2007). Does Strategic Memory Training Improve the Working Memory Performance of Younger and Older Adults? Experimental Psychology (formerly "Zeitschrift für Experimentelle Psychologie"), 54 (4), 311-320 DOI: 10.1027/1618-3169.54.4.311

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[Reposted from my facebook link without permission]

Excellent analysis. As a former user of brain-training products, you've confirmed my suspicion that I was only ever improving at the tasks on offer, as opposed to building broader competence. I do find still wonder whether there is some chance of these things working more effectively if the trainee is subjected to a very wide variety of cognitive tasks, rather than the usual 10-20 that I found myself cycling through on lumosity.



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> Owen, Hampshire and six others (2010) conducted a huge study, from which the following excerpt is ripped from their abstract:


Owen 2010 didn't spend very much time training (not as much as Jaeggi 2008, IIRC), nor did it use the n-back tasks. Given that Jaeggi 2010 found differences between dual n-back and single n-back, even, this suggests the transfer can disappear if the task is tweaked too much, so that's 2 reasons Owen 2010 doesn't say anything about n-backing. There are also other studies:

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You're right. Owen et al didn't even come close to replicating the N-back study. Though my understanding is it reflects the general finding that such capacities are not transferable.

As for the cited support on the FAQ - neither of those additional references could really be called support. One's a conference paper (which can be considered, at best, preliminary) and ones a spreadsheet - and even without analysis I can tell you that the sample and power is going to be inadequate to draw any meaningful conclusions.

I'm open to be genuinely shown I'm wrong. I have no vested interests here, I was just interested to see what the science says about the brain-training thing.

As far as I can tell (after about 2 or 3 cumulative hours of research) is that it does work in those with a pre-existing deficit, in those yet to fully develop (the young) and those in a state of decline. It seems reasonable to think that any given person can improve, but the only person saying that (that I could find) was Jaeggi herself, and I'm not half as convinced by her voice alone than I would be if half a dozen researchers were saying it, too


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Rift said:

Though my understanding is it reflects the general finding that such capacities are not transferable.


That's not true.

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It's not true that's my understanding? That's a fascinating capacity you have to infer what I know...

C'mon, you saw my reference list. Perhaps my research was inadequate, but the least you could do when challenging my opinion is to provide some kind of citation...


UC Davis
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I love it... it is not true that this is your understanding.  Come on Rift stop posting lies!  aaa is on your case!

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Maybe aaa was falling asleep on his keyboard, and typed the reply for another post in this thread?

You should probably look at the data for physical activities training and cognitive capacities. I remember reading something about how doing several types of training for a specific physical skill would all improve a little bit the main skill (kind of a violinist reading scores, then listening to music, then practicing on the violin would do better than the one that only practiced on the violin all the time).



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Rift said:

As for the cited support on the FAQ - neither of those additional references could really be called support. One's a conference paper (which can be considered, at best, preliminary) and ones a spreadsheet - and even without analysis I can tell you that the sample and power is going to be inadequate to draw any meaningful conclusions.

? Polar is indeed just a spreadsheet ( and Qiu a conference paper ( ; although I put less weight on it because I don't really trust Chinese replications and there's some odd things about Qiu); but Jaeggi 2010 ( was in a real journal.

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