Strategies

More support for value of cognitive activities in fighting cognitive decline in old age

September, 2012

Two recent conference presentations add to the evidence for the benefits of ‘brain training’, and of mental stimulation, for holding back age-related cognitive decline.

My recent reports on brain training for older adults (see, e.g., Review of working memory training programs finds no broader benefit; Cognitive training shown to help healthy older adults; Video game training benefits cognition in some older adults) converge on the idea that cognitive training can indeed be beneficial for older adults’ cognition, but there’s little wider transfer beyond the skills being practiced. That in itself can be valuable, but it does reinforce the idea that the best cognitive training covers a number of different domains or skill-sets. A new study adds little to this evidence, but does perhaps emphasize the importance of persistence and regularity in training.

The study involved 59 older adults (average age 84), of whom 33 used a brain fitness program 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day for at least 8 weeks, while the other group of 26 were put on a waiting list for the program. After two months, both groups were given access to the program, and both were encouraged to use it as much or as little as they wanted. Cognitive testing occurred before the program started, at two months, and at six months.

The first group to use the program used the program on average for 80 sessions, compared to an average 44 sessions for the wait-list group.

The higher use group showed significantly higher cognitive scores (delayed memory test; Boston Naming test) at both two and six months, while the lower (and later) use group showed improvement at the end of the six month period, but not as much as the higher use group.

I’m afraid I don’t have any more details (some details of the training program would be nice) because it was a conference presentation, so I only have access to the press release and the abstract. Because we don’t know exactly what the training entailed, we don’t know the extent to which it practiced the same skills that were tested. But we may at least add it to the evidence that you can improve cognitive skills by regular training, and that the length/amount of training (and perhaps regularity, since the average number of sessions for the wait-list group implies an average engagement of some three times a week, while the high-use group seem to have maintained their five-times-a-week habit) matters.

Another interesting presentation at the conference was an investigation into mental stimulating activities and brain activity in older adults.

In this study, 151 older adults (average age 82) from the Rush Memory and Aging Project answered questions about present and past cognitive activities, before undergoing brain scans. The questions concerned how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading books, writing letters, visiting a library, playing games) and the availability of cognitive resources (such as books, dictionaries, encyclopedias) in their home, during their lifetime (specifically, at ages 6, 12, 18, 40, and now).

Higher levels of cognitive activity and cognitive resources were also associated with better cognitive performance. Moreover, after controlling for education and total brain size, it was found that frequent cognitive activity in late life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (right orbital and middle frontal gyrus, left inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus, right cerebellum, left inferior parietal cortex). More cognitive resources throughout life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (left superior occipital gyrus, left precuneus, left cuneus, right anterior cingulate, right middle frontal gyrus, and left inferior frontal gyrus).

Previous research has implicated a decline in connectivity with the posterior cingulate cortex in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cognitive activity earlier in life was not associated with differences in connectivity.

The findings provide further support for the idea “Use it or lose it!”, and suggests that mental activity protects against cognitive decline by maintaining functional connectivity in important neural networks.

Reference: 

Miller, K.J. et al. 2012. Memory Improves With Extended Use of Computerized Brain Fitness Program Among Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.

Han, S.D. et al. 2012. Cognitive Activity and Resources Are Associated With PCC Functional Connectivity in Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.

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Childhood music training has enduring benefits for hearing

September, 2012

More evidence that learning a musical instrument in childhood, even for a few years, has long-lasting benefits for auditory processing.

Adding to the growing evidence for the long-term cognitive benefits of childhood music training, a new study has found that even a few years of music training in childhood has long-lasting benefits for auditory discrimination.

The study involved 45 adults (aged 18-31), of whom 15 had no music training, 15 had one to five years of training, and 15 had six to eleven years. Participants were presented with different complex sounds ranging in pitch while brainstem activity was monitored.

Brainstem response to the sounds was significantly stronger in those with any sort of music training, compared to those who had never had any music training. This was a categorical difference — years of training didn’t make a difference (although some minimal length may be required — only one person had only one year of training). However, recency of training did make a difference to brainstem response, and it does seem that some fading might occur over long periods of time.

This difference in brainstem response means that those with music training are better at recognizing the fundamental frequency (lowest frequency sound). This explains why music training may help protect older adults from hearing difficulties — the ability to discriminate fundamental frequencies is crucial for understanding speech, and for processing sound in noisy environments.

Reference: 

[3074] Skoe E, Kraus N. A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood. The Journal of Neuroscience [Internet]. 2012 ;32(34):11507 - 11510. Available from: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/32/34/11507

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How piano tuning changes the brain

September, 2012

In another example of how expertise in a specific area changes the brain, brain scans of piano tuners show which areas grow, and which shrink, with experience — and starting age.

I’ve reported before on how London taxi drivers increase the size of their posterior hippocampus by acquiring and practicing ‘the Knowledge’ (but perhaps at the expense of other functions). A new study in similar vein has looked at the effects of piano tuning expertise on the brain.

The study looked at the brains of 19 professional piano tuners (aged 25-78, average age 51.5 years; 3 female; 6 left-handed) and 19 age-matched controls. Piano tuning requires comparison of two notes that are close in pitch, meaning that the tuner has to accurately perceive the particular frequency difference. Exactly how that is achieved, in terms of brain function, has not been investigated until now.

The brain scans showed that piano tuners had increased grey matter in a number of brain regions. In some areas, the difference between tuners and controls was categorical — that is, tuners as a group showed increased gray matter in right hemisphere regions of the frontal operculum, the planum polare, superior frontal gyrus, and posterior cingulate gyrus, and reduced gray matter in the left hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, and superior temporal lobe. Differences in these areas didn’t vary systematically between individual tuners.

However, tuners also showed a marked increase in gray matter volume in several areas that was dose-dependent (that is, varied with years of tuning experience) — the anterior hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus, right middle temporal and superior temporal gyrus, insula, precuneus, and inferior parietal lobe — as well as an increase in white matter in the posterior hippocampus.

These differences were not affected by actual chronological age, or, interestingly, level of musicality. However, they were affected by starting age, as well as years of tuning experience.

What these findings suggest is that achieving expertise in this area requires an initial development of active listening skills that is underpinned by categorical brain changes in the auditory cortex. These superior active listening skills then set the scene for the development of further skills that involve what the researchers call “expert navigation through a complex soundscape”. This process may, it seems, involve the encoding and consolidating of precise sound “templates” — hence the development of the hippocampal network, and hence the dependence on experience.

The hippocampus, apart from its general role in encoding and consolidating, has a special role in spatial navigation (as shown, for example, in the London cab driver studies, and the ‘parahippocampal place area’). The present findings extend that navigation in physical space to the more metaphoric one of relational organization in conceptual space.

The more general message from this study, of course, is confirmation for the role of expertise in developing specific brain regions, and a reminder that this comes at the expense of other regions. So choose your area of expertise wisely!

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How meditation may improve multitasking and attention

September, 2012

Three recent studies show that meditation training reduces the stress of multitasking and reduces task-switching, that it improves white matter efficiency, and that the improved executive control may be largely to do with better emotional awareness and regulation.

Meditation may improve multitasking

I recently reported that developing skill at video action games doesn’t seem to improve general multitasking ability, but perhaps another approach might be more successful. Meditation has, of course, been garnering growing evidence that it can help improve attentional control. A new study extends that research to multitasking in a realistic work setting.

The study involved three groups of 12-15 female human resource managers, of whom one group received eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, another received eight weeks of body relaxation training, and another initially received no training (control), before receiving the mindfulness training after the eight weeks.

Before and after each eight-week period, the participants were given a stressful test of their multitasking abilities, requiring them to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, telephone and word-processing tools to perform common office tasks (scheduling a meeting; finding a free conference room; writing a draft announcement of the meeting, eating snacks and drinking water, writing a memo proposing a creative agenda item for the meeting). Necessary information came from emails, instant messages, telephone calls, and knocks on the door. The participants had 20 minutes to complete the tasks.

The meditation group reported lower levels of stress during the multitasking test compared to the control and relaxation groups. They also spent more time on tasks and switched tasks less often, while taking no longer to complete the overall job than the others. Both meditation and relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they were performing.

After the control group underwent the meditation training, their results matched those of the meditation group.

The meditation training emphasized:

  • control of attentional focus
  • focusing attention in the present moment or task
  • switching focus
  • breath and body awareness.

The relaxation training emphasized progressive tensing and relaxing of major muscle groups, aided by relaxation imagery.

It's interesting that overall time on task didn't change (the researchers remarked that the meditators didn't take any longer, but of course most of us would be looking for it to become shorter!), but I wouldn't read too much into it. The task was relatively brief. It would be interesting to see the effects over the course of, say, a day. Nor did the study look at how well the tasks were done.

But it is, of course, important that meditation training reduced task-switching and stress. Whether it also has a postitive effect on overall time and quality of work is a question for another day.

IBMT improves white matter efficiency

A recent imaging study has found that four weeks of a form of mindfulness meditation called integrative body–mind training (IBMT) improved white matter efficiency in areas surrounding the anterior cingulate cortex, compared to controls given relaxation training.

The anterior cingulate is part of the brain network related to self-regulation. Deficits in activation in this part of the brain have been associated with attention deficit disorder, dementia, depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders.

Using the data from a 2010 study involving 45 U.S. college students, and another involving 68 Chinese students, researchers found that axon density (one factor in white matter efficiency) had improved after two weeks, but not myelin formation. After a month (about 11 hours of meditation), both had improved. Mood improved by two weeks.

Previous studies involving computer-based training for improving working memory have found changes in myelination, but not axon density.

Meditators’ better cognitive control may be rooted in emotional regulation

Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks.

An electrical signal called the Error Related Negativity (ERN) occurs in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed. When meditators and non-meditators were given the Stroop Test, meditators not only tended to do better on the test, but their ERNs were stronger.

The interesting thing about this is that the best performers were those who scored highest on emotional acceptance. Mindful awareness was less important. It’s suggested that meditators may be able to control their behavior better not because of their sharper focus, but because they are more aware of their emotions and regulate them better.

Something to think about!

Reference: 

Levy, D. M., Wobbrock, J. O., Kaszniak, A. W., & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment, 45–52. Full text available at http://faculty.washington.edu/wobbrock/pubs/gi-12.02.pdf

[3051] Tang Y-Y, Lu Q, Fan M, Yang Y, Posner MI. Mechanisms of white matter changes induced by meditation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2012 ;109(26):10570 - 10574. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/109/26/10570

[3052] Teper R, Inzlicht M. Meditation, mindfulness and executive control: the importance of emotional acceptance and brain-based performance monitoring. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience [Internet]. 2012 . Available from: http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/05/13/scan.nss045

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Video gamers don’t become expert multitaskers

August, 2012

A comparison of skilled action gamers and non-gamers reveals that all that multitasking practice doesn’t make you any better at multitasking in general.

The research is pretty clear by this point: humans are not (with a few rare exceptions) designed to multitask. However, it has been suggested that the modern generation, with all the multitasking they do, may have been ‘re-wired’ to be more capable of this. A new study throws cold water on this idea.

The study involved 60 undergraduate students, of whom 34 were skilled action video game players (all male) and 26 did not play such games (19 men and 7 women). The students were given three visual tasks, each of which they did on its own and then again while answering Trivial Pursuit questions over a speakerphone (designed to mimic talking on a cellphone).

The tasks included a video driving game (“TrackMania”), a multiple-object tracking test (similar to a video version of a shell game), and a visual search task (hidden pictures puzzles from Highlights magazine).

While the gamers were (unsurprisingly) significantly better at the video driving game, the non-gamers were just as good as them at the other two tasks. In the dual-tasking scenarios, performance declined on all the tasks, with the driving task most affected. While the gamers were affected less by multitasking during the driving task compared to the non-gamers, there was no difference in the amount of decline between gamers and non-gamers on the other two tasks.

Clearly, the smaller effect of dual-tasking on the driving game for gamers is a product of their greater expertise at the driving game, rather than their ability to multitask better. It is well established that the more skilled you are at a task, the more automatic it becomes, and thus the less working memory capacity it will need. Working memory capacity / attention is the bottleneck that prevents us from being true multitaskers.

In other words, the oft-repeated (and somewhat depressing) conclusion remains: you can’t learn to multitask in general, you can only improve specific skills, enabling you to multitask reasonably well while doing those specific tasks.

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Tai Chi improves cognition and brain size in older adults

August, 2012

A comparison of the effects of regular sessions of tai chi, walking, and social discussion, has found tai chi was associated with the biggest gains in brain volume and improved cognition.

The study involved 120 healthy older adults (60-79) from Shanghai, who were randomly assigned to one of four groups: one that participated in three sessions of tai chi every week for 40 weeks; another that instead had ‘social interaction’ sessions (‘lively discussions’); another in which participants engaged in walking around a track; and a non-intervention group included as a control. Brain scans were taken before and after the 40-week intervention, and cognitive testing took place at 20 weeks as well as these times.

Compared to those who received no intervention, both those who participated in tai chi, and those who participated in the social sessions, showed significant increases in brain volume and on some cognitive measures. However, the tai chi group showed improvement on more cognitive tests than the social group (on the Mattis Dementia Rating Scale, the Trailmaking Tests, delayed recognition on the Auditory Verbal Learning Test, and verbal fluency for animals vs verbal fluency and positive trends only on Trails A and the Auditory test).

Surprisingly, there were no such significant effects from the walking intervention, which involved 30 minutes of brisk walking around a 400m circular track, sandwiched by 10 minutes of warm-up and 10 minutes cool-down exercises. This took place in the same park as the tai chi sessions (which similarly included 20 minutes of warm-up exercises, 20 minutes of tai chi, and 10 minutes of cool-down exercises).

This finding is inconsistent with other research, but the answer seems to lie in individual differences — specifically, speed of walking. Faster walkers showed significantly better performance on the Stroop test, and on delayed recall and recognition on the Auditory Verbal Learning Test. It should be noted that, unlike some studies in which participants were encouraged to reach heart-rate targets, participants in this study were simply told to walk at their own speed. This finding, then, would seem to support the view that brisk walking is needed to reap good health and cognitive benefits (which shouldn’t put anyone off — anything is better than nothing! and speed is likely to come with practice, if that’s your aim).

It should also be noted that this population has generally high rates of walking. It is likely, then, that the additional walking in these sessions did not add a great deal to their existing behavior.

There is a caveat to the strongly positive effects of tai chi: this group showed lower cognitive performance at baseline. This was because the group randomly received more individuals with very low scores (8 compared with 5 in the other groups).

The study is, of course, quite a small one, and a larger study is required to confirm these results.

One final note: the relative differences in enjoyment were not explicitly investigated, but the researchers did note that the social group, who initially were given topics to discuss in their hour-long sessions, then decided to select and organize their own discussions, and have continued to do so for two years following the end of the study. It would have been nice if the researchers had re-tested participants at that point.

Reference: 

Mortimer, J.A. et al. 2012. Changes in Brain Volume and Cognition in a Randomized Trial of Exercise and Social Interaction in a Community-Based Sample of Non-Demented Chinese Elders. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 30 (4), 757-766.
Full text available at http://health.usf.edu/nocms/publicaffairs/now/pdfs/JAD_Mortimer_30%28201...

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Boost creativity by living abroad

August, 2012

Support for previous findings associating study abroad with increased creativity comes from a study comparing those who studied abroad with those who plan to, and those with no such intentions.

A couple of years ago I briefly reported on a finding that students who had lived abroad demonstrated greater creativity, if they first recalled a multicultural learning experience from their life abroad. A new study examines this connection, in particular investigating the as-yet-unanswered question of whether students who studied abroad were already more creative than those who didn’t.

The study involved 135 students of whom 45 had studied abroad, 45 were planning to do so, and 45 had not and were not planning to. The groups did not differ significantly in terms of age, gender, or ethnicity, and data from a sample (a third of each group) revealed no differences in terms of GPA and SAT scores. Creativity was assessed using the domain-general Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) and the culture-specific Cultural Creativity Task (CCT).

Those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the CCT than those in the other two groups, who didn’t differ from each other. Additionally, those in the Study Abroad group scored significantly higher on the ATTA than those in the No Plan to Study group (those in the Plan to Study group were not significantly different from either of the other two groups).

It seems clear, then, that the findings of earlier studies are indeed ‘real’ (students who study abroad really do come home more creative than before they went) and not a product of self-selection (more creative students are more likely to travel). But the difference between the two creativity tests needs some explanation.

There is a burning issue in creativity research: is creativity a domain-general attribute, or a domain-specific one? This is not a pedantic, theoretical question! If you’re ‘creative’, does that mean you’re equally creative in all areas, or just in specific areas? Or (more likely, it seems to me) is creativity both domain-general and domain-specific?

The ATTA, as I said, measures general creativity. It does so through three 3-minute tasks: identify the troubles you might have if you could walk on air or fly (without benefit of vehicle); draw a picture using two incomplete figures (provided); draw pictures using 9 identical isosceles triangles.

The CCT has five 3-minute tasks that target culturally relevant knowledge and skills. in each case, participants are asked to give as many ideas as they can in response to a specific scenario: getting more foreign tourists to visit America; the changes that would result if you woke up with different skin color; demonstrating high social status; developing new dishes using exotic ingredients; creating a product with universal appeal.

The findings would seem to support the idea that creativity has both general and specific elements. The greater effect of studying abroad on CCT scores (compared to ATTA scores) also seem to me to be consistent with the finding I cited at the beginning — that, to get the benefit, students needed to be reminded of their multicultural experiences. In this case, the CCT scenarios would seem to play that role.

It does of course make complete sense that living abroad would have positive benefits for creativity. Creativity is about not following accustomed ruts in one’s thoughts. Those ruts are not simply generated within our own mind (as we get older, our ruts tend to get deeper), but are products of our relationship with our society. Think of clichés. The more we follow along with accustomed language and thought patterns of our group, the less creative we will be. One way to break (or at least broaden) this, is to widen our groups — by, for example, mixing in diverse circles, or by living abroad.

Interestingly, another recent study (pdf link to paper) reckons that social rejection (generally regarded as a bad thing) can make some people more creative — if they’re independent types who take pride in being different from others.

Reference: 

Lee, C. S., Therriault, D. J., & Linderholm, T. (2012). On the Cognitive Benefits of Cultural Experience: Exploring the Relationship between Studying Abroad and Creative Thinking. Applied Cognitive Psychology, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1002/acp.2857

Kim, S. H., Vincent, L. C., & Goncalo, J. A. (In press). Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought? Journal of Experimental Psychology. General.
 

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Sleep learning making a comeback?

August, 2012

Two new studies provide support for the judicious use of sleep learning — as a means of reactivating learning that occurred during the day.

Back when I was young, sleep learning was a popular idea. The idea was that a tape would play while you were asleep, and learning would seep into your brain effortlessly. It was particularly advocated for language learning. Subsequent research, unfortunately, rejected the idea, and gradually it has faded (although not completely). Now a new study may presage a come-back.

In the study, 16 young adults (mean age 21) learned how to ‘play’ two artificially-generated tunes by pressing four keys in time with repeating 12-item sequences of moving circles — the idea being to mimic the sort of sensorimotor integration that occurs when musicians learn to play music. They then took a 90-minute nap. During slow-wave sleep, one of the tunes was repeatedly played to them (20 times over four minutes). After the nap, participants were tested on their ability to play the tunes.

A separate group of 16 students experienced the same events, but without the playing of the tune during sleep. A third group stayed awake, during which 90-minute period they played a demanding working memory task. White noise was played in the background, and the melody was covertly embedded into it.

Consistent with the idea that sleep is particularly helpful for sensorimotor integration, and that reinstating information during sleep produces reactivation of those memories, the sequence ‘practiced’ during slow-wave sleep was remembered better than the unpracticed one. Moreover, the amount of improvement was positively correlated with the proportion of time spent in slow-wave sleep.

Among those who didn’t hear any sounds during sleep, improvement likewise correlated with the proportion of time spent in slow-wave sleep. The level of improvement for this group was intermediate to that of the practiced and unpracticed tunes in the sleep-learning group.

The findings add to growing evidence of the role of slow-wave sleep in memory consolidation. Whether the benefits for this very specific skill extend to other domains (such as language learning) remains to be seen.

However, another recent study carried out a similar procedure with object-location associations. Fifty everyday objects were associated with particular locations on a computer screen, and presented at the same time with characteristic sounds (e.g., a cat with a meow and a kettle with a whistle). The associations were learned to criterion, before participants slept for 2 hours in a MR scanner. During slow-wave sleep, auditory cues related to half the learned associations were played, as well as ‘control’ sounds that had not been played previously. Participants were tested after a short break and a shower.

A difference in brain activity was found for associated sounds and control sounds — associated sounds produced increased activation in the right parahippocampal cortex — demonstrating that even in deep sleep some sort of differential processing was going on. This region overlapped with the area involved in retrieval of the associations during the earlier, end-of-training test. Moreover, when the associated sounds were played during sleep, parahippocampal connectivity with the visual-processing regions increased.

All of this suggests that, indeed, memories are being reactivated during slow-wave sleep.

Additionally, brain activity in certain regions at the time of reactivation (mediotemporal lobe, thalamus, and cerebellum) was associated with better performance on the delayed test. That is, those who had greater activity in these regions when the associated sounds were played during slow-wave sleep remembered the associations best.

The researchers suggest that successful reactivation of memories depends on responses in the thalamus, which if activated feeds forward into the mediotemporal lobe, reinstating the memories and starting the consolidation process. The role of the cerebellum may have to do with the procedural skill component.

The findings are consistent with other research.

All of this is very exciting, but of course this is not a strategy for learning without effort! You still have to do your conscious, attentive learning. But these findings suggest that we can increase our chances of consolidating the material by replaying it during sleep. Of course, there are two practical problems with this: the material needs an auditory component, and you somehow have to replay it at the right time in your sleep cycle.

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Immediate reward improves low-performing students’ test scores

July, 2012

A large study involving Chicago public school students has found conditions in which rewards offered just before a test significantly improve test performance.

In contradiction of some other recent research, a large new study has found that offering students rewards just before standardized testing can improve test performance dramatically. One important factor in this finding might be the immediate pay-off — students received their rewards right after the test. Another might be in the participants, who were attending low-performing schools.

The study involved 7,000 students in Chicago public schools and school districts in south-suburban Chicago Heights. Older students were given financial rewards, while younger students were offered non-financial rewards such as trophies.

Students took relatively short, standardized diagnostic tests three times a year to determine their grasp of mathematics and English skills. Unusually for this type of research, the students were not told ahead of time of the rewards — the idea was not to see how reward improved study habits, but to assess its direct impact on test performance.

Consistent with other behavioral economics research, the prospect of losing a reward was more motivating than the possibility of receiving a reward — those given money or a trophy to look at while they were tested performed better.

The most important finding was that the rewards only ‘worked’ if they were going to be given immediately after the test. If students were told instead that they would be given the reward sometime later, test performance did not improve.

Follow-up tests showed no negative impact of removing the rewards in successive tests.

Age and type of reward mattered. Elementary school students (who were given nonfinancial rewards) responded more to incentives than high-school students. Younger students have been found to be more responsive to non-monetary rewards than older students. Among high school students, the amount of money involved mattered.

It’s important to note that the students tested had low initial motivation to do well. I would speculate that the timing issue is so critical for these students because distant rewards are meaningless to them. Successful students tend to be more motivated by the prospect of distant rewards (e.g., a good college, a good job).

The finding does demonstrate that a significant factor in a student’s poor performance on tests may simply come from not caring to try.

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Review of working memory training programs finds no broader benefit

July, 2012

A meta-analysis of 23 studies has found no evidence that working memory training has wider cognitive benefits for normally developing children and healthy adults.

I have said before that there is little evidence that working memory training has any wider benefits than to the skills being practiced. Occasionally a study arises that gets everyone all excited, but by and large training only benefits the skill being practiced — despite the fact that working memory underlies so many cognitive tasks, and limited working memory capacity is thought to negatively affect performance on so many tasks. However, one area that does seem to have had some success is working memory training for those with ADHD, and researchers have certainly not given hope of finding evidence for wider transfer among other groups (such as older adults).

A recent review of the research to date has, sadly, concluded that the benefits of working memory training programs are limited. But this is not to say there are no benefits.

For a start, the meta-analysis (analyzing data across studies) found that working memory training produced large immediate benefits for verbal working memory. These benefits were greatest for children below the age of 10.

These benefits, however, were not maintained long-term (at an average of 9 months after training, there were no significant benefits) — although benefits were found in one study in which the verbal working memory task was very similar to the training task (indicating that the specific skill practiced did maintain some improvement long-term).

Visuospatial working memory also showed immediate benefits, and these did not vary across age groups. One factor that did make a difference was type of training: the CogMed training program produced greater improvement than the researcher-developed programs (the studies included 7 that used CogMed, 2 that used Jungle Memory, 2 Cognifit, 4 n-back, 1 Memory Booster, and 7 researcher-developed programs).

Interestingly, visuospatial working memory did show some long-term benefits, although it should be noted that the average follow-up was distinctly shorter than that for verbal working memory tasks (an average of 5 months post-training).

The burning question, of course, is how well this training transferred to dissimilar tasks. Here the evidence seems sadly clear — those using untreated control groups tended to find such transfer; those using treated control groups never did. Similarly, nonrandomized studies tended to find far transfer, but randomized studies did not.

In other words, when studies were properly designed (randomized trials with a control group that is given alternative treatment rather than no treatment), there was no evidence of transfer effects from working memory training to nonverbal ability. Moreover, even when found, these effects were only present immediately and not on follow-up.

Neither was there any evidence of transfer effects, either immediate or delayed, on verbal ability, word reading, or arithmetic. There was a small to moderate effect on training on attention (as measured by the Stroop test), but this only occurred immediately, and not on follow-up.

It seems clear from this review that there are few good, methodologically sound studies on this subject. But three very important caveats should be noted in connection with the researchers’ dispiriting conclusion.

First of all, because this is an analysis across all data, important differences between groups or individuals may be concealed. This is a common criticism of meta-analysis, and the researchers do try and answer it. Nevertheless, I think it is still a very real issue, especially in light of evidence that the benefit of training may depend on whether the challenge of the training is at the right level for the individual.

On the other hand, another recent study, that compared young adults who received 20 sessions of training on a dual n-back task or a visual search program, or received no training at all, did look for an individual-differences effect, and failed to find it. Participants were tested repeatedly on their fluid intelligence, multitasking ability, working memory capacity, crystallized intelligence, and perceptual speed. Although those taking part in the training programs improved their performance on the tasks they practiced, there was no transfer to any of the cognitive measures. When participants were analyzed separately on the basis of their improvement during training, there was still no evidence of transfer to broader cognitive abilities.

The second important challenge comes from the lack of skill consolidation — having a short training program followed by months of not practicing the skill is not something any of us would expect to produce long-term benefits.

The third point concerns a recent finding that multi-domain cognitive training produces longer-lasting benefits than single-domain training (the same study also showed the benefit of booster training). It seems quite likely that working memory training is a valuable part of a training program that also includes practice in real-world tasks that incorporate working memory.

I should emphasize that these results only apply to ‘normal’ children and adults. The question of training benefits for those with attention difficulties or early Alzheimer’s is a completely different issue. But for these healthy individuals, it has to be said that the weight of the evidence is against working memory training producing more general cognitive improvement. Nevertheless, I think it’s probably an important part of a cognitive training program — as long as the emphasis is on part.

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