Strategies

Music and sports training help spatial skills differently for men and women

March, 2012

While sports training benefits the spatial skills of both men and women, music training closes the gender gap by only helping women.

I talked recently about how the well-established difference in spatial ability between men and women apparently has a lot to do with confidence. I also mentioned in passing that previous research has shown that training can close the gender gap. A recent study suggests that this training may not have to be specific to spatial skills.

In the German study, 120 students were given a processing speed test and a standard mental rotation test. The students were evenly divided into three groups: musicians, athletes, and education students who didn’t participate in either sports or music.

While the expected gender gap was found among the education students, the gap was smaller among the sports students, and non-existent in the music students.

Among the education students, men got twice as many rotation problems correct as women. Among the sports students, both men and women did better than their peers in education, but since they were both about equally advantaged, a gender gap was still maintained. However, among the musicians, it was only women who benefited, bringing them up to the level of the men.

Thus, for males, athletes did best on mental rotation; for females, musicians did best.

Although it may be that those who went into music or sports had relevant “natural abilities”, the amount of training in sports/music did have a significant effect. Indeed, analysis found that the advantage of sports and music students disappeared when hours of practice and years of practicing were included.

Interestingly, too, there was an effect of processing speed. Although overall the three groups didn’t differ in processing speed, male musicians had a lower processing speed than female musicians, or male athletes (neither of which groups were significantly different from each other).

It is intriguing that music training should only benefit females’ spatial abilities. However, I’m reminded that in research showing how a few hours of video game training can help females close the gender gap, females benefited from the training far more than men. The obvious conclusion is that the males already had sufficient experience, and a few more hours were neither here nor there. Perhaps the question should rather be: why does sports practice benefit males’ spatial skills? A question that seems to point to the benefits for processing speed, but then we have to ask why sports didn’t have the same effect on women. One possible answer here is that the women had engaged in sports for a significantly shorter time (an average of 10.6 years vs 17.55), meaning that the males tended to begin their sports training at a much younger age. There was no such difference among the musicians.

(For more on spatial memory, see the aggregated news reports)

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Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 159-163. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.012

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Group settings hurt expressions of intelligence, especially in women

March, 2012

Comparing performance on an IQ test when it is given under normal conditions and when it is given in a group situation reveals that IQ drops in a group setting, and for some (mostly women) it drops dramatically.

This is another demonstration of stereotype threat, which is also a nice demonstration of the contextual nature of intelligence. The study involved 70 volunteers (average age 25; range 18-49), who were put in groups of 5. Participants were given a baseline IQ test, on which they were given no feedback. The group then participated in a group IQ test, in which 92 multi-choice questions were presented on a monitor (both individual and group tests were taken from Cattell’s culture fair intelligence test). Each question appeared to each person at the same time, for a pre-determined time. After each question, they were provided with feedback in the form of their own relative rank within the group, and the rank of one other group member. Ranking was based on performance on the last 10 questions. Two of each group had their brain activity monitored.

Here’s the remarkable thing. If you gather together individuals on the basis of similar baseline IQ, then you can watch their IQ diverge over the course of the group IQ task, with some dropping dramatically (e.g., 17 points from a mean IQ of 126). Moreover, even those little affected still dropped some (8 points from a mean IQ of 126).

Data from the 27 brain scans (one had to be omitted for technical reasons) suggest that everyone was initially hindered by the group setting, but ‘high performers’ (those who ended up scoring above the median) managed to largely recover, while ‘low performers’ (those who ended up scoring below the median) never did.

Personality tests carried out after the group task found no significant personality differences between high and low performers, but gender was a significant variable: 10/13 high performers were male, while 11/14 low performers were female (remember, there was no difference in baseline IQ — this is not a case of men being smarter!).

There were significant differences between the high and low performers in activity in the amygdala and the right lateral prefrontal cortex. Specifically, all participants had an initial increase in amygdala activation and diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, but by the end of the task, the high-performing group showed decreased amygdala activation and increased prefrontal cortex activation, while the low performers didn’t change. This may reflect the high performers’ greater ability to reduce their anxiety. Activity in the nucleus accumbens was similar in both groups, and consistent with the idea that the students had expectations about the relative ranking they were about to receive.

It should be pointed out that the specific feedback given — the relative ranking — was not a factor. What’s important is that it was being given at all, and the high performers were those who became less anxious as time went on, regardless of their specific ranking.

There are three big lessons here. One is that social pressure significantly depresses talent (meetings make you stupid?), and this seems to be worse when individuals perceive themselves to have a lower social rank. The second is that our ability to regulate our emotions is important, and something we should put more energy into. And the third is that we’ve got to shake ourselves loose from the idea that IQ is something we can measure in isolation. Social context matters.

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Confidence is key to women's spatial skills

March, 2012

A series of experiments has found that confidence fully accounted for women’s poorer performance on a mental rotation task.

One of the few established cognitive differences between men and women lies in spatial ability. But in recent years, this ‘fact’ has been shaken by evidence that training can close the gap between the genders. In this new study, 545 students were given a standard 3D mental rotation task, while at the same time manipulating their confidence levels.

In the first experiment, 70 students were asked to rate their confidence in each answer. They could also choose not to answer. Confidence level was significantly correlated with performance both between and within genders.

On the face of it, these findings could be explained, of course, by the ability of people to be reliable predictors of their own performance. However, the researchers claim that regression analysis shows clearly that when the effect of confidence was taken into account, gender differences were eliminated. Moreover, gender significantly predicted confidence.

But of course this is still just indicative.

In the next experiment, however, the researchers tried to reduce the effect of confidence. One group of 87 students followed the same procedure as in the first experiment (“omission” group), except they were not asked to give confidence ratings. Another group of 87 students was not permitted to miss out any questions (“commission” group). The idea here was that confidence underlay the choice of whether or not to answer a question, so while the first group should perform similarly to those in the first experiment, the second group should be less affected by their confidence level.

This is indeed what was found: men significantly outperformed women in the first condition, but didn’t in the second condition. In other words, it appears that the mere possibility of not answering makes confidence an important factor.

In the third experiment, 148 students replicated the commission condition of the second experiment with the additional benefit of being allowed unlimited time. Half of the students were required to give confidence ratings.

The advantage of unlimited time improved performance overall. More importantly, the results confirmed those produced earlier: confidence ratings produced significant gender differences; there were no gender differences in the absence of such ratings.

In the final experiment, 153 students were required to complete an intentionally difficult line judgment task, which men and women both carried out at near chance levels. They were then randomly informed that their performance had been either above average (‘high confidence’) or below average (‘low confidence’). Having manipulated their confidence, the students were then given the standard mental rotation task (omission version).

As expected (remember this is the omission procedure, where subjects could miss out answers), significant gender differences were found. But there was also a significant difference between the high and low confidence groups. That is, telling people they had performed well (or badly) on the first task affected how well they did on the second. Importantly, women in the high confidence group performed as well as men in the low confidence group.

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Gestures improve language learning

February, 2012

Those learning a new language benefit from making suitable gestures as they repeat new vocabulary, and this can even extend to gestures arbitrarily linked to abstract adverbs.

I always like gesture studies. I think I’m probably right in saying that they started with language learning. Way back in 1980 it was shown that acting out action phrases meant they were remembered better than if the phrases had been only heard or read (the “enactment effect”). Enacted items, it turned out, “popped out” effortlessly in free recall tests — in other words, enactment had made the phrases highly accessible. Subsequent research found that this effect occurred both for both older and younger adults, and in immediate and delayed recall tests — suggesting not only that such items are more accessible but that forgetting is slower.

Following these demonstrations, there have been a few studies that have specifically looked at the effect of gestures on learning foreign languages, which have confirmed the benefits of gestures. But there are various confounding factors that are hard to remove when using natural languages, which is why the present researchers have developed an artificial language (“Vimmi”) to use in their research. In their first study, as in most other studies, the words and phrases used related to actions. In a new study, the findings were extended to more abstract vocabulary.

In this study, 20 German-speakers participated in a six-day language class to study Vimmi. The training material included 32 sentences, each containing a subject, verb, adverb, and object. While the subject nouns were concrete agents (e.g., musician, director), the other words were all abstract. Here’s a couple of sample sentences (translated, obviously): (The) designer frequently shapes (the) style. (The) pilot really enjoys (the) view. The length of the words was controlled: nouns all had 3 syllables; verbs and adverbs all had two.

For 16 of the sentences, participants saw the word in Vimmi and heard it. The translation of the word appeared on the screen fractionally later, while at the same time a video appeared in which woman performed the gesture relating to the word. The audio of the word was replayed, and participants were cued to imitate the gesture as they repeated the word. For the other 16 sentences, a video with a still image of the actress appeared, and the participants were simply cued to repeat the word when the audio was replayed.

While many of the words used gestures similar to their meaning (such as a cutting gesture for the word “cut”), the researchers found that the use of any gesture made a difference as long as it was unique and connected to a specific word. For example, the abstract word “rather” does not have an obvious gesture that would go with it. However, a gesture attached to this word also worked.

Each daily session lasted three hours. From day 2, sessions began with a free recall and a cued recall test. In the free recall test, participants were asked to write as many items as possible in both German and Vimmi. Items had to be perfectly correct to be counted. From day 4, participants were also required to produce new sentences with the words they had learned.

Right from the beginning, free recall of items which had been enacted was superior to those which hadn’t been — in German. However, in Vimmi, significant benefits from enactment occurred only from day 3. The main problem here was not forgetting the items, but correctly spelling them. In the cued recall test (translating from Vimmi to German, or German to Vimmi), again, the superiority of the enactment condition only showed up from day 3.

Perhaps the most interesting result came from the written production test. Here, people reproduced the same number of sentences they had learned on each of the three days of the test, and although enacted words were remembered at a higher rate, that rate didn’t alter, and didn’t reach significance. However, the production of new sentences improved each day, and the benefits of enactment increased each day. These benefits were significant from day 5.

The main question, however, was whether the benefits of enactment depended on word category. As expected, concrete nouns were remembered than verbs, followed by abstract nouns, and finally adverbs. When all the tests were lumped together, there was a significant benefit of enactment for all types of word. However, the situation became a little more nuanced when the data was separately analyzed.

In free recall, for Vimmi, enactment was only of significant benefit for concrete nouns and verbs. In cued recall, for translating German into Vimmi, the enactment benefit was significant for all except concrete nouns (I’m guessing concrete nouns have enough ‘natural’ power not to need gestures in this situation). For translating Vimmi into German, the benefit was only significant for verbs and abstract nouns. In new sentence production, interestingly, participants used significantly more items of all four categories if they had been enacted. This is perhaps the best evidence that enactment makes items more accessible in memory.

What all this suggests is that acting out new words helps you learn them, but some types of words may benefit more from this strategy than others. But I think we need more research before being sure about such subtleties. The pattern of results make it clear that we really need longer training, and longer delays, to get a better picture of the most effective way to use this strategy.

For example, it may be that adverbs, although they showed the most inconsistent benefits, are potentially the category that stands to gain the most from this strategy — because they are the hardest type of word to remember. Because any embodiment of such an abstract adverb must be arbitrary — symbolic rather than representational — it naturally is going to be harder to learn (yes, some adverbs could be represented, but the ones used in this study, and the ones I am talking about, are of the “rather”, “really”, “otherwise” ilk). But if you persist in learning the association between concept and gesture, you may derive greater benefit from enactment than you would from easier words, which need less help.

Here’s a practical discussion of all this from a language teacher’s perspective.

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Cognitive training for older adults can also change a personality trait

February, 2012

A program designed to improve reasoning ability in older adults also increased their openness to new experiences.

Openness to experience – being flexible and creative, embracing new ideas and taking on challenging intellectual or cultural pursuits – is one of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits. Unlike the other four, it shows some correlation with cognitive abilities. And, like them, openness to experience does tend to decline with age.

However, while there have been many attempts to improve cognitive function in older adults, to date no one has tried to increase openness to experience. Naturally enough, one might think — it’s a personality trait, and we are not inclined to view personality traits as amenable to ‘training’. However, recently there have been some indications that personality traits can be changed, through cognitive interventions or drug treatments. In this new study, a cognitive training program for older adults also produced increases in their openness to experience.

The study involved 183 older adults (aged 60-94; average age 73), who were randomly assigned to a 16-week training program or a waiting-list control group. The program included training in inductive reasoning, and puzzles that relied in part on inductive reasoning. Most of this activity was carried out at home, but there were two 1-hour classroom sessions: one to introduce the inductive reasoning training, and one to discuss strategies for Sudoku and crosswords.

Participants came to the lab each week to hand in materials and pick up the next set. Initially, they were given crossword and Sudoku puzzles with a wide range of difficulty. Subsequently, puzzle sets were matched to each participant’s skill level (assessed from the previous week’s performance). Over the training period, the puzzles became progressively more difficult, with the steps tailored to each individual.

The inductive reasoning training involved learning to recognize novel patterns and use them to solve problems. In ‘basic series problems’, the problems required inference from a serial pattern of words, letters, or numbers. ‘Everyday serial problems’ included problems such as completing a mail order form and answering questions about a bus schedule. Again, the difficulty of the problems increased steadily over the training period.

Participants were asked to spend at least 10 hours a week on program activities, and according to the daily logs they filled in, they spent an average of 11.4 hours a week. In addition to the hopefully inherent enjoyment of the activities, those who recorded 10 hours were recognized on a bulletin board tally sheet and entered into a raffle for a prize.

Cognitive and personality testing took place 4-5 weeks prior to the program starting, and 4-5 weeks after program end. Two smaller assessments also took place during the program, at week 6 and week 12.

At the end of the program, those who had participated had significantly improved their pattern-recognition and problem-solving skills. This improvement went along with a moderate but significant increase in openness. Analysis suggested that this increase in openness occurred independently of improvement in inductive reasoning.

The benefits were specific to inductive reasoning and openness, with no significant effects on divergent thinking, processing speed, verbal ability, or the other Big 5 traits.

The researchers suggest that the carefully stepped training program was important in leading to increased openness, allowing the building of a growing confidence in their reasoning abilities. Openness to experience contributes to engagement and enjoyment in stimulating activity, and has also been linked to better health and decreased mortality risk. It seems likely, then, that increases in openness can be part of a positive feedback cycle, leading to greater and more sustained engagement in mentally stimulating activities.

The corollary is that decreases in openness may lead to declines in cognitive engagement, and then to poorer cognitive function. Indeed it has been previously suggested that openness to experience plays a role in cognitive aging.

Clearly, more research is needed to tease out how far these findings extend to other activities, and the importance of scaffolding (carefully designing cognitive activities on an individualized basis to support learning), but this work reveals an overlooked aspect to the issue of mental stimulation for preventing age-related cognitive decline.

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Teaching those with ASD to 'talk things through' may help them plan

February, 2012

A study showing that those with ASD are less likely to use inner speech when planning their actions, a failure linked to their communication ability, has implications for us all.

I’ve reported before on evidence that young children do better on motor tasks when they talk to themselves out loud, and learn better when they explain things to themselves or (even better) their mother. A new study extends those findings to children with autism.

In the study, 15 high-functioning adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder and 16 controls (age and IQ matched) completed the Tower of London task, used to measure planning ability. This task requires you to move five colored disks on three pegs from one arrangement to another in as few moves as possible. Participants did the task under normal conditions as well as under an 'articulatory suppression' condition whereby they had to repeat out loud a certain word ('Tuesday' or 'Thursday') throughout the task, preventing them from using inner speech.

Those with ASD did significantly worse than the controls in the normal condition (although the difference wasn’t large), but they did significantly better in the suppression condition — not because their performance changed, but because the controls were significantly badly affected by having their inner speech disrupted.

On an individual basis, nearly 90% of the control participants did significantly worse on the Tower of London task when inner speech was prevented, compared to only a third of those with ASD. Moreover, the size of the effect among those with ASD was correlated with measures of communication ability (but not with verbal IQ).

A previous experiment had confirmed that these neurotypical and autistic adults both showed similar patterns of serial recall for labeled pictures. Half the pictures had phonologically similar labels (bat, cat, hat, mat, map, rat, tap, cap), and the other nine had phonologically dissimilar labels (drum, shoe, fork, bell, leaf, bird, lock, fox). Both groups were significantly affected by phonological similarity, and both groups were significantly affected when inner speech was prevented.

In other words, this group of ASD adults were perfectly capable of inner speech, but they were much less inclined to use it when planning their actions.

It seems likely that, rather than using inner speech, they were relying on their visuospatial abilities, which tend to be higher in individuals with ASD. Supporting this, visuospatial ability (measured by the block design subtest of the WAIS) was highly correlated with performance on the Tower of London test. Which may not seem surprising, but the association was minimal in control participants.

Complex planning is said to be a problem for many with ASD. It’s also suggested that the relative lack of inner speech use might contribute to some of the repetitive behaviors common in people with autism.

It may be that strategies targeted at encouraging inner speech may help those with ASD develop such skills. Such strategies include encouraging children to describe their actions out loud, and providing “parallel talk”, whereby an observer plays alongside the child while verbalizing their actions.

It is also suggested that children with ASD could benefit from verbal learning of their daily schedule at school rather than using visual timetables as is currently a common approach. This could occur in stages, moving from pictures to symbols, symbols with words, before finally being restricted to words only.

ASD is estimated to occur in 1% of the population, but perhaps this problem could be considered more widely. Rather than seeing this as an issue limited to those with ASD, we should see this as a pointer to the usefulness of inner speech, and its correlation with communication skills. As one of the researchers said: "These results show that inner speech has its roots in interpersonal communication with others early in life, and it demonstrates that people who are poor at communicating with others will generally be poor at communicating with themselves.”

One final comment: a distinction has been made between “dialogic” and “monologic” inner speech, where dialogic speech refers to a kind of conversation between different perspectives on reality, and monologic speech is simply a commentary to oneself about the state of affairs. It may be that it is specifically dialogic inner speech that is so helpful for problem-solving. It has been suggested that ASD is marked by a reduction in this kind of inner speech only, and the present researchers suggest further that it is this form of speech that may have inherently social origins and require training or experience in communicating with others.

The corollary to this is that it is only in those situations where dialogic inner speech is useful in achieving a task, that such differences between individuals will matter.

Clearly there is a need for much more research in this area, but it certainly provides food for thought.

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Music training protects against aging-related hearing loss

February, 2012

More evidence that music training protects older adults from age-related impairment in understanding speech, adding to the potential benefits of music training in preventing dementia.

I’ve spoken before about the association between hearing loss in old age and dementia risk. Although we don’t currently understand that association, it may be that preventing hearing loss also helps prevent cognitive decline and dementia. I have previously reported on how music training in childhood can help older adults’ ability to hear speech in a noisy environment. A new study adds to this evidence.

The study looked at a specific aspect of understanding speech: auditory brainstem timing. Aging disrupts this timing, degrading the ability to precisely encode sound.

In this study, automatic brain responses to speech sounds were measured in 87 younger and older normal-hearing adults as they watched a captioned video. It was found that older adults who had begun musical training before age 9 and engaged consistently in musical activities through their lives (“musicians”) not only significantly outperformed older adults who had no more than three years of musical training (“non-musicians”), but encoded the sounds as quickly and accurately as the younger non-musicians.

The researchers qualify this finding by saying that it shows only that musical experience selectively affects the timing of sound elements that are important in distinguishing one consonant from another, not necessarily all sound elements. However, it seems probable that it extends more widely, and in any case the ability to understand speech is crucial to social interaction, which may well underlie at least part of the association between hearing loss and dementia.

The burning question for many will be whether the benefits of music training can be accrued later in life. We will have to wait for more research to answer that, but, as music training and enjoyment fit the definition of ‘mentally stimulating activities’, this certainly adds another reason to pursue such a course.

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The problem in correcting false knowledge

February, 2012

Whether corrections to students’ misconceptions ‘stick’ depends on the strength of the memory of the correction.

Students come into classrooms filled with inaccurate knowledge they are confident is correct, and overcoming these misconceptions is notoriously difficult. In recent years, research has shown that such false knowledge can be corrected with feedback. The hypercorrection effect, as it has been termed, expresses the finding that when students are more confident of a wrong answer, they are more likely to remember the right answer if corrected.

This is somewhat against intuition and experience, which would suggest that it is harder to correct more confidently held misconceptions.

A new study tells us how to reconcile experimental evidence and belief: false knowledge is more likely to be corrected in the short-term, but also more likely to return once the correction is forgotten.

In the study, 50 undergraduate students were tested on basic science facts. After rating their confidence in each answer, they were told the correct answer. Half the students were then retested almost immediately (after a 6 minute filler task), while the other half were retested a week later.

There were 120 questions in the test. Examples include: What is stored in a camel's hump? How many chromosomes do humans have? What is the driest area on Earth? The average percentage of correct responses on the initial test was 38%, and as expected, for the second test, performance was significantly better on the immediate compared to the delayed (90% vs 71%).

Students who were retested immediately gave the correct answer on 86% of their previous errors, and they were more likely to correct their high-confidence errors than those made with little confidence (the hypercorrection effect). Those retested a week later also showed the hypercorrection effect, albeit at a much lower level: they only corrected 56% of their previous errors. (More precisely, on the immediate test, corrected answers rose from 79% for the lowest confidence level to 92% for the highest confidence. On the delayed test, corrected answers rose from 43% to 70% on the second highest confidence level, 64% for the highest.)

In those instances where students had forgotten the correct answer, they were much more likely to reproduce the original error if their confidence had been high. Indeed, on the immediate test, the same error was rarely repeated, regardless of confidence level (the proportion of repeated errors hovered at 3-4% pretty much across the board). On the delayed test, on the other hand, there was a linear increase, with repeated errors steadily increasing from 14% to 23% as confidence level rose (with the same odd exception — at the second highest confidence level, proportion of repeated errors suddenly fell).

Overall, students were more likely to correct their errors if they remembered their error than if they didn’t (72% vs 65%). Unsurprisingly, those in the immediate group were much more likely to remember their initial errors than those in the delayed group (85% vs 61%).

In other words, it’s all about relative strength of the memories. While high-confidence errors are more likely to be corrected if the correct answer is readily accessible, they are also more likely to be repeated once the correct answer becomes less accessible. The trick to replacing false knowledge, then, is to improve the strength of the correct information.

Thus, as recency fades, you need to engage frequency to make the new memory stronger. So the finding points to the special need for multiple repetition, if you are hoping to correct entrenched false knowledge. The success of immediate testing indicates that properly spaced retrieval practice is probably the best way of replacing incorrect knowledge.

Of course, these findings apply well beyond the classroom!

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'Exergames' may provide greater cognitive benefit for older adults

February, 2012

An intriguing pilot study finds that regular exercise on a stationary bike enhanced with a computer game-type environment improves executive function in older adults more than ordinary exercise on a stationary bike.

We know that physical exercise greatly helps you prevent cognitive decline with aging. We know that mental stimulation also helps you prevent age-related cognitive decline. So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a way of combining the two. A new study found that older adults improved executive function more by participating in virtual reality-enhanced exercise ("exergames") that combine physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive videogame features, compared to the same exercise without the enhancements.

The Cybercycle Study involved 79 older adults (aged 58-99) from independent living facilities with indoor access to a stationary exercise bike. Of the 79, 63 participants completed the three-month study, meaning that they achieved at least 25 rides during the three months.

Unfortunately, randomization was not as good as it should have been — although the researchers planned to randomize on an individual basis, various technical problems led them to randomize on a site basis (there were eight sites), with the result that the cybercycle group and the control bike group were significantly different in age and education. Although the researchers took this into account in the analysis, that is not the same as having groups that match in these all-important variables. However, at least the variables went in opposite directions: while the cybercycle group was significantly younger (average 75.7 vs 81.6 years), it was significantly less educated (average 12.6 vs 14.8 years).

Perhaps also partly off-setting the age advantage, the cybercycle group was in poorer shape than the control group (higher BMI, glucose levels, lower physical activity level, etc), although these differences weren’t statistically significant. IQ was also lower for the cybercycle group, if not significantly so (but note the high averages for both groups: 117.6 vs 120.6). One of the three tests of executive function, Color Trails, also showed a marked group difference, but the large variability in scores meant that this difference was not statistically significant.

Although participants were screened for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and functional disability, many of both groups were assessed as having MCI — 16 of the 38 in the cybercycle group and 14 of the 41 in the control bike group.

Participants were given cognitive tests at enrolment, one month later (before the intervention began), and after the intervention ended. The stationary bikes were identical for both groups, except the experimental bike was equipped with a virtual reality display. Cybercycle participants experienced 3D tours and raced against a "ghost rider," an avatar based on their last best ride.

The hypothesis was that cybercycling would particularly benefit executive function, and this was borne out. Executive function (measured by the Color Trails, Stroop test, and Digits Backward) improved significantly more in the cybercycle condition, and indeed was the only cognitive task to do so (other cognitive tests included verbal fluency, verbal memory, visuospatial skill, motor function). Indeed, the control group, despite getting the same amount of exercise, got worse at the Digits Backward test, and failed to show any improvement on the Stroop test.

Moreover, significantly fewer cybercyclists progressed to MCI compared to the control group (three vs nine).

There were no differences in exercise quantity or quality between the two groups — which does argue against the idea that cyber-enhanced physical activity would be more motivating. However, the cybercycling group did tend to comment on their enjoyment of the exercise. While the enjoyment may not have translated into increased activity in this situation, it may well do so in a longer, less directed intervention — i.e. real life.

It should also be remembered that the intervention was relatively short, and that other cognitive tasks might take longer to show improvement than the more sensitive executive function. This is supported by the fact that levels of the brain growth factor BDNF, assessed in 30 participants, showed a significantly greater increase of BDNF in cybercyclists.

I should also emphasize that the level of physical exercise really wasn't that great, but nevertheless the size of the cybercycle's effect on executive function was greater than usually produced by aerobic exercise (a medium effect rather than a small one).

The idea that activities that combine physical and mental exercise are of greater cognitive benefit than the sum of benefits from each type of exercise on its own is not inconsistent with previous research, and in keeping with evidence from animal studies that physical exercise and mental stimulation help the brain via different mechanisms. Moreover, I have an idea that enjoyment (in itself, not as a proxy for motivation) may be a factor in the cognitive benefits derived from activities, whether physical or mental. Mere speculation, derived from two quite separate areas of research: the idea of “flow” / “being in the zone”, and the idea that humor has physiological benefits.

Of course, as discussed, this study has a number of methodological issues that limit its findings, but hopefully it will be the beginning of an interesting line of research.  

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Latest London taxi driver study shows brain changes driven by learning

January, 2012

A comparison of the brains of London taxi drivers before and after their lengthy training shows clearly that the increase in hippocampal gray matter develops with training, but this may come at the expense of other brain functions.

The evidence that adult brains could grow new neurons was a game-changer, and has spawned all manner of products to try and stimulate such neurogenesis, to help fight back against age-related cognitive decline and even dementia. An important study in the evidence for the role of experience and training in growing new neurons was Maguire’s celebrated study of London taxi drivers, back in 2000.

The small study, involving 16 male, right-handed taxi drivers with an average experience of 14.3 years (range 1.5 to 42 years), found that the taxi drivers had significantly more grey matter (neurons) in the posterior hippocampus than matched controls, while the controls showed relatively more grey matter in the anterior hippocampus. Overall, these balanced out, so that the volume of the hippocampus as a whole wasn’t different for the two groups. The volume in the right posterior hippocampus correlated with the amount of experience the driver had (the correlation remained after age was accounted for).

The posterior hippocampus is preferentially involved in spatial navigation. The fact that only the right posterior hippocampus showed an experience-linked increase suggests that the right and left posterior hippocampi are involved in spatial navigation in different ways. The decrease in anterior volume suggests that the need to store increasingly detailed spatial maps brings about a reorganization of the hippocampus.

But (although the experience-related correlation is certainly indicative) it could be that those who manage to become licensed taxi drivers in London are those who have some innate advantage, evidenced in a more developed posterior hippocampus. Only around half of those who go through the strenuous training program succeed in qualifying — London taxi drivers are unique in the world for being required to pass through a lengthy training period and pass stringent exams, demonstrating their knowledge of London’s 25,000 streets and their idiosyncratic layout, plus 20,000 landmarks.

In this new study, Maguire and her colleague made a more direct test of this question. 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls took cognitive tests and had their brains scanned at two time points: at the beginning of training, and 3-4 years later. Of the 79 would-be taxi drivers, only 39 qualified, giving the researchers three groups to compare.

There were no differences in cognitive performance or brain scans between the three groups at time 1 (before training). At time 2 however, when the trainees had either passed the test or failed to acquire the Knowledge, those trainees that qualified had significantly more gray matter in the posterior hippocampus than they had had previously. There was no change in those who failed to qualify or in the controls.

Unsurprisingly, both qualified and non-qualified trainees were significantly better at judging the spatial relations between London landmarks than the control group. However, qualified trainees – but not the trainees who failed to qualify – were worse than the other groups at recalling a complex visual figure after 30 minutes (see here for an example of such a figure). Such a finding replicates previous findings of London taxi drivers. In other words, their improvement in spatial memory as it pertains to London seems to have come at a cost.

Interestingly, there was no detectable difference in the structure of the anterior hippocampus, suggesting that these changes develop later, in response to changes in the posterior hippocampus. However, the poorer performance on the complex figure test may be an early sign of changes in the anterior hippocampus that are not yet measurable in a MRI.

The ‘Knowledge’, as it is known, provides a lovely real-world example of expertise. Unlike most other examples of expertise development (e.g. music, chess), it is largely unaffected by childhood experience (there may be some London taxi drivers who began deliberately working on their knowledge of London streets in childhood, but it is surely not common!); it is developed through a training program over a limited time period common to all participants; and its participants are of average IQ and education (average school-leaving age was around 16.7 years for all groups; average verbal IQ was around or just below 100).

So what underlies this development of the posterior hippocampus? If the qualified and non-qualified trainees were comparable in education and IQ, what determined whether a trainee would ‘build up’ his hippocampus and pass the exams? The obvious answer is hard work / dedication, and this is borne out by the fact that, although the two groups were similar in the length of their training period, those who qualified spent significantly more time training every week (an average of 34.5 hours a week vs 16.7 hours). Those who qualified also attended far more tests (an average of 15.6 vs 2.6).

While neurogenesis is probably involved in this growth within the posterior hippocampus, it is also possible that growth reflects increases in the number of connections, or in the number of glia. Most probably (I think), all are involved.

There are two important points to take away from this study. One is its clear demonstration that training can produce measurable changes in a brain region. The other is the indication that this development may come at the expense of other regions (and functions).

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