In a previous post on the science of brain training, we reviewed a study that found no evidence that it improves anything other than the training tasks themselves. This is “near transfer,” which is the finding that doing a test will make you better at that test. In other words, yes, practice is a thing that exists.

What would be a lot more useful—and is a benefit claimed by some brain training vendors—is “far transfer,” where doing a training task leads to general cognitive improvements that carry over to other tasks, and to everyday life.

A just-released meta-analysis (Melby-Lervag, Redick, & Hulme, 2016) reviewed the literature on transfer effects in working memory training. Working memory is a key aspect of cognition, because a reasonable assumption is that an improved ability to temporarily store and manipulate information in the brain would lead to wide-ranging cognitive benefits. In other words, if anything could lead to far transfer, it would be effective working memory training.

The results, though, are disappointing for brain training fans.

Working memory training demonstrated no far transfer effects. Important real-world skills like verbal ability, word decoding, and arithmetic were completely unaffected by training programs. There was, however, some “intermediate transfer,” where tasks that shared stimuli or methods with the training tasks improved slightly with training.

The effect of working memory training on various types of cognitive tasks.

Of course, brain training is effective at one thing: near transfer. People who trained got better at the tests they trained with.

That’s good, right?

Well, the problem is that higher scores on a specific test may not actually reflect improved working memory. Strategies to improve scores may be confined to the specific methods and stimuli of a test. That is, knowing which buttons to press and which stimuli to expect can go a long way.

There is also a sort of meta-story to this meta-analysis, which points out that publication bias, methodological problems, and some sketchy control groups can explain individual studies that do find strong effects. So, even the near- and intermediate-transfer effects may be due to a number of factors that have nothing to do with genuine brain improvement.

Dang. It doesn’t look good for training. But is it hopeless? No.

The authors point out—and I agree—that approaches based on a deeper theoretical understand could lead to effective interventions. Far transfer is currently out of reach, but with more research, and better research, we could find it within our grasp.

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