May 20, 2009
Publication: Owner Manager
Date: Thursday, May 14, 2009
Headline: Brain boxes
NICOLE KIDMAN'S DOING IT, ROMAN KEATING'S DOING IT,
EVEN GIRLS ALOUD ARE DOING IT. SEEMS LIKE EVERYONE'S DOING A LITTLE BRAIN
TRAINING THESE DAYS. BUT WITH CONFLICTING SCIENTIFIC REPORTS IT'S DIFFICULT TO
KNOW IF THESE GAMES REALLY WORK, AND WHETHER THEY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE TO HOW YOU PERFORM AS AN OWNER MANGER. DEIRDRE NOLAN ASKS THE EXPERTS
In recent years brain-training computer games have become enormously popular, mainly due to being associated with staving off degenerative cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and
improving IQ While the most popular game, Nintendo's Dr
Kawashima's Brain Training, has achieved worldwide sales of
almost 15 million, other games such as Wii's Big Brain Academy and PlayStation's Brain Challenge are also very successful.
However, the jury is still out on whether these games actually improve your mental capabilities.
Many commercial entertainment-based brain-training games
are derived from standard clinical tests that have been used by
psychologists to asses the effects of brain damage. Checking
verbal ability, numerical ability and attention, it has been
argued that they can improve your mental faculties by lowering
your'brain age'and'training'your brain to be more intelligent.
However, Dr Chris Bird, of the Institute of Cognitive Neuro-science at University College London, doesn't believe that these
games arc any more beneficial for increasing IQ than other forms
of puzzles. "You're basically doing some tasks again and again,
and by repeating such tasks you get better at them. In that sense,
they're not really different from any other kind of computer
based tasks that you might play. Just doing a crossword or Sudoku
every day is not going to be massively beneficial to your health
either, although you might enjoy doing it."
Bird also dismisses the idea of improving your brain's age:
"The concept of giving you a brain age is really just giving you
feedback on how you're doing – it's giving you a score, just like
a lot of computer games. Brain-training games are no different
from any other computer game."
In fact, more traditional style computer games such as the
Grand Theft Auto or Halo series might actually be better for
improving cognitive function. "Many clinical psychologists are
beginning to use virtual reality to make their tests more ecologically valid and more relevant to people's day-to-day lives, so
they're actually getting away from the kinds of tasks you find in
brain-training games," says Bird.
"You might find a first-person, shoot-'em-up game more
exciting than brain training. It's one of the few types of computer games where there's quite a lot of evidence to show that
you naturally get transfer to different abilities, for example, your
spatial attention is improved. You're putting yourself in quite a
realistic, complex virtual-reality environment where you're having to remember where things are, second-guess what other
people arc going to do and respond very quickly. By getting
better at a shoot-up game, it is inevitable that you will also
improve these abilities, whereas there is no evidence that brain
training devices would have this effect. Games arc doing it in
a very second hand way, making it fun."
Dr David Delany, co-founder of Neurosynergy Games, says
that while the popular brain-training games have entertain-
met value, they are limited in what they can achieve intellectually. "There are a couple of key dimensions that should be
looked at when you're evaluating these sorts of games. One is
the specific efficacy of the game, ie for every hour played what
is the magnitude of the gain in ability? The second key factor
is the level of generalisation, or learning transfer, achieved. Are
there ability gains beyond the specific trained task? Unfortunately, becoming an ace at speed arithmetic isn't really going to
generalise to very much else."
While these criticisms apply to more commercial brain-
training games, psychologists are finding that specifically targeted games are having a more beneficial effect. A collaborative
study between University of Michigan and University of Bern,
headed by Dr Susanne Jaeggi and published last year, found that
when participants followed a specifically designed brain-
training game, they significantly improved their 'fluid intelligence', which is associated with general problem-solving and IQ
Delany also believes in the possibilities of scientifically
designed brain-training games. He recently founded Neurosynergy Games with his partner, psychologist Dr Lorraine Boran.
With a background in computational neuroscience, he has
designed a new form of brain-training game, which is uniquely
intended to optimise both cognitive and emotional functioning.
The provisionally titled 'IQ EQ_Trainer' (EQ_is short for
emotional-intelligence quotient) game is currently in development in conjunction with students from Carlow Institute of
Technology. Already a success story, the IQ;EQ_game is
through to the Irish finals of Microsoft's Imagine Cup 2009.
"The EQ_traincr component is designed to decondition negative associations. For example, if you have a fear of spiders, the
game will allow you to rapidly break your automatic negative
associations with spiders. Regardless of the type of emotional
psychopathology, whether it's a serious fear of spiders or a
debilitating social anxiety, there's a shared underlying principle
that links these disorders: attentional bias. This refers to the
extent to which your attention is 'captured' by emotionally
loaded cues. A common example is the unpleasant phenomenon of'stage fright' where we end up unable to focus on anything but the prospect of spectacular public humiliation.
"What the EQ_training exercises try to do is to repeatedly
break the unhelpful automatic implicit associations using
disorder-specific stimuli, thereby reducing the attcntional bias.
Researchers have already successfully used this approach to, for
instance, improve self-esteem and reverse racial prejudice."
Delany explains that while the more popular brain-training
games test our basic skills, more complex brain training can
lead to fundamental changes in intelligence.
"If you imagine a tree-like hierarchy of brain processes, on
the outer branches you've got specific skills like arithmetic,
but towards the centre are more fundamental brain capacities,
known as executive-function processes. 'Executive function' is
a neurocognitive umbrella term encompassing high-level
functions such as planning, working memory, impulse control,
inhibition and mental flexibility.
"Clinically, deficits in executive functioning are central to a
wide range of mental disorders, including schizophrenia,
depression, attention-deficit hyper-activity disorder, anxiety,
and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In healthy individuals, differences in fluid intelligence are primarily due to differences in
iency of the executive system.
"Recent research has shown that targeted training of executive
function can have dramatic positive knock-on effects on a wide
range of cognitive abilities – including performance on IQ_tests.
Our IQ_trainer intensively targets multiple aspects of executive
functioning simultaneously. Since prior deficits in executive functioning predict susceptibility to emotional psychopathology,
the combined IQ;EQ_game is designed to address both the specific symptoms and the root causes of a wide range of mental
While this is very positive news for brain training in the near
future, most people are hoping that playing the games that are
commercially available at the moment will prevent them from
developing conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's in
later life. However, Bird isn't promising anything, yet.
"You can't make a diagnosis of Alzheimer's unless someone
is performing poorly on tests of things like memory and concentration, so if you practise tests of memory and concentration a lot (ie by doing brain training) then you might well put off a
diagnosis of Alzheimer's. However, it doesn't mean that you are
'IT'S NOT SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN YET
THAT THERE'S ANY REAL CAUSAL LINK
BETWEEN JUST DOING PUZZLES AND
STAVING OFF ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE,
BUT THERE IS EVIDENCE GOING
IN THAT DIRECTION'
stopping the progress of the disease itself. Having said that,
there may be a knock-on effect – that you're able to cope
better in your daily life with the disease," he says.
"It's not scientifically proven yet that there's any real causal
link between just doing puzzles and staving off Alzheimer's disease, but there is evidence going in that direction. It will probably turn out that keeping your mind active and engaging in
interesting, intellectual things will stand you in good stead
against the effects of ageing."