Sunday, April 14, 2013

Brain Games: Can They Improve Intelligence?

Gareth Cook posted an article at The New Yorker titled Brain Games are Bogus. He was specifically referring to one approach to brain exercising focused on improving short-term memory.
"A decade ago, a young Swedish researcher named Torkel Klingberg made a spectacular discovery. He gave a group of children computer games designed to boost their memory, and, after weeks of play, the kids showed improvements not only in memory but in overall intellectual ability. Spending hours memorizing strings of digits and patterns of circles on a four-by-four grid had made the children smarter. The finding countered decades of psychological research that suggested training in one area (e.g., recalling numbers) could not bring benefits in other, unrelated areas (e.g., reasoning). The Klingberg experiment also hinted that intelligence, which psychologists considered essentially fixed, might be more mutable: that it was less like eye color and more like a muscle."

Klingberg took this idea and commercialized it. A number of companies are now providing such brain-enhancing aids. The goal is to improve short-term or "working" memory

"Cogmed and the other companies stake their claims on "working memory," the ability to keep information the focus of conscious attention, despite distractions—mental juggling, in other words. There is powerful, widely accepted evidence that working memory plays an important role in everything from reading ability and problem-solving to reasoning and learning new skills....Working memory is also closely related to "executive function," the brain’s ability to make a plan and stick with it, an active and fruitful area of psychology with broad social implications. Many psychologists consider working memory to be a core component of general intelligence. People who score highly on intelligence tests also tend to perform well on working-memory tests."

There have, of course, been a number of subsequent studies that corroborated Klingberg’s original conclusion, and a number of studies that conflicted with his finding. Cook claims that this state of confusion has been resolved by some researchers who have performed a "meta-analysis" of all the data.

"A pair of scientists in Europe recently gathered all of the best research—twenty-three investigations of memory training by teams around the world—and employed a standard statistical technique (called meta-analysis) to settle this controversial issue. The conclusion: the games may yield improvements in the narrow task being trained, but this does not transfer to broader skills like the ability to read or do arithmetic, or to other measures of intelligence. Playing the games makes you better at the games, in other words, but not at anything anyone might care about in real life."

Cook would have us conclude that such games are a waste of time. But before we succumb to this reasoning let’s think about what we have just learned. And let’s also remind ourselves that studies of human responses are extremely difficult and easily biased. As was reported in Education: Testing and Conditional Intelligence it is rather straightforward to purposely, or inadvertently, affect performance in taking an intelligence test.

What we could be observing here is nothing more than researchers performing studies that generally produce the results they set out to obtain. The subsequent meta-analysis that was assumed to resolve all issues was merely an analysis of the previous analyses. Someone decided which studies were accurate and applicable and which were not; then a grand summation of the acceptable data was performed and a conclusion drawn. If one takes an average of a bunch of biased studies, does the bias disappear? Are those who perform meta-analyses automatically rendered free of bias? Can anything be known for sure?

Cook may be correct in concluding that the specific approach he discussed has been hyped beyond any defendable level. But his statement seems to deny the utility of all attempts to use mental exercises to improve brain function. That is going too far. He implies that those who resort to such mental exercises are mainly:

"....ambitious parents with new assignments for overworked but otherwise healthy children."

There is much more at stake than the desires of "ambitious parents." While Cook correctly pointed out the importance of "executive functions" and the tie between working memory and performance on intelligence tests, Paul Tough provides another perspective on these subjects in his book: How Children Succeed.

"For a while now, we’ve known that executive-function ability correlates strongly with family income, but until recently, we didn’t know why."

Tough tells of a study by Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg of Cornell University. They tracked 195 children from birth to age seventeen. Half the children originated in families then having incomes below the poverty line, and half from middle class families. The goal was to assess their working memory as they aged. The tool they used was essentially the old Simon game where a child was presented with a sequence of colored lights and asked to reproduce the sequence.

Their studies concluded that performance on this working memory test was, in fact, correlated to the amount of time spent living in poverty.

" who had spent ten years in poverty....did worse than kids who had spent just five years in poverty."

This finding is consistent with the correlation between executive function and income, but does not provide a mechanism for this effect.

These researchers had also sought to monitor physiological attributes of the children. In particular, they were concerned with the effects of stress.

"When the children in the study were nine years old, and again when they were thirteen....researchers took a number of physiological readings from each child, including blood pressure, body mass index, and levels of certain stress hormones, including cortisol. Evans and Schamberg combined these biological data to create their own measure of allostatic load: the physical effects of having an overtaxed stress-response system."

When they combined the physiological data with the poverty data and the working memory data, they concluded that the diminishment in working memory function was not due to poverty itself, but rather to the stress that could be induced by living in poverty. The subject of stress and physiological response was discussed in more detail in Poverty and Stress: The Ability of Children to Learn.

This research suggests that the ability of a child to utilize the brain he was born with is being compromised by physiological effects induced by his environment that effect brain function. These effects are best interpreted as interfering with the child’s ability to learn, rather than diminishing his intelligence.

"The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school."

There is hope that these effects can be alleviated, if not reversed.

"The reason that researchers who care about the gap between the rich and the poor are so excited about executive functions is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills. The prefrontal cortex is more responsive to intervention than other parts of the brain, and it stays flexible well into adolescence and early adulthood. So if we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way."

There is too much at stake, and it is way too early to give up on the type of mental interventions that Gareth Cook so easily dismissed. Let’s let the researchers continue to contend with each other and hope that positive outcomes begin to emerge.

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