Most of you will remember the Brain Awareness Week 2017, we talked about in March. As an official BAW partner, we are happy to contribute to this global campaign and present an exciting interview with the probably most famous researcher in the field of scientific brain training, Dr. Susanne Jaeggi (University of California, Irvine).
NeuroNation: Dr. Jaeggi, can you please tell us something about your work and current research?
Dr. Jaeggi: Broadly speaking, my work focuses on understanding how people learn, why it is that some people learn better than others, and what we can do to improve learning in those who struggle. To answer our research questions, my team and I have been developing game-like interventions that target so-called working memory and attention skills. We know that working memory and attention are basic, but nonetheless crucial cognitive skills that are involved in a host of important other so-called higher cognitive domains, such as reading, math, problem-solving, or more generally, learning.
The idea behind our work is that if we can improve such basic skills like working memory and attention, then we might also see improvements in other higher cognitive functions because they rely on those basic skills. Indeed, in many studies using populations across the lifespan (that is, typically developing children, children with ADHD, young adults, older adults, etc.), we have observed that people are not only getting better at the games that they train on, but we also see generalizing effects (i.e. transfer effects) to other tasks that were not part of the training, which is what we’re particularly excited about.
NeuroNation: How did you become interested in brain training?
Dr. Jaeggi: I have always been interested in finding ways to make people better at things – for example, I am interested in figuring out how we can optimize learning. Of course, there are many ways to study such questions, but as doctoral students, my husband and collaborator Martin Buschkuehl and I started to ‘play around’ with basic working memory and attention tasks and adapting them so they could be used as incrementally difficult intervention programs. I was initially interested to investigate what happens in the brain and at the behavioral level if people reach or go beyond their capacity limits.
However, once we had people train on those tasks, we were amazed to see how much people improved on them, and we were even more excited to see that they also became better at other tasks that did not appear to have anything to do with the training tasks. Over time, we became more interested in figuring out how to optimize the interventions to make them more fun and/or more effective and to understand why it is that some people benefit from training, and why some people clearly don’t benefit at all.
NeuroNation: You are probably the most prominent researcher on the topic of brain training and intelligence. Is it possible to become more intelligent by training? And what does it mean if someone is more “intelligent” than someone else?
Dr. Jaeggi: Well – there are a lot of debates around that topic, and it always depends on how you conceptualize ‘intelligence’ as well as the training and transfer effects that we’re studying. In general, I would say that there are certainly data to suggest that through targeted training that focuses on working memory/attention, people are getting better at keeping track of information, resisting distraction, reasoning, and problem-solving – skills that have been described as being strongly related to ‘intelligence’, suggesting that such skills are malleable.
However, we have to keep in mind that there are many ways to ‘get smarter’– for example, kids generally become smarter as they get older, and schooling and education are strongly related to the development of intelligence. Targeted training as described above might just be another way to improve those skills, but I would definitely not argue that brain training should replace any educational experiences. The ‘easiest’ and most promising way to get better at math is still sitting down and simply practice math. However, training working memory might help people learn better and acquire those math skills more efficiently, especially if they struggle with working memory and attention in the first place.
NeuroNation: What are the benefits of brain training for an individual? What about for the society?
Dr. Jaeggi: So far, there are no good methods that tell us from the get-go whether and how much an individual might benefit from brain training. There are large individual differences in how much someone improves, depending on a lot of things ranging from the person’s motivation to actually engage with the training, to individual differences in cognitive ability. Although we know that generally, people do get better at the training tasks (which is not all that interesting), it is not always clear whether and how much they improve in other tasks and domains that are different from the training, and we currently don’t know much about the boundary conditions of such transfer effects.
Overall, there are many things that we don’t know about brain training – for example, we don’t know what tasks work best for what outcomes, how long people have to train, how long the effects last, and whether the training effects translate to real-world settings. Although there is a growing number of studies that show promising effects, there are also many studies that have not been successful. As such, it is premature to say anything about how brain training might benefit society.
NeuroNation: What does the current state of research recommend concerning training; what kind of training is most efficient?
Dr. Jaeggi: A lot of my current research is focused on understanding individual differences in learning and training benefits. Similar to many other domains – physical exercise, psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, etc. – there is likely no ‘one-size-fits-it-all’ approach, and I think we need to be thinking more about personalized approaches to optimize training for all. We know that certain personality characteristics, age, or pre-existing cognitive abilities, as well as motivational factors, interact with how much people improve in training, and we also know that certain games/tasks are better than others to improve certain skills. But as mentioned before, there are many things that we don’t know about brain training. If anything, we might be able to say that people who engage in interventions that are cognitively challenging are most likely to see benefits.
NeuroNation: We are doing this interview in the context of the international Brain Awareness Week. Do you think it’s important to study the training-related changes in the brain on a structural and functional level? And if so, how does such research improve our understanding of the benefits of training?
Dr. Jaeggi: There is still a lot to be learned on the behavioral level when it comes to brain training. Of course, studying training-related changes in the brain does add another interesting ‘dependent variable’, but it also adds another level of complexity, and given that many brain imaging studies suffer from small sample sizes, they might not always be the most informative. Still, there are certainly benefits to using neuroscientific methods to study the effects of brain training. For example, in my lab, we are studying the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation – a non-invasive and safe brain stimulation method – as a means to further optimize learning and training outcomes.
NeuroNation: How do you see the future of brain training research?
Dr. Jaeggi: Hopefully, more researchers are becoming interested in studying underlying mechanisms and individual differences, moving beyond the simple question of whether or not training is effective, but trying to understand what kind of training works best for whom, and why. More broadly, I see brain training as a means to study brain plasticity, and also, as a means to understand individual differences and the malleability of cognitive functions.
NeuroNation: Thank you for the interview, Dr. Jaeggi.
Hopefully, Dr. Jaeggi and her research could inspire you for your next brain training session, as it keeps to inspire us for building NeuroNation for you. We look forward to accompanying you on your way to mental fitness. Are you ready to go? Start your training now!