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Interviewees: Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, University of Michigan
Train Your Brain
The idea of giving your brain a workout isn’t a new one, but the stumbling block has been to find a way to train your brain that actually shows improvement in other, unrelated mental tasks.
Jaeggi says they gave the volunteers basic intelligence tests both before and after the training and found that, “After training … people actually got smarter in these (intelligence) tests.”
She says, “In other training programs that are on the market, people get (better at a) particular task, so they form very task-specific strategies." However, she adds, “Their ability does not transfer to domains other than the training task, itself.”
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For example, she says, people have been able to train themselves to remember long sequences of numbers, but if the sequence changes to letters or shapes, people have to start over and re-train with the new material.
“We sat people in front of computer screens and they had to do a very complicated task,” explains Jaeggi. She says, “What people saw was squares coming up one after another… and they had to remember the order in which the squares were appearing.”
Writing in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” they said volunteers saw a series of squares and than had to press a button whenever a square matched a previously viewed square seen anywhere from one to nine squares back. At the same time people heard letters and had to press another button when the letters matched. As people get better, participants had to remember squares or letters that were further back in the sequence, making the task even more difficult.
Buschkuehl says in the post training tests the volunteers “solved 40 percent more problems (than) were presented to them than before the training.”
Jordan Harris is one of the people who volunteered to enter brain boot camp. He’s found a practical payoff, noting, “I used to lose jackets and clothes all the time, and I guess I haven’t had that problem recently.”
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However, the researchers say people might get a similar effect by challenging themselves to try new things such as learning a language or a musical instrument or learning to do old tasks in new ways.
And just like physical exercise, they believe that the impact of these “mental gymnastics” is not permanent. Says Buschkuehl, “You have to constantly train in order to keep up a good performance.” However, they are doing further research to make sure.
Jaeggi says the analogy to physical exercise is a fair one, explaining that, “If you go jogging every day, you kind of train your very basic cardiovascular system.” She notes the improved cardiovascular system then makes things from walking stairs to bicycling easier. Of our brain, Jaeggi says, “Our basic working memory capacity that we exercise then tends to spread out in all other areas that rely on this working memory capacity.”
In other words, just like the improved cardiovascular system, the improved working memory results in improved performance in more than just the training program.
The researchers say this program is not just for smart people. Jaeggi says, “Our training actually works even better for the ones that start at the lower levels (on standard intelligence tests).”
The program is also useful for older adults. She noted the oldest volunteer was 90 years old, “so people can actually train throughout their life span.”
They’re now looking at the effectiveness of their training with children, including those with learning disabilities or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
People wishing to volunteer for their Brain Boot Camp can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This research was published April 28, 2008, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and supported by grants from The Swiss National Science Foundation, National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Mental Health.
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