Brain training can help develop building blocks needed for maths and reading

Don’t understand? Do a bit of brain training. mfhiatt, CC BY-NC-SA

A recent article in The Conversation by Emma Blakey addressed a widespread concern about exaggerated claims made by developers of brain training products.

Blakey correctly pointed out that the evidence for the effects of brain training on children’s performance at school is weak. But there is a real danger that such articles can swing public opinion too far in one direction. The fact is that developments in the science underlying brain training are pretty exciting.

It would be hard to dispute the negative effect of industry spin, or “neurojargon”, on the public understanding and misunderstanding of brain training. It appears that any claim containing the words “brain” or “neuroscience” gains extra weight.

Brain training developers know that to sell their products they need to use these “neuro” terms, provide meaningless images of brains on their web pages, and talk about “laboratory research”. This is indeed an abuse of science and it should be challenged, as some psychologists have begun to do.

Brain pictures help. Jack Mallon, CC BY

Blakey’s article correctly focused on perhaps the biggest challenge for brain training developers, of which I am one: to increase our ability to perform intellectual tasks other than those targeted in brain training. Put simply, brain training is not of much use if all it does it make the user better at brain training.

But some researchers have found that the effects of brain training can be extended to tests that do not look similar to the tasks practiced during brain training.

Understanding basic concepts

In addition to these developments, new research in my own field is attempting to find the best ways to hone the basic skills a person requires to excel at any type of verbal and mathematical task. We are not too concerned about how the brain works, rather how and what to teach people in order for these tasks to become easier.

Using a concept called relational frame theory, many researchers believe they have identified the basic building block skills of verbal and mathematical abilities. These skills are called relational framing skills and they involve the comprehension of some basic relational concepts: sameness, difference, oppositeness, more and less, along with a few others.

Research has shown that the more complex our understanding of these concepts is, the higher our intelligence is, as measured on the WAIS IQ test. Further research has shown relational skill levels to be predictive of scores on Kaufman’s brief test for intelligence, which measures both the ability to solve new problems (fluid intelligence) as well as acquired knowledge and skills (also referred to as crystallised intelligence).

Building blocks for children

Crucially, research appears to show that relational skills are acquired before the intellectual skills with which they are associated – and therefore may well underlie them. Many of these basic building block skills have been used to establish foundational reading and reasoning skills in children across a wide variety of studies.

But now researchers have begun to show that they can also increase general intelligence using brain training-style software that targets our level of relational skill. For example, a child might be taught to answer a question such as: if A is opposite to B, and B is opposite to C, is A the same as or opposite to C?

When exposed to large amount of such training, across a sufficiently large and varied range of examples, improvements are seen in every part of the WISC IQ test, even though the IQ test items look nothing like the items contained in the relational skills training.

Boost to IQ

In one small study of this new method in which I was involved, 12 children were exposed to a fully computerised relational skills-training course in once to twice-weekly sessions across several months. The WISC IQ test was administered before and after the completion of the training.

Before training began, four normally developing children in the sample had an average IQ of 105, but this was raised above 130 following three to four months of training. These kids moved from the normal to the “high functioning” range in a period of a few months as assessed by an IQ test that looked nothing like the relational skills training provided.

Eight further children with intellectual difficulties started the training with an average IQ of 82, well below the average IQ score of 100. Following training in basic relational skills that are foundational to verbal and numerical ability, these IQs were moved to an average of 96, well within the normal range. It is of course early days yet, but these kinds of findings are surely very exciting.

A healthy dose of scepticism is most certainly required when listening to the pseudo-scientific spin of brain training developers. But let’s also be mindful that many great breakthroughs in science were preceded by periods of unease and suspicion before the weight of the evidence finally tipped the balance of opinion.