Many teachers allow students to play “brain games” as part of the curriculum. When I say “brain games”, I’m referring to short – often fun – activities that are unrelated to the core content, but which are thought to engage the mind or make you smarter. When I was a student, if I finished my classwork early I remember my teachers handing out little flipbooks with titles such as “99 impossible riddles” or “99 super hard puzzles,” and sometimes they’d set up a station at the back of the classroom containing board games and LEGO. These days, a teacher might allow students to hop onto Minecraft or play an “educational” video game once they’ve completed their work, or as a break from academic learning.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of brain games as a teaching strategy. I appreciate that they might be an effective way to manage the behavior of the class’s “fast finishers”, but I’d prefer to have these students working on an extension activity that deepens their knowledge of the content, or spending the extra time reading their library books, instead. I want to maximize the amount of time that students engage with academic subjects while they’re at school, and most kids don’t read enough. While I can appreciate the argument that brain games could be used as an incentive to motivate students to complete their work, I can also imagine some students rushing through their assignments in order to get to the brain game at the end of the rainbow.

But the main reason I’m not a fan of “brain games” is that I’m skeptical of the idea that a puzzle, a game of chess, or a videogame can improve students’ cognitive abilities in general, rather than simply helping them get better at that particular activity. Whether or not brain games make you smarter, such as improving your working memory, is a question that researchers have debated for a long time. In 2014, a consensus statement was posted in the Stanford Center of Longevity that stated that “To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life.” This was followed by a rebuttal by another group of scientists, who claimed that the evidence in support of brain games “now includes dozens of randomized, controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals that document specific benefits of defined types of cognitive training. Many of these studies show improvements that encompass a broad array of cognitive and everyday activities, show gains that persist for a reasonable amount of time, document positive changes in real-life indices of cognitive health, and employ control strategies designed to account for “placebo” effects. While we can debate strengths and limitations of each study, it is a serious error of omission to ignore such studies in a consensus reviewing the state of this science.” You can read more about this debate here, here and here.

Susanne Jaeggi is one researcher who is optimistic about the potential of brain games and cognitive training. A few days ago I reached out to her with some questions and she invited me to attend her Twitch presentation with her colleague, Aaron Seitz, on this topic. I was able to get a few of my questions answered during the live stream, which I thought I’d share in this blog, along with the researchers’ responses (edited for clarity).

(1:06:07) What can K12 teachers realistically do, given the opportunity cost of substituting content area instruction for working memory training?

Jaeggi: This is a super important question, right? So, if you want to teach math and you have a limited time to teach kids math, your best strategy for the kids to do better in math is to teach them the exact math skills that they need to know. That is still the most efficient way to go. That said, there are other ways, and this is work that we are also doing together, Aaron and I, where you could support kids in giving them interventions or an app that they can play at home or in their free that they can play on their tablets where they can improve some of these crucial working memory skills that can support their learning in math as well. And we have done some studies with my collaborators in a university in China where we have specifically compared kids’ learning – these are pre-school and kindergarten kids – who have been training on these working memory training games in an extracurricular environment and we were able to show that kids who struggled in working memory and also struggled in math learning and literacy, that giving them the means to train working memory allowed them to catch up to typically developing peers later on. So they underwent this four week intervention of ten minutes a day of training on working memory after school and they were able to catch up to their peers. So, we’re not in a situation where we can easily implement this working memory training in the classroom, it’s a little complicated… there are time constraints as the teacher was saying, there is only so much you can do, but there are still other means for supporting kids at home. You can do other things too: you can have them play board games with their families, with their siblings, which are also known to support working memory skills. So they don’t necessarily have to be on their phone or on an app to support working memory skills. Working memory training is just one tiny puzzle piece or a contribution that can help support their learning more broadly.

(1:19:07) Can you talk a little about the controls used in working memory training experiments? Is it a business-as-usual group or an active control group?

Jaeggi: That is a good question. So we have used a variety of active controls and it really depends on the context, too. So an ideal control we think would be an intervention that’s believable so that participants think they’re also training something that’s useful, but that does not require working memory and attention skills. And given that working memory is so ubiquitous in everything we do it’s actually not quite so simple to come up with an active control that is engaging, is believable, but that does not require working memory skills. So one intervention that seems to be working quite well in that regard is what we call a “knowledge training” or “general knowledge/vocabulary training” where people do sort of like GRE- or SAT-type questions, they get these vocabulary/general knowledge skills that also become increasingly harder as they go on. They find these really interesting and engaging, and it’s also related to memory but not to working memory. And that has been shown to be quite believable, but also engaging active control that we have liked using quite a bit.

(1:30:34)  What is your opinion about cognitive load theory (that suggests working memory is not trainable, but “biologically primary”) given its popularity in education at the moment?

Jaeggi: (laughs) Right, I think this is a big reason why working memory training, cognitive training, has been so controversial, because it really went against this belief that working memory is something that you’re born with. That this fixed capacity, like fluid intelligence or any of these capacities, that we’re born with this and basically that’s what we have to deal with. But our work, and also our work in the role of experiences on cognitive function, has clearly shown that working memory is indeed malleable and susceptible to a host of different environmental impacts in a positive way, but also in a negative way. So one example, as I’ve mentioned before, is when you’re stressed, your working memory will not be as good when you’re testing it as opposed to when you’re in a good mood and you slept well. That’s when your working memory shows better performance. If you do this working memory training in a targeted way as we’ve described it, there’s quite a bit of evidence that we can improve working memory skills very specifically. So, in that sense, it really goes against this belief that working memory/executive function is this immutable trait.

Seitz: And one thing I’ll add, which I think kind of makes this idea obvious: if you look at cognitive aging, what you find is that the trajectory of working memory as you age differs tremendously across people. And that’s not just true of working memory, it’s true of essentially any cognitive skill. So let’s assume that you have these different working memory abilities that are fixed across people. That might be at a point in time. As you age, what you find is that people move away from that point in different ways. And so, what you find is this massive variability in older adults that is much greater than what you find in younger adults. And then, when you start looking at some of these working memory training interventions, there is some evidence that what they do is they reduce the variability. So, all it did was bring you back to where you used to be when you were younger. It’s not going against this cognitive load theory in any way. It’s basically saying that you had some propensity, whether it was because of age or maybe you had cancer and you had chemotherapy, or you were depressed, and there are all sorts of things that happen in life that move you away from where you could be… that activities that are effective at exercising your skills can move you back to your propensities. So these can be very complimentary theories. It really becomes obvious, especially when you look at trajectories across a lifespan, that there aren’t contradictions if you want to hold them both as truths.

Interesting, right? So, after listening to the presentation, here are my current thoughts on this issue: Brain training is not ready for the K12 classroom, but one day, maybe, it could be used as a targeted intervention for specific students. We have to be careful that such an intervention comes after a proper diagnosis from a professional and that the intervention doesn’t use up time that could be spent doing something else that is more beneficial. Working memory training might also be used, one day, to return adults with somewhat inactive working memories to their previous peak working memory performance, or to delay cognitive impairment in older adults. For K12 children, however, I suspect that school subjects do a pretty good job of keeping their working memories active. Until researchers resolve the brain training puzzle, I suggest we avoid placing too much faith in “brain games” and instead focus on delivering a rigorous, coherent curriculum full of powerful ideas and concepts.

With that, I’ll leave you this QR code (below), which will allow you to join the researchers’ next study.

Zach Groshell

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