The Brain Trainers

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IN the back room of a suburban storefront previously occupied by a yoga studio, Nick Vecchiarello, a 16-year-old from Glen Ridge, N.J., sits at a desk across from Kathryn Duch, a recent college graduate who wears a black shirt emblazoned with the words "Brain Trainer." Spread out on the desk are a dozen playing cards showing symbols of varying colors, shapes and sizes. Nick stares down, searching for three cards whose symbols match.

"Do you see it?" Ms. Duch asks encouragingly.

"Oh, man," mutters Nick, his eyes shifting among the cards, looking for patterns.

Across the room, Nathan Veloric, 23, studies a list of numbers, looking for any two in a row that add up to nine. With tight-lipped determination, he scrawls a circle around one pair as his trainer holds a stopwatch to time him. Halfway through the 50 seconds allotted to complete the exercise, a ruckus comes from the center of the room.

"Nathan's here!" shouts Vanessa Maia, another trainer. Approaching him with a teasing grin, she claps her hands like an annoying little sister. "Distraction!" she shouts. "Distraction!"

There is purpose behind the silliness. Ms. Maia is challenging the trainees to stay focused on their tasks in the face of whatever distractions may be out there, whether Twitter feeds, the latest Tumblr posting or old-fashioned classroom commotion.

On this Wednesday evening at the Upper Montclair, N.J., outlet of LearningRx, a chain of 83 "brain training" franchises across the United States, the goal is to improve cognitive skills. LearningRx is one of a growing number of such commercial services -- some online, others offered by psychologists. Unlike traditional tutoring services that seek to help students master a subject, brain training purports to enhance comprehension and the ability to analyze and mentally manipulate concepts, images, sounds and instructions. In a word, it seeks to make students smarter.

"We measure every student pre- and post-training with a version of the Woodcock-Johnson general intelligence test," said Ken Gibson, who began franchising LearningRx centers in 2003, and has data on more than 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 students who have been trained. "The average gain on I.Q. is 15 points after 24 weeks of training, and 20 points in less than 32 weeks."

The three other large cognitive training services -- Lumosity, Cogmed and Posit Science -- dance around the question of whether they truly raise I.Q. but do assert that they improve cognitive performance.

"Your brain, just brighter," is the slogan of Lumosity, an online company that now has some 25 million registered members. According to its Web site, "Our users have reported profound benefits that include: clearer and quicker thinking; faster problem-solving skills; increased alertness and awareness; better concentration at work or while driving; sharper memory for names, numbers and directions."

Those results are achieved, the companies say, by repurposing cognitive tasks initially developed by psychologists as tests of mental abilities. With technical names like the antisaccade, the N-back and the complex working memory span task, the exercises are dressed up as games that become increasingly difficult as students gain mastery.

Conceived to appeal to adults, especially baby boomers looking to stanch the effects of aging, Lumosity now draws one-quarter of its audience from students between the ages of 11 and 21, according to Michael Scanlon, the company's scientific director. "I was taken aback that so much of our user base is so young," he said. "The particular audience I had in mind at the earliest stages of the company was my mother." In response to requests from schoolteachers, the fee is now waived -- $15 a month -- for students in their classrooms. More than 1,000 teachers and 10,000 students have enrolled this year, Mr. Scanlon said.

For the one-on-one training at LearningRx, fees are decidedly higher, from about $80 to $90 an hour in Upper Montclair. The students come with learning disabilities, with grades they want to improve in a competitive academic environment, all with hopes of just being sharper.

TAYLOR WEBSTER, 16, trains daily for lacrosse with a personal coach. "She has natural athletic ability," said her mother, Samantha Newman-Webster. "But it's really through her training that she has been able to achieve to the point where she's being sought out by college recruiters." Would brain training, the family wondered, do for her grades what physical training did for her lacrosse game?

Ms. Newman-Webster enrolled Taylor, already a B student at the private Montclair Kimberley Academy, at LearningRx in February. "I felt like I wanted to do whatever I could to make her learning easier, faster, deeper," she said. "I knew she was going to be taking the SATs, and they say it will improve whatever you're trying to do."

Speaking by cellphone on the way to a lacrosse game, Taylor explained, with a laugh, what it's like: "In the beginning your head is sore. Honestly, I had headaches after going there the first few times. It was kind of tedious and made my brain hurt. But I started getting better and better at it. It kind of became a competition for me to do better each time."

She's now studying for the SAT. "It used to take me an hour to memorize 20 words. Now I can learn, like, 40 new words in 20 minutes."

Others -- a majority, according to LearningRx -- seek cognitive training in the hopes of remediating a learning disability.

Nathan Veloric had learning issues since elementary school. Last December, he had just graduated from William Paterson University with a degree in communications when his mother heard about LearningRx from a business networking group. His goal was to build up skills. "I've got to keep on bettering myself," said Mr. Veloric, whose first job out of college is as a part-time cashier at a CVS near his home in New Providence, N.J. "I'm happy to have a job in this economy. While looking for something better I'm working my way up at CVS -- I'm trying to go full time and then get into their management training program."

Of his brain training, he said, "I don't know if it makes you smarter. But when you get to each new level on the math and reading tasks, it definitely builds up your self-confidence."

Nick Vecchiarello struggles with attention deficit disorder. "During middle school we had every kind of tutor known to man," said his mother, Diane. "Name it, we've done it" -- stimulant medication, sessions with a psychologist. "He never liked anything to do with education." A brochure from LearningRx showed up in the mail, and the scientific aura around the program impressed the Vecchiarellos. They decided to spend $12,000 for a year of visits, one to three times a week.

"It has been a financial strain," acknowledged Nick's father, Richard, a fifth-grade teacher in nearby Fair Lawn. "Yes, I think it's made a change in Nick. His grades are better. If it gives him a leg up on life, you can't put a price on that." In September, after six months, Nick and his parents decided he had made enough progress to stop his medication.

For all the glowing testimonials, there are postings to be found online from parents of children with learning disabilities, complaining about substantial fees and minimal benefit.

Whether the results last beyond the blush of training -- indeed, whether I.Q. can truly be bolstered in a meaningful way -- are questions on which serious scientists still disagree. Studies have been published in recent years finding that intelligence can be improved through training, but not enough of them are of sufficient scientific quality to convince everyone in the field.

One skeptic is Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence. His research would seem to offer reassurance to college-bound brain trainees, because he has found a close correlation between I.Q. and SAT scores. "All of these tests are pretty much the same thing," he said. "They measure general intelligence."

The catch, however, is that Dr. Detterman believes that cognitive training only makes people better at taking tests, without improving their underlying intelligence. Dr. Detterman said of brain training, "It's probably not harmful. But I would tell parents: Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You'll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems."

Executives at traditional tutoring and test-prep services tend to share Dr. Detterman's view -- perhaps not surprisingly, because some of the brain training programs pitch themselves in direct contrast to standard tutoring. ("Brain Training vs. Tutoring," says the headline of a LearningRx brochure. "Is tutoring what your child really needs?") Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer of Kaplan Inc., questions whether improving performance on an intelligence test will translate directly to improved grades and test scores.

"I keep looking for good studies that show how math performance or an ability to write an essay or some other really important set of skills have been dramatically enhanced for normal kids," Dr. Saxberg said. "What you care about is not an intelligence test score, but whether your ability to do an important task has really improved. That's a chain of evidence that would be really great to have. I haven't seen it." Dr. Saxberg, by the way, holds a master's in mathematics from Oxford University, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.

Still,a new and growing body of scientific evidence indicates that cognitive training can be effective, including that offered by commercial services.

Oliver W. Hill Jr., a professor of psychology at Virginia State University in Petersburg, recently completed a $1 million study, yet to be published, financed by the National Science Foundation to test the effects of LearningRx. He looked at 340 middle-school students who spent two hours a week for a semester using LearningRx exercises in their schools' computer labs and an equal number of students who received no such training. Those who played the online games, Dr. Hill found, not only improved significantly on measures of cognitive abilities compared to their peers, but also on Virginia's annual Standards of Learning exam.

He's now conducting a follow-up study of college students in Texas and, he said, sees even stronger gains when the training is offered one on one.

Michael Merzenich, who spent years conducting brain plasticity research in animals as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, started Posit Science to make the results of his research more widely available. "This is medicine," he insisted. "It is driving changes in the brain."

The programs offered by Posit, Lumosity and Cogmed are now being used by psychologists not affiliated with the companies to help people with diagnosed cognitive disorders, including traumatic brain injury, A.D.H.D., and the aftereffect of chemotherapy.

Kristina K. Hardy, a neuropsychologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, is testing the use of Cogmed with childhood cancer survivors, whose ability to learn is sometimes significantly reduced after chemotherapy and radiation. Founded by a Swedish neuroscientist, Cogmed was bought in 2010 by Pearson, the largest provider of testing and teaching materials, and is offered via psychologists and other clinical specialists.

"I entered this work with some skepticism that just doing some computer work at home could help anybody," she said. "I thought we wouldn't be able to move the needle on their cognitive abilities. And not everybody has been able to make gains. But I've had some kids who not only reported that they had very big changes in the classroom, but when we bring them back in the laboratory to do neuropsychological testing, we also see great changes. They show increases that would be highly unlikely to happen just by chance."

Julie Schweitzer, director of the A.D.H.D. Program at the University of California, Davis, published a study in July finding that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who used Cogmed for 25 days were significantly better able to stay on task and to perform on a test of working memory -- the ability to not just hold but to juggle items in the mind despite brief distractions.

"We got positive results, but it was a very small study," she said. It involved just 26 children. Even so, she said: "In general, I'm cautiously optimistic about the potential for cognitive training. I'm concerned that some of the studies out there have not had the rigor that ought to be there. But I think the potential is there."

AT Lumosity's headquarters on the sixth floor of a rehabbed building in downtown San Francisco, bicycles line a wall, the meeting room has foosball, and the intensely focused young employees tap at their computers in a sprawling room without cubicles. It could be mistaken for a satellite office of Google. Except, oh, wait a minute, that guy who won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament five times in a row? He actually quit Google last year to work here.

"I looked around for a place that would get me closer to the kinds of games and puzzles I enjoy," said Tyler Hinman, who is now a software developer and game designer at Lumosity. "But where crosswords and Sudoku are intended to be a diversion, the games here give that same kind of reward, only they're designed to improve your brain, your memory, your problem-solving skills."

More than 40 games are offered by Lumosity. One, the N-back, is based on a task developed decades ago by psychologists. Created to test working memory, the N-back challenges users to keep track of a continuously updated list and remember which item appeared "n" times ago. Practice on the N-back has been shown in some studies to lead to significant increases in fluid intelligence. Unlike crystallized intelligence, the mental storehouse of knowledge and procedures, fluid intelligence is the ability to solve novel problems, to see patterns and understand complex relationships -- to find order in the chaos.

Not all the exercises offered by the commercial services carry the scientific pedigree of the N-back. Some offered by LearningRx exude an undeniable whiff of the theatrical, like having trainers shout and clap to help students learn to ignore distractions.

Perhaps that reflects the company's origins. Whereas the founders of Posit, Cogmed and Lumosity all have advanced degrees in psychology and neuroscience, the founder of LearningRx obtained his Ph.D. in pediatric optometry.

"Largely my focus was on visual training," Dr. Gibson said. Treating children with problems involving focusing or eye movement, he developed an interest in dyslexia and other learning disorders. "I realized I could help those who had eyes crossed, but I wasn't helping very much with their academic performance," he said. "I started reading the literature about training abilities of every skill, not just visual, but auditory and memory and speed of processing."

Dr. Gibson is self-taught in the field of psychology; his confidence in his program, he said, comes from the gains students make on I.Q. tests. Trainers and franchise owners must be college graduates but need not have expertise -- beyond the training given to them by LearningRx. Ms. Duch and Ms. Maia, the Montclair trainers, have B.A.'s in psychology.

"This has been a process since 1986," Dr. Gibson said. "We have so systematized the program that the educational background of the trainers and franchise owners is not an issue. I don't come from the perspective of an academic. We're not part of Duke University or Harvard. We have to get results to justify the fees that we charge and get referrals."

Back at the franchise in Upper Montclair, Nathan Veloric is trying to do his "speed numbers" exercise just a bit faster, in 45 seconds rather than 50, still without missing a single pair of numbers that add up to nine. Four times in a row he goes down a list, each time missing just one of the pairs.

"O.K., try it again," says Ms. Duch. "I know you're getting tired. Just give me two more tries." And again she starts the timer.

Dan Hurley is a neuroscience reporter writing a book on new research into intelligence.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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