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Education Bookcast

Mar 12, 2018

In the previous episode, we looked at a range of articles concerning the effectiveness of so-called "brain training" in general, with a particular focus on Lumosity, one of the big players in the market. In this episode, we home in on perhaps the most promising type of "brain training": dual n-back.

Dual n-back has more evidence than most other forms of "brain training" that it can increase working memory. This is a big deal, since working memory has otherwise not been found to change due to any intervention, but it is strongly implicated in higher reasoning and generally in intelligence. To paraphrase cognitive scientist Dan Willingham, if a genie were to suddenly appear and offer to increase your cognitive capacity in any way, your best choice would be to ask for more working memory. And dual n-back might just be the granting of that wish.

One further advantage of dual n-back is that it is an unpatented technique, rather than software from one company in particular. You can find and use free dual N-back applications for the computer or mobile device. This also means that the waters are less muddied by the advertising / propaganda of people trying to make money from it.

One thing we must keep in mind is that investing time and energy into any sort of "brain training" brings up an opportunity cost. Could that time and energy have been better used by learning something new - a new sport, craft, language, or field of study? Might not a change in diet, improved sleep, or increased exercise do more for the day-to-day working of one's brain than such specialised computer games? While none of the above are proven to permanently increase working memory, their effect on thinking is well-documented, and considerably less controversial than any brain-training, including dual n-back.

If dual n-back works, we should probably have all pupils and students use it; if it doesn't, then we must not be distracted by it. Which will it be? Listen to the episode to find out more.

Enjoy the episode.


Articles referred to in this episode:

Jaeggi et al. (2008). Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.

Jaeggi et al. (2010). The relationship between n-back performance and matrix reasoning - implications for training and transfer.

Morrison and Chein (2011). Does working memory training work? The promise and challenges of enhancing cognition by training working memory.

St Claire-Thompson et al. (2010). Improving children's working memory and classroom performance.

Kroesbergen et al. (2014). Training working memory in kindergarten children: Effects on working memory and early numeracy.

Shipstead et al. (2012). Is Working Memory Training Effective?

Reddick et al. (2013). No Evidence of Intelligence Improvement after Working Memory Training: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study.

Lervag and Holme (2013). Is Working Memory Training Effective? A Meta-Analytic Review.

Lilienthal et al. (2013). Dual n-back training increases the capacity of the focus of attention.

Colom et al. (2013). Adaptive n-back training does not improve fluid intelligence at the construct level: Gains on individual tests suggest that training may enhance visuospatial processing.

Lebedev et al. (2017). Working memory and reasoning tasks are associated with different modes of large-scale dynamics in healthy older adults.