Training a child to hold a whole cluster of items in his or her memory for even a short time may feel like trying to hold a wave on the sand. But a study published Monday says it's a drill that can yield lasting benefits.
Children who've had such training have better abstract reasoning and solve problems more creatively than kids who haven't, the study found.
But here's a warning to parents already grooming their young children for entry into elite universities: Don't automatically rush out to enroll your young genius in brain-training summer camp or invest in DVDs promising to deliver high IQs. These drills, the scientists found, pay the greatest dividends for children who actually need them and who find the escalating challenge of the games fun, not frustrating.
For others, "it might be difficult if you push your kid too much," said study lead author Susanne M. Jaeggi, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. "It's like a parent pushing a child to do sports or learn a musical instrument: There's always this delicate balance between too much or too little."
The training program used by Jaeggi and co-workers focused on ramping up working memory: the ability to hold in mind a handful of information bits briefly, and to update them as needed. Cognitive scientists consider working memory a key component of intelligence. But they have long debated whether strengthening short-term memory capacity will boost a person's overall intellectual function, and will do so even after the brain-training sessions are over.
It can, and it does, according to this new research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study put 32 elementary and middle school children through a rigorous monthlong regimen of computer games designed to test, challenge and strengthen their working memory. An additional 30 children trained on a computer program that involved answering general knowledge and vocabulary questions.
The working-memory programs — adapted from a brain game designed for older users — required children to follow and remember a sequence of positions on a grid and, shortly after seeing the pattern, to answer questions about it. When a child did well on a game, the next sequence would become longer, increasingly challenging the child's ability to hold in mind the sequence and spatial information.
The task requires a child's rapt attention for as long as a minute and emphasizes the ability to screen out distractions while focusing on a single task. The child must recall where and in what order items appeared on a screen, then work backward through that remembered information to answer questions correctly.
Jaeggi called the task, known as the "n-back test" by psychologists, "really devilish. If you lose track just a little bit, you're completely out of it and you have to start anew."
When the children were tested at the end of the month of training, the Michigan researchers at first found scant differences between the group that got the working-memory training and the general knowledge group. Although those who had received working-memory training were better at holding several items in mind for a short while, on a test of abstract reasoning — fluid intelligence — they were, as a group, no smarter than the control group.
But then the researchers took a closer look and noticed a clear pattern: The children who had improved the most on the memory-training task did indeed perform better on the fluid intelligence test. And three months later, they still did better as a group than both the control group and the children who hadn't improved.
The study comes against the backdrop of explosive growth in the business of brain-training programs for children. Increasingly, designers of brain games — a roughly $300-million-a-year business that has sprung up in less than a decade — are aiming at intellectually ambitious parents bent on supplying their progeny all the cognitive advantages money can buy.
Alvaro Fernandez, who teaches the science of brain health at San Francisco State University and is the founder of SharpBrains, a company that tracks the brain fitness business, said about $75 million a year of the brain-training business was focused on school-age children. In a deal certain to accelerate that trend, the educational publishing giant Pearson last year bought Cogmed, a Swedish start-up company that has pioneered the development of brain-training programs focused on working memory.
"They'll have a sales force in every school district in the country," Fernandez predicted.
For schoolchildren, the result could be an influx in video-based training programs that could put eye-popping graphics and engaging gamesmanship in the service of academic skill-building. Many of the newest programs have emerged from a mind meld of neuroscientists and video game designers. The resulting products adapt to their users' progress, dispensing virtual prizes and increasing the level of difficulty to keep a young player motivated and challenged.
"It's train but don't strain your brain," said UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small, author of "The Memory Bible" and creator of a new training program called Memory Power. "You've got to find the sweet spot — we know that."
That formula — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating — turned out to be crucial in the new study. Those children who saw significant and lasting improvements in abstract reasoning were far more likely to be the ones who rated the games as challenging but not overwhelming, Jaeggi said.
She likened the mental exercise of building working memory to a would-be athlete embarking on a regimen of aerobic exercise: A workout that's too easy can lead an athlete to plateau, and one that's too hard can discourage and cause injury.
Other studies have found stronger evidence that working-memory training has the power to help a person not only to remember a shopping list but to be a more agile thinker as well, said Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish neuroscientist who founded Cogmed and has been a pioneer in working-memory research.
Patricia Schwarz, who teaches fifth-graders at L.A.'s Solano Avenue Elementary School, says her children run the gamut from those who hear instructions once and remember them till the task is done to those who get "befuddled" by the time they get to step two.
"There are a lot of kids who need instructions and graphics and words written on the blackboard. It just doesn't work for them the way it does with others," said Schwarz, a 24-year veteran of teaching. Any brain-training that works "would be fantastic," she said at the end of a long day of teaching photosynthesis.