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Brain-Training Games May Give Kids an Achievement Edge

Brain Training Improves Abstract Reasoning and Problem-Solving Ability
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2011 -- Brain-training video games that boost kids' working memory may help improve their abstract reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

Working memory refers to the brain’s ability to store and use information and is essential for planning or problem solving as well as school tasks such as reading comprehension and math. Priming the working memory with brain-training games may also have spillover benefits on abstract reasoning and problem solving, so-called fluid intelligence, according to the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of 62 elementary and middle-school children, those who trained five times a week for one month on a computerized task that engaged their working memory showed marked improvements in tasks related to working memory, compared with their peers who practiced general knowledge and vocabulary tasks.

Only those kids who improved in the brain-training exercises showed dividends in fluid intelligence tasks such as abstract reasoning and problem solving. This is known as a transfer effect, and these improvements lasted even after a three-month break from brain training.

Whether or not these gains will translate into higher standardized test scores or admissions to certain academically rigorous and prestigious schools is not known, says lead author Susanne M. Jaeggi, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Both working memory capacity and fluid intelligence are malleable with experience and training,” she says in an email. “However, you have to train, and you have to train well,” she says.

“Effects don't come for free,” she says. “There is effort involved just as in physical training: You need to run and not just walk in order to improve your fitness level,” she says.

The brain training task that primed working memory involved presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues and asking the student to respond if that cue has occurred one time back, for starters. The number of “times back” increases with each correct answer. The video game themes included outer space, haunted castles, and pirate ships, and background stories were linked to these themes to provide context and maximize motivation. Students also earned points that could be redeemed for prizes such as pencils and stickers for scoring well.

Working Memory in Action

Working memory has an important role in many scholastic activities, she says.

“Consider several typical school activities: mentally multiplying 34x27, reading a social studies textbook chapter, or mentally animating a diagrammatic representation of the circulatory system. Each of these activities is highly demanding of working memory because it requires multiple processing steps and temporarily keeping in mind the intermediate results of these steps,” she says. “If information is lost during this process due to working memory limitations, then the task cannot be completed,” she says.

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