The Brain Trainers
By Dan Hurley, NY Times, October 31, 2012
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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