A Review of Brain Exercises and Training Induced Learning

This post in based on a review article in Psychology and Aging.1 This article notes that there are volumes of evidence that even as we age, training in specific tasks generally results in improved performance on those tasks. The problem is that most of this research indicates that improvements are specific to the task and do not generalize to measurable benefits in daily life. This does not mean that this training is worthless. It can still provide beneficial exercise to the brain. Consider doing push-ups for physical exercise. Undoubtedly, doing push ups regularly is beneficial to your health. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find that doing them provided measurable benefits in daily life outside your exercise regime.

So providing measurable benefits in daily life, say an overall increase in the rate of learning, is a difficult goal to achieve. Yet certain programs have provided evidence to this effect, and the authors of this article sought to capture the features of these programs that lead to generalizable results. They identified the following characteristics: Task difficulty, motivation and arousal, feedback, and variability.

With respect to the characteristic of task difficulty it is important to begin with an easy level of difficulty and then gradually advance through levels of increasing task difficulty. Obviously, if the task is too difficult to begin with, people become discouraged and learning suffers. However, if people are able to accomplish the task fairly easily, then can gradually increase their skill while advancing to increasing levels of difficulty.

Perhaps it is obvious, but if people are motivated to learn, they are more likely to succeed. Arousal goes hand in hand with motivation. Aroused learners, within limits, learn faster. So tasks that are enjoyable and rewarding increase arousal levels, and so forth, and so forth.

Feedback is important so that people know that they are performing the task correctly. This also relates back to motivation, arousal, and task difficulty. When task difficulty can be accommodated, the feedback is positive, which is arousing and increases motivation. Now task difficulty can be too easy, in which case the feedback is trivial, not rewarding and does not lead to arousal and increased motivation. So task difficulty is what is termed a “Goldilocks” characteristic—not too easy and not too difficult, but just right.

Variability is the final key characteristic. The training program should exercise a wide variety of skills. It is this variability that increases the likelihood that the benefits will transfer to everyday life and learning.

Unfortunately, too many Baby Boomers and looking for the magic exercise, the magic program, or the magic vitamin or dietary supplementary to ward off the effects of aging. There is no magic exercise or pill. What is required is a range of activities and exercises to ward off the effects of aging. The Healthymemory Blog recommends such activities. Its blog posts provide a variety of mnemonic techniques (click on the category mnemonic techniques) that increase the efficiency of memory and provide mental exercises that make requirements on creativity, recoding, and both hemispheres of the brain. The Healthymemory Blog provides information on human cognition, that provide both exercise and insight into cognitive processes. Transactive memory provides for cognitive growth via the technology, the internet, books, as well as for interactions with your fellow human beings.

1Green, C.S., & Bavilier, D. (2010). Exercising Your Brain: A Review of Human Brain Plasticity and Training-Induced Learning. Psychology and Aging, 23, 692-701. 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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