Problem with computer-based brain training

Brain training

What is the idea behind it?

As discussed in another blog post on Why We Should Train Our Brains, our brain’s performance is not stable throughout life. Especially in aging, the loss of neurons ans synapses leads to a decline in cognitive performance. The idea of brain training is that, much like strength training counteracts muscle loss, brain training can counteract the loss of cognitive performance. The aim is to maintain cognitive performance into old age.

brain training

What approach does it take?

Computer-based brain training includes all training content that can be performed either on a computer or laptop, but also on mobile devices such as tablet or cell phone. In recent years, the number of computer-based programs and apps for training the brain has increased dramatically. However, when people talk about brain training, they usually mean cognitive training. Cognitive tasks are presented on the screen, which must be solved via input on the screen or keyboard. The cognitive demand of these tasks is high whereas the involvement of motor skills is usually minimal and limited to a keystroke on the keyboard or screen.

The rationale for computer-based training is based on the proven link between cognitive skills and, for example, academic performance, success at work or in sports, and health as people age. Causality is established as follows: If certain cognitive skills are related to performance and health, then training and an accompanying improvement in cognitive skills should also improve performance and health in the target population. If independence in daily life, for example, is related to memory, an improvement in memory through computer-based training should increase independence in daily life.

Accordingly, computer-based brain training offers a variety of exercises or games to train cognitive skills such as attention, problem solving, decision-making, or cognitive flexibility. Due to the standardized conditions, cognitive skills can be trained very specifically. In fact, training results in improved performance in the training task itself or tasks that involve the same or similar cognitive skills. This is also referred to as near-transfer (the requirement in the test/application is identical/very similar to the trained skill). The main criticism of computer-based training, however, is the transfer from training to practical application, e.g., at school, in sports, at work, or in everyday life. This is also referred to as far-transfer (the requirement in the test/application is far removed from the trained skill). While computer-based training improves performance in the trained task, transfer to everyday life is strongly doubted by the scientific community.

Training and transfer

Added value for everyday life

Transfer to everyday life is a crucial component of any training. Only if the training improves performance or health in real-world applications can it be justified. One of the best known scientific theories of transfer is the “identical elements theory”. This theory assumes that the more the elements of the training task match the requirements in actual use (in everyday life, sports, work, …), the better the transfer. Since the requirements between training and application are similar, the trained skills can be better transferred from training to application, i.e. transferred.

Approaches to describe the relationship between training and practical application and thus the expected transfer are stimulus-correspondence and task correspondence. Stimulus correspondence refers to the degree to which the stimulus in the cognitive training task matches the stimulus in the real application. Similarly, task-correspondence describes the correspondence in motor demand between training and application. Applied to computer-based brain training, this illustrates that training on a computer, cell phone, or tablet has both low stimulus-correspondence and task-correspondence. In line with identical elements theory, this offers an explanation for the fact that computer-based brain training improves performance in the trained task, but transfer to practical application often fails to occur.

Above all, the lack of task-correspondence probably represents a decisive factor for the lack of transfer of computer training into practice. In real-life situations in everyday life or sports, cognitive skills are often associated with complex motor tasks, such as walking, running, or balance control. This form of motor activity demands neural resources that interfere with the cognitive task. This is also called cognitive-motor interference. Performance therefore depends on the interaction of motor and cognitive processes. This interaction cannot be mapped by the very simple motor system on the computer, cell phone or tablet. Motor-cognitive training was developed to address the limitations of computer-based brain training. In this form of training, cognitive and motor tasks are coupled with each other in order to achieve a better mapping of real-life application and thus a better transfer from training to practice. In fact, recent studies highlight the higher effectiveness of motor-cognitive training compared to “classical” computer-based approaches. The VIKOMOTORIK concept of SKILLCOURT has further developed the motor-cognitive training and extended it by the visual component as an important part of the interaction with the environment.

The compromise in
brain training

Between specificity and ecological validity

From what has been said about training and transfer, one could deduce that any form of training should only be conducted in real environments. This would have a high so-called ecological validity, as it would reflect the real situation as best as possible. However, ecologically valid situations are often very complex and many factors can influence performance and therefore training. It is therefore not always possible to clearly identify whether the skill being trained is actually the one being trained. In addition, the possibilities for variation are limited, since, for example, situations on the court can only be changed to a certain extent.

Conversely, computer-based training, for example, is very specific. Standardized conditions make it possible to define very precisely which cognitive ability is addressed by a training session. As already described, however, the problem lies in the transfer. Performance improvements in training do not transfer to real-world applications.

VIKOMOTORIK training on SKILLCOURT pursues the goal of placing training emphasis on visual, cognitive and motor skills, while simultaneously challenging all areas during training. Even supposedly simple and stationary tasks require, for example, balance control and thus place significantly higher demands on motor skills than in computer-based training. This trade-off between specificity and ecological validity, is intended to optimize training success as well as transfer to practical application.


Why computer-based brain training often doesn’t work

The loss of cognitive abilities in the aging gait justifies the use of specific training approaches for the brain to counteract the loss of performance. Computer-based training pursues this goal, but often only improves performance in the trained task. There is no transfer to practical application in everyday life, sports or work. One possible cause is the lack of correspondence between the training task and the practical application, especially in the area of motor skills. Motor-cognitive procedures such as VIKOMOTORIK training offer the possibility of more effective brain training compared to computer-based procedures.

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