The concept of playing a game to make your brain more fit seems to make sense. And its the thinking behind a billion-dollar market flogging brain training games and software designed to boost cognitive ability.
But scientists aren’t convinced that brain-training games actually help our brain get smarter and sharper, especially in the long term.
There’s no convincing evidence that any brain training program actually improves general cognitive abilities or helps prevent or treat dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.
There may not be a “magic pill” to make our brains more efficient. But gaining new knowledge and using existing knowledge in new ways can improve our attention abilities, according to new research by Rachel Wu, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside.
She has shown that adults can increase their attention skills by grouping objects into categories, and then using these categories to search for objects more efficiently.
In other words, we can build new knowledge or use existing knowledge to increase our attention. Infants and children similarly can increase their attention skills by categorizing objects.
Wu’s study showed one way in which we can become more efficient in our attention abilities – by using newly acquired knowledge of individual items to group them into categories.
Wu’s previous studies show that it takes 200 milliseconds to find one object among others on a computer screen. Interestingly, when many items are grouped into one category, people can find any of the items from that category within the same amount of time.
In this new study, Wu found the same signature of attention in the brain waves of participants who had just learned that novel objects could be grouped into categories.
Think about it like this. By knowing the category of food, it makes it much easier to search for something to eat for lunch, rather than searching among all the individual items that you could eat for lunch.
Wu says this new study showed how you can increase your attention abilities by learning about features of individual items to build a new category. The study showed how the construction and acquisition of knowledge increases efficiency in attention.
Attention is inherently tied to learning and knowledge. The use of knowledge very often determines the outcome of attention.
What does Wu conclude from all this?
She says you shouldn’t train “attention” by making people complete “attention games”; you should train “attention” by making people gain new knowledge and use their existing knowledge in new and flexible ways.
That’s similar to how infants and children increase their attention skills in real life. We don’t make infants and children play attention games to increase their attention skills. So, why would we make adults play these games to boost their attention?
Rachel Wu, et al.
A neural signature of rapid category-based target selection as a function of intra-item perceptual similarity, despite inter-item dissimilarity
Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics DOI 10.3758/s13414-015-1039-6
Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr