Are Brain Training Exercises Helpful When Studying for Standardized Tests?

StudentIn the last two classes I’ve taught, I’ve had students come up to me after a session to ask about the value of brain-training exercises. The brain-training industry has been getting more attention recently as neuroscience sheds new light on how the brain works, baby-boomers worry about cognitive decline, and companies offering brain-improvement software expand. It’s impossible to listen to NPR without hearing an advertisement for Lumosity, a brain-training website that now boasts 70 million subscribers.  The site claims that the benefits of a regular practice range from adolescents improving their academic performance to the elderly staving off dementia.

The truth is, I never know quite what to tell these students. The research in this field, so far as I can tell is in its infancy. For years, the conventional wisdom regarding claims about brain-improvement exercises had been somewhat paradoxical. No one really believed that there was any magic regimen that would improve intelligence, and yet, most people accepted that there were tangible benefits to pursuing advanced degrees, learning another language, and generally trying to keep our brains active. In other words, we accepted that there were things we could do to improve our minds, but that such endeavors would never be a quick fix. The explanation for this disconnect is that there are two different kinds of intelligence. There is crystalized intelligence, the store of knowledge that we accumulate over a lifetime. And then there is fluid intelligence, our ability to quickly process novel stimuli. The assumption had been that crystallized intelligence could be improved, but fluid intelligence was a genetic endowment.

Things changed in 2008 with the release of a paper written by the researchers Susanne Jaeggi, martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter Perrig. In this paper, the researches claimed to have shown that when subjects regularly played a memory game called Dual N-Back, which involved having to internalize two streams of data simultaneously, their fluid intelligence improved. This was ground-breaking.

This research has played an integral in role in facilitating the growth of the brain-training industry. Some estimates put industry revenue at over a billion dollars. There have been articles about the brain-training revolution in publications as wide-ranging as The New York Times and Wired. This cultural saturation has made it inevitable that those studying for standardized tests occasionally wonder if they’re shortchanging themselves by not doing these exercises.

Unfortunately, not much research has been performed to assess the value of these brain-training exercises on standardized tests. (A few smaller studies suggest promise, but the challenge of creating a true control group makes such studies extraordinarily difficult to evaluate). Moreover, there’s still debate about whether these brain-training exercises confer any benefit at all beyond helping the person training to improve his particular facility with the game he’s using to train.  Put another way, some say that games like Dual N-Back will improve your fluid intelligence, and this improvement translates into improvements in other domains. Others say that training with Dual N-Back will do little aside from making you unusually proficient at Dual N-Back.

It’s hard to arrive at any conclusion aside from this: the debate is seriously muddled. There are claims that the research has been poorly done. There are claims that the research is so persuasive that the question has been definitively answered. Obviously, both cannot be true. My suspicion is that the better-researched exercises, such as Dual N-Back, confer some modest benefit, but that this benefit is likely to be most conspicuous in populations that are starting from an unusually low baseline.

This brings us to the relevant question: is it worth it to incorporate these brain-exercise programs into a GMAT preparation regime? The answer is a qualified ‘maybe.’ If you’re very busy, there is no scenario in which it is worthwhile to sacrifice GMAT study time to play brain-training games that may or may not benefit you. Secondly, the research regarding the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise, mindfulness meditation, and social interaction is far more persuasive than anything I’ve seen about brain-training games.

However, if you’re already studying hard, working out regularly, and finding time for family and friends, and you think can sneak in another 20 minutes a day for brain-training without negatively impacting the other more important facets of your life, it can’t hurt. Just know that, as with most challenging things in life, the shortcuts and hacks should always be subordinated to good, old-fashioned hard work and patience.

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By David Goldstein, a Veritas Prep GMAT instructor based in Boston. You can find more articles by him here