Dr Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit
Brain training is a popular subset of games many people use daily, but is there any evidence that gaming can actually change our brains? And with younger people in particular so enamoured of video games, can we use this as a teaching tool to boost classroom learning? Duncan Astle researches this at the MRC’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, and he went over his findings with Chris Smith...
Duncan - Well, the evidence is mixed. So, the theory goes that we know there are lots of cognitive skills that are very important for learning in the classroom. For example, working memory – the ability to hold in mind and use small amounts of information - so, if I gave you a math sum to perform that would really tax your working memory. And the theory goes, that if I could generate some games that were fun, that children could play, that really tax their working memory skills, and by putting them through a kind of course of training, that ought to have knock-on benefits for learning. That’s the theory at least.
Chris - That’s the theory. So, what does the evidence actually say?
Duncan - It depends who you ask.
Chris - I'm asking you.
Duncan - I think the evidence is that you can get what we refer to as ‘near transfer’. So, if you train children on working memory games for example, then you find that you can get benefits on similar but untrained working memory exercises. So, in our paper, what we were interested in is, what is the impact on children’s brains that are being put through these kinds of intensive training exercises?
Chris - What did you get them to do and how did you measure them?
Duncan - So, we recruited around 30 or so children. We assessed their cognitive skills using some standard assessments that are used by teachers and educationists. We gave them a brain scan using a technique called magnetoencephalography, or MEG for short. The children were then sent off and while they were away they did 20 sessions of online games. The games were quite short. They were fun, but they all required the children to tax their working memory skills. Half the children did this kind of intensive working memory training regime and half the children did a placebo intervention. So, they played the same games for the same duration but the games were pegged at a low level. So, they’re really quite straightforward. They didn’t really make many demands on working memory. And then the children came back to the lab 4 to 6 weeks later. We retested them with everything and we found that the children who had had the intensive version, indeed, their working memory skills had significantly improved. The brain scans revealed that we could detect significant changes in their brains, particularly in the networks involved in attention - in memory. And they were significantly enhanced in the children that had had the intensive version relative to the controls.
Chris - To what extent do you think this is going to be a long term change? Or do you think that as soon as they stop playing the game or whatever they were doing then they're going to revert to where they started?
Duncan - Well, we know that these kinds of games are still measurable up to a year later. So, a year later, the children will have retained around 85 per cent of the gain that they made so it’s quite substantial.
Chris - Do you think age is a factor as well? Do you think that people playing David’s games for example need to be doing that from a young age to reap a benefit?
Duncan - The question of benefit is an interesting one. So, all we’ve shown is that if you give children games that tax these cognitive skills, they get better at similar but untrained skills. The theory is that the younger you are, the more plastic the brain ought to be and therefore, the gains ought to be bigger. But there's not been all that much work to support that. But the question of gains is a really interesting one because there are some people who argue that this kind of intensive training is the cure for all sorts of ills – problems with reading, problems with math, diagnosis of ADHD, what you need is working memory training. However, some of the evidence that’s used to make those claims tends to be based on studies that aren't always so well designed. So, no control group or they’ve got a control group but they don’t actually do anything, or the children aren't randomly allocated to groups. We know that these things can make a really big difference. When you do do a study with the kind of gold standard design, actually the benefits, the wider benefits of things like maths and reading, of this kind of working memory training is negligible.
Chris - Do you think that the critical thing is that the game, intrinsic to a game is fun? And therefore, if it’s stimulating, it gets much better engagement because the children are having fun and it’s because they’ve got that strong motivation and buy in and they engage with it very powerfully, that’s why they get the cognitive benefit.
Duncan - I think that could well be the case. If you have the time to leaf through our paper then you'll see in the data there's a large degree of variability in how much of an improvement the children show. And I suspect that a big part of that is the extent to which they're motivated. The games are designed to fun and playable, the kind of thing that you enjoy doing. If you speak to the parents…
Chris - Well, unlike a maths lesson.
Duncan - Exactly. Math can be fun too, but if you speak to the parents and they say, "Actually, sometimes it was quite a chore to get the children to do these games." So, I think that intrinsic motivation is an important aspect of the kinds of benefits that they may get.