The Hare and the Brain Training (Tortoise)

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As you may have gathered, my personal area of interest and investigation is the crossover of ‘attention’ (the neuroscience definition) and educational policy and practice.  One of the (many) questions that has to be addressed before this becomes less of a tantalising dream and more of a physical reality is ‘how’. How is attentional theory relevant? How could it influence policy? How can you translate what we know into practical and useful classroom techniques?

Today, I am going to deal with the last of these questions. As more has been learnt about attentional networks and processes people have begun to create ‘training programmes’.  These programmes are aiming to enhance our attentional and/or cognitive abilities. It is the belief of some that attention systems are inextricably linked to other areas of our executive control functions, meaning that higher attentional ability would lead to a higher cognitive ability (and therefore better grades, behaviour control etc.).  There is significant evidence that many neural functions are related, but so far the idea of attentional training leading to improved cognition in other areas is far from proven.  Currently then, researchers are attempting to develop training regimes that will support or disprove their hypotheses.  What do they need to demonstrate?  In order to show that they have developed a method that ‘does what is says on the tin’ they will need to demonstrate two-three things (hypothesis dependant).

  1. That the training that they give generalises (makes an individual better) at attentional tasks on which they were not trained.
  2. That the training that they give generalises to other areas of cognition thought to rely on attentional abilities.
  3. That the improved attentional ability has a positive impact in the day-to-day life of the individual.
  4. That the results are fully replicable and rigorously tested.

In the case of educational intervention (2) may not be part of the individuals theory and is therefore not completely necessary.  Point (4) is a basic tenant of all quality science, though in exploratory scientific areas it is often found that replication happens far less than could be desired.

These points are common sense, and it may seem that that they are no large stumbling block. However, it has become increasingly obvious to me that scientists are finding it difficult to deal with all of the obstacles that come when training something that cannot be directly observed.  While brain imaging gives some indication as to whether training has changes antinational patterns in the brain it is still a developing technique, as well as expensive and scarce (I have been informed that an hour in the average fMRI suite is around £500-£600).  Instead, other tasks must be relied upon to evaluate the training program.  These tasks may, however, share some key element that the researcher is unaware of with the training task thereby rendering a comparison useless.  Maybe the individual’s motivation to make the most of the program of training was different to that of others?

There are many, many confounds and experimental difficulties that are only amplified by the fact that researchers are trying to train a skill or quality that they will never directly be able to see, touch or interact with. The challenges are great, but the research is getting there and the wrinkles are being ironed out (even if it is only one by one).

My point, then, must be that we cannot expect miracles. The scientific process is a slow and steady one, but then… the tortoise did win the race!

Not attention theory, but a great summation of the issues with brain training:

This article pretty much sums it up!