Does “brain training” work? Dr. Susanne Jaeggi and Dr. Aaron Seitz are experts who are developing and studying brain apps in a nationwide study of their effectiveness. Together they are exploring how cognitive skills and working memory can both be improved — not just in older people, but especially in them. Plus… try a brain game yourself!
Phil Stieg: Hello, I’d like to give a warm welcome to my guests, Aaron Seitz and Susanne Jaeggi, professors from the Brain Games Center for Mental Fitness and Wellbeing at the University of California, Riverside, and the Working Memory and Plasticity Lab at the University of California, Irvine. We consumers spent over one point nine billion dollars on brain training apps in 2018 alone. Are they useful? Turns out little is known and my guests are leaders in the field of brain games and the research determining the validity of these games. Hopefully game apps can be applied in psychology, visual impairments, education, sports and mental health therapies.
Aaron and Susanne, welcome and thank you for taking the time to be here.
Aaron Seitz: Thanks. Pleasure to be here.
Susanne Jaeggi: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Phil Stieg: So, Aaron, you’re the director of the Brain Games Center for Mental Fitness and Wellbeing at the University of California. As I understand it in your group, you’re trying to create apps that will improve our brain health.
Aaron Seitz: That’s correct. There are different definitions of a game. One goes back to, you know, looking at lion cubs wrestle. And that essentially what they’re able to do is practice, you know, their fighting skills or their hunting skills in environments that are safe. And that this develops abilities that then transfer as they grow up. They are games of sorts. It’s still a play environment. There’s a lot of evidence that even off the shelf video games can lead to certain types of improvements in brain functions. And so at the beginning, we thought, can we take advantage of the motivational structures and the beneficial features of games? But we don’t know that they do work consistently or for whom. And so that’s the place where we really need to do more research.
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes. So this is really the critical question in brain training, right? This question of whether it’s useful to to training all these brain training games and whether it helps you in anything that might be applicable in daily life. One example that I often bring up is learning how to drive a car. So, for example, you learn how to drive a car in a little VW and you learn all these things and you get really good at it. And then suddenly you borrow your neighbor’s truck, and then a novice driver, you try to handle this and then suddenly you realize, oh, it looks a little bit different, it’s a little bit handling differently. But still, there are a couple of things that are very similar across driving your little car and driving into the neighbor’s big truck. So the question is whether some of these skills that you learned with driving the small car can be applicable with driving the bigger car. And this is very similar to some of these brain training games that target the whole area of different skills in our daily lives.
Aaron Seitz: The reality is that the field has a lot of promising ideas, numerous examples of beneficial outcomes, but not the large scale studies that we need to be able to draw solid conclusions.
Phil Stieg: Aaron, I know that you’re interested in what’s called perceptual learning. And Susanne, you’re interested in working memory. Can you define those two things? and then tell us how the two of you are working together in the Citizen Science Project?
Aaron Seitz: Sure. Perceptual learning is really focused on how the perceptual cortices of the brain can improve the processes. So how can the visual cortex receive information better from the eye, how does the auditory cortex receive information better from the ear?
Phil Stieg: So, Susanne, maybe you can describe to us what we mean when we say working memory and then how one improves their working memory.
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes, so working memory is commonly understood as our cognitive process that’s involved in storing and manipulating information for a brief period in time. So, for example, while we are doing commonplace tasks, so mental math or recalling digits in order or even solving puzzles or holding a conversation. So that’s where working memory is involved and it’s really involved in pretty much everything that we do every day. So being able to hold information in mind over long and longer and longer periods while also resisting distraction with the idea if we are getting better at these core processes, this will also allow us to do better in these commonplace tasks that we’re required to do every day.
Phil Stieg: So working memory is different than long term memory, which I guess we could refer to as learning.
Susanne Jaeggi: Working memory and long term memory are actually intricately linked as well. So working memory allows us to learn and also to acquire information over the long term, too. If we try to learn a new skill, we first have to use our working memory to encode information, but also later to retrieve information. Working memory also allows us to learn information. If we think of a daily life example, students, for example, that are learning from lectures, they’re sitting here, they’re listening to their professor. They’re trying to take notes and listen at the same time. All this requires working memory. And if they fail at this stage, they will not be able to recall this information later either. So that’s why, again, it’s very critical to try to improve these working memory skills for general learning as well.
Phil Stieg: Are these skills working memory, perceptual memory, or are these applicable and learnable at all ages? I mean, I remember when my kids were growing up and I tried to play games with them, you know, on the computer. I mean, I always got beaten and there was no way that I was going to have a chance of competing with them. So I’d really like to understand is what impact age has on your ability to perform on these games.
Aaron Seitz: So this is something that’s been studied a lot in perceptual learning. And so for a long time, the idea was that kids brains are really flexible. They could learn a lot. And the older you get, the less you could learn. If you start looking at the research and perceptual learning, what’s often found is that older adults learn more. There’s different theories about this. One theory is that for better or for worse, we all know that as we get older, a lot of things tend to go. And so this is memory. This is vision. This might be our abilities. And that from that perspective, there’s a lot to improve from training. And so it seems that one of the reasons why older adults sometimes get larger benefits than even kids on these training programs is because it helps bring them back closer to where they used to be.
Phil Stieg: Is that also true, Susanne, for the working memory component? I had Dan Levitan on. And he said that the older, older people’s memory is just as good. They have more to remember. That’s why it might take a little bit longer to retrieve. So tell me give me some hope here. Is my working memory going to get better as I get older?
Susanne Jaeggi: Your working memory, sadly, is not getting better as you get older, but you can practice your working memory skills to get better at working memory. So if you look at it overall across aging, working memory and attention, skills are among those skills that that get worse with aging. Just generally speaking, there are large individual differences. Not everyone shows the same trajectory, but overall, older adults tend to get worse at these skills. That said, it is never too late to practice those skills. And we have shown with various studies that if older adults go through these working memory training games, they are showing very impressive benefits. They get better at the games. But not only that, they also get better in other tasks that are related to these working memory. They’re better at solving puzzles. They’re better at other memory outcomes as a result of playing these games. So it’s never too late, never too late to learn in practice those skills.
Phil Stieg: Now, as I understand it, you have an NIH funded grant to look at thirty thousand people, which in my mind is no insignificant task, and it’s being done by both of you as equal co-investigators. Can you describe to us what the goal of the study is and a bit about the process?
Aaron Seitz: Our focus really is improving the brain processes that underlie knowledge and skill, but not actually training, knowledge or skill. We want to answer the questions of. What types of training give rise to what types of outcomes for which people? And the basic observation is that not everybody is going to get the same benefit from these trainings. In fact, we already have some evidence that the games include lots of distracting elements that are fun for some people and onerous for others.
Phil Stieg: For example, if you had a game that relied a lot on verbal input, a person who learns verbally would do very well with that. But an individual who learns through visual context, – you know, you see the page and they remember the page in their eyes for the rest of their life – wouldn’t do as well with that and vice versa. Is that what you’re implying?
Aaron Seitz: That’s the type of question that we’re asking. The reason we need these 30000 people is to start looking at these questions of how are these effects individualized and how can we personalize future training interventions based upon individual needs.
Phil Stieg: Are you looking for more volunteers?
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes! Thousands of them!
Phil Stieg: You’re looking for them? Where do they go to do that? They have to go to your Web site? How do they get access to it if they want to participate?
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes. So they would go to a Web site and then there’s a sign-up link whether they can read more about the study. They can provide some of their demographic information and they’re being told exactly what they’re what they’re being asked to do.
Aaron Seitz: Yes, and we could also provide a link, but the address is
Find out more about the study, and sign up to participate https://braingamecenter.ucr.edu/
Phil Stieg: We’ll put it on the website for people to get to. So the question is – I’ve signed up, OK? I’m a willing customer. What are you going to ask me to do specifically in this study?
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes, so participants will play memory training program and complete a few cognitive tests at the beginning to get their baseline skill level, and fill out brief questionaires.
Phil Stieg: Does that mean I’m sitting at a computer and just responding and answering questions, typing, typing, answers or whatever?
Aaron Seitz: So you end up downloading the app either to your phone or if you have a tablet to your tablet,
Phil Stieg: OK…
Aaron Seitz: And that everything will be done through this app, with the exception of some questionnaires, which typically you end up doing on the computer.
Phil Stieg: So then you go through all of these different tasks. Or I would as a subject in your study and when I’m done, what do I get out of it, if anything, or is this just part of the thirty thousand and you’re going to generate data? Will I get anything personally out of it?
Aaron Seitz: This is the type of thing that millions of people pay money for that we’re giving them for free. And so you get access to state of the art working memory training. In addition, there are weekly raffles based upon your participation. So if you do the sessions, you get into these raffles and you could win some gifts to gift certificates. And then at the end, if you finish everything, you could be interested of the grand prize where you could win either more money or an iPad or things of that sort. And then also, I think the most important thing; this is growing. So basically people are spending billions of dollars on approaches that are sometimes not working for people and other times just not understood. And what’s really critical, and this is where we need everybody to contribute, is getting the data to allow us to do this better, to figure out which things work and which things don’t and for whom. And this is where citizen science is really important, because we could all contribute to getting this knowledge, which will lead to improvement in people’s lives.
Phil Stieg: I remember when I was starting my career as a resident, I would endlessly just sit and watch videos of master neurosurgeon’s doing particular tasks and then, you know, I would then begin to envision my hands doing those same things. And finally, when I got into somebody’s anatomy, I did that. I didn’t view it as a game, but I viewed it as a visual learning task. I guess k nowadays you probably will be coming up with games that allow us to change our technical skill sets.
Susanne Jaeggi: And I believe there are some variants of this, too, even for your surgeons, right, where you can practice some of these skills in this virtual environment or if you think of fighter pilots or other kinds of environments. So there are lots of these options available that I would also consider these as games where you can practice these skills in a “slightly lower stakes” environment. So if you blow up your jet that maybe (laugh)…
Phil Stieg: So the airline simulator in your mind is a form of of a game.
Susanne Jaeggi: Yes.
Phil Stieg: And that could be a “gameified” to the extent that they make it more fun, which then in your mind would reduce the learning potential for the game.
Aaron Seitz: Well, the key is how can you make it fun in a way that adds it doesn’t take away, you know, and that takes a lot of thought and design. And the problem is it’s much easier to come up with a bad game than a good game.
Phil Stieg: So let me ask you for the person who’s starting the dementia scale, do you think that these games will be beneficial in either slowing it down or reversing? Is that I mean, obviously, that would be a hope. But do you think that that’s a realistic expectation?
Susanne Jaeggi: Um, yes and no. I mean, we are, again, not far enough to really know whether or not training these skills will help us to prevent dementia. That said, we know there are a lot of lifestyle factors ranging from sleep hygiene to being engaged in challenging activities, to learning different languages, to being socially active. These are all related to brain health at old age. So the hope is really that if we maintain our activity levels, even as we age, we might be able to slow down some of this trajectory as we age.
Phil Stieg: This is one of the questions I also had was, you know, is the science technology good enough now to be answering these questions. We will obviously make progress. Are we going to get meaningful information, do you think, given the technological advances that you’ve got at your fingertips?
Aaron Seitz: Yes, I think that we’re at a point where we’re ready to make meaningful progress and that there are enough demonstrations of people getting good benefits from these aspects of training. Part of what we need is to figure out who are the good candidates and what are the right types of training for them. At the same time, it is true. Science is incremental. And so I think that the best that we’ll achieve now, which I think would be really helpful for people, won’t be as good as what would be 20 years from now when we get that much better.
Phil Stieg: “Nirvana” for you will be that your hypothesis proves true. So, what do you want to be able to say to me, John Q. Public, probably 10 years from now at a minimum with all this data?
Aaron Seitz: The interesting thing is that. This is not the “garden variety hypothesis research”, because as we already said, you know, our hypothesis really is that there’s not a one size all fits solution. And so what we’re really hoping for is clarity. , It’s that I want to know that if you are looking to improve your working memory that I could give you one of two things, either one, the right variant that should work for you or two, the advice that my working memory training isn’t the right thing for you, seek help elsewhere. And this is what we don’t have now. And I’m very hopeful that we might not do this perfectly after getting 30000 people, but we could do it a lot better.
Phil Stieg: Are you envisioning that this study is going to go on for 30 years?
Susanne Jaeggi: That would be great if someone would give us funding to do that for 30 years. And we really – what I’m also very interested in is and we haven’t really talked about this at all is so how long do some of these effects last? So do we have to train for a month? And would we expect that these benefits last for the rest of your life? This is probably not the case. So if you’re thinking of an ant or an analogy that I can give you here, so you go running every day for a month and then your cardiovascular system will improve. You feel fitter, you are betting getting better at climbing stairs and you just feel fitter overall. But then you stop training. What do you expect that a year afterwards you still see the benefits from this one month stint of of running? Probably not. So in order to maintain your fitness, you have to keep training and you have to keep working out. The same way also happens with brain training
Phil Stieg: To be argumentative, isn’t it more like riding a bike? You know, it’s a struggle learning how to ride a bike. Once you learn how to do it, you can go back 20 years later and still do it. Once you learn the trick to a particular task, you retain that trick, you might not do it as fast, but you still retain that trick.
Susanne Jaeggi: There’s two things about that. Yes, you might still be able to ride your bike. You might not be riding a smoothly as before or as fast as before. And you might have to do a couple of rounds to get back into it. But you’re still able to ride your bike. That is correct. But, riding your bike – does it help you also to be faster in running or also to other things that are very similar? So swimming, for example? Probably not. So in order to maintain this general overall fitness, you have to keep doing it. And that’s the way we see working memory training, working in the brain. But what we don’t know is so how often do you have to repeat your training and what is it exactly that you have to keep doing in order to maintain your overall brain health and brain fitness?
Phil Stieg: So the moral of the story is like any other part of your body or organ system, you have to keep working throughout your life if you want to maintain proper brain health.
Susanne Jaeggi: Precisely, yes.
Phil Stieg: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing your faces on the cover of Forbes magazine or Time magazine when you’ve made that game breakthrough.
Susanne Jaeggi: That would be great!
Phil Stieg: Thank you so much for spending time with me. Brain games will transform the way we practice our daily lives, just in terms of understanding of math, art and even understanding our own emotions. But more importantly, would also transform the way we go about our daily work lives. And for that, I congratulate you. Thank you for being here.
Susanne Jaeggi: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Aaron Seitz: Thanks.