01 February 2015

The Cognitive Training Swamp

I ended the previous post in this 'Chess in School' series, Chess and Cognitive Training, with a question: 'One of the mantras is 'Chess Makes You Smarter'. Does it really?' Before I tackle that crucial point I need to backtrack to another question, this one from the ScientificAmerican.com Q&A that was the heart of the post,

Q: What in the world compelled you to jump into the swamp that is the cognitive training literature?

The word 'swamp' carries decidedly negative baggage. The associated link leads to another SciAm.com article, New Cognitive Training Study Takes on the Critics by Scott Barry Kaufman, the same author responsible for that first SciAm.com Q&A article. While I can't pretend to understand all of the subtleties around far transfer and fluid intelligence, the debate is still interesting.

Some studies have reported absolutely no effect of working memory training on fluid intelligence, whereas others have found an effect. The results are mixed and inconclusive. Various critics have rightfully listed a number of methodological flaws and alternative explanations that could explain the far transfer effects.

The second SciAm.com article goes on to describe a months-long experiment designed to eliminate the weaknesses of previous studies.

The Results: Even after addressing the major criticisms of their past work, [Susanne] Jaeggi and colleagues still found far transfer. In particular, they found far transfer to visuospatial reasoning when people engaged in working memory training. In contrast, no effects were found when people were trained on trivia knowledge (the active control group).

But there are a couple of kickers here. The first is an observation.

In terms of the long-term effectiveness of their training, they found no significant effect at a three-month follow-up.

The second is a hypothesis that the individual matters more than the training.

First, they found that people who have a growth mindset about intelligence (believe that intelligence is malleable) showed greater improvement on the visuospatial reasoning tests than those who have a fixed mindset about intelligence (believe intelligence can’t change). [...] Second, the researchers found that intrinsic motivation mattered.

What impact does this have on the 'Chess in School' movement? It's far too early to say, but it's something to keep in mind as we continue to investigate the idea that 'Chess Makes You Smarter'.

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