But I just want to talk about a fundamental disagreement that I had, and will continue to have, with the idea that we should be conned into believing that doing mental maths (for example with the Nintendo DS Lite) makes you cleverer. I'm not going to write an essay about it as this is a blog and I've already spoken on radio about it and will continue to speak against the marketing trick whenever possible. But ...
Let me make a few points.
- The inventor of the Brain Age programme, Dr Ryuta Kawashima, does not use it himself, because he says that his own work and doing a variety of activities, especially reading, is the best thing for brains. He bans his children from using it or any video games during the week and restricts them to one hour at weekends. Why, if it's so good for their brains?????
- Doing mental maths may well improve your mental maths skills. Doing sudoku certainly improves your sudoku. There is NO evidence that it makes you cleverer, or delays the mental effects of aging, or makes you better in any other way at all. In fact, no research has yet been done into whether it makes you cleverer. (And don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.)
- Besides, how would you measure cleverer? Oh no, we're not back to the old IQ tests, are we? They're so 20th century. Personally, I don't much value measurable cleverness - I think real cleverness is much deeper and wider and more interesting than that.
- No, brain-training does not improve thinking skills, creativity and communication. There IS NO EVIDENCE THAT IT DOES. And why would it? There is no research on this so simply don't believe any woolly-thinking evangelist who tries to tell you there is. On what proper scientific basis is that theory even suggested? The idea is based on the absurd fallacy (based on sublime ignorance) that because Brain Age (etc) activates your prefrontal cortex (pfc), and because the pfc is used during thinking/creativity etc, therefore the activities improve thinking/creativity etc. This is illogical, unscientific and misleading. Put it this way: planning a murder would activate your pfc, but does that mean that planning a murder would be a good way to improve thinking skills / creativity etc?
- There is wishy-washy piece of research going on in Scotland right now, purporting to prove that giving kids a Nintendo DS-lite and getting them to use it for 20 minutes at the beginning of each school day does all sorts of amazing positive things. There are so many reasons why this is a pointless (and possibly even dangerous, if too many people buy into it) piece of research that I hardly know where to start. It appears to ignore psychological tenets such as the Hawthorne effect; not to mention the allied placebo effect, especially when the gadget keeps telling them they are getting better (Dr K's smiling face keeps bouncing around telling you you are getting "smarter"), an obvious psychological boost to learning (no harm in boosts to learning, of course: just that they get in the way of good research); then there's the fact that relevant research would not start with the researcher setting out to prove his existing vehemently-held belief but genuinely and objectively testing the theory from an open starting point; the activities need to be measured against something, not nothing or the status quo; this is not (and could not be) a double-blind study, therefore you have the participants knowing what the intention is, leading to inevitable Hawthorne AND placebo effects. The study purports to show that punctuality improved because the pupils had this as the first activity of the day - I bet if you'd given them a piece of chocolate first thing you'd have had the same effect! I could go on. Trust me though: you will see this reported soon, with a headline such as "brain-training makes kids cleverer" or "maths improves kids school results". And loads of people will fall for it. To understand fully my objections to projects like this, I recommend you read Ben Goldacre's book, Bad Science, and see the chapter about the Durham fish oil trials - in my opinion, the same mistakes are largely being made here. You can judge for yourself whether it's bad science: my view is that it's a very bad use of time. YES, games are fantastic ways of teaching; YES children learn better when they are happy. Well, duh! But I can find you a load of better, cheaper and more practical ideas to boost children's learning (and I do - I go into very many schools, showing pupils of all ages how to use their own brains well; and they have fun doing it - maybe not as much fun as playing a video game, but they carry the messages with them for the rest of their life; it's something to build on, not an transient activity. In doing so, I am also showing the teachers how brains work, so they can use their own knowledge for many more classes.)
- I wouldn't measure learning by how much fun was had. Yes, it's great when we can have fun learning, but it's not the measurement of success.
- The reason Nintendo developed Brain Age was to turn non-gamers into gamers, not to make the world cleverer. They have made it look as though neuroscientists endorse it but I can't find a genuine neuroscientist to say, "Yes, I recommend you do the Brain Age programme every day because it will make you cleverer and ward off aging." In fact, the ones I've asked have all said that I am right to be sceptical. Sorry, but I believe them and not the marketing guys.
- It's simplistic, unnecessary and not as good for you as leading a varied and active life, with social interaction and genuine thinking and talking.
- If you want to know some genuinely good (and free) ideas to train your brain, see the brain pages of my website.
Finally, on this subject, I am really looking forward to receiving my pre-ordered copy of Gary Small's book "iBrain" - it's apparently got some very interesting and possibly worrying ideas about what all this electronic stuff is doing to our brains.
Better get off my computer and out into the real world then, hadn't I? Time for some creative cooking and maybe the opening of a bottle of wine. Yes, ok, alcohol bad for brains, but it's a Friday evening, and I will be honing my thinking skills, creativity and communication by sharing it over a deep and meaningful conversation with an intelligent person. That or the Nintendo - not really a close call, is it?