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Dr. Elliot Berkman, University of Oregon – Benefits of Brain Training

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Elliot Berkman of the University of Oregon reveals the limits of brain training. 

Elliot Berkman is an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Oregon. The SAN Lab studies how motivational factors and neural systems influence goal pursuit. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California Los Angeles.

About Dr. Berkman

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Dr. Elliot Berkman – Benefits of Brain Training

The increasing popularity of commercial “brain-training” services that promise to enhance intelligence and other cognitive abilities is understandable: Who wouldn’t want more working memory, attention, and self-control? However, independent scientists have recently called the effectiveness of these services into question, particularly with respect to how well their effects generalize to the real world. My students Lauren Kahn and Junaid Merchant and I recently published a study using neuroimaging to explore what happens in the brain during a training to improve one kind of self-control, called inhibitory control, and to explain why that training might not transfer to new contexts.

We found that our training caused activity in parts of the brain network associated with inhibitory control to shift earlier in time, proactively engaging before control was needed. This shift improved performance on the training task itself because earlier, proactive control is more efficient than later, reactive control , but there’s a catch: with training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed. Associating those cues to self-control is beneficial in the context of the training task, but doesn’t improve performance on different tasks that don’t necessarily use those same cues. On a deeper level, the finding suggests that training doesn’t strengthen self-control per se, but rather changes when it “kicks in” and which cues it uses to do so. This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task and also why the performance boost doesn’t generalize beyond that task. To us, the most compelling next step is to develop an intervention that incorporates cues from real environments where better inhibitory control would be desirable.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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