For the past 20 years or so, great efforts have been put forth to develop cognitive exercises, many of which use technology driven approaches, to address identified weaknesses in how one processes information. Instead of traditional academic tutoring, where one focuses on reading, writing, or math, these more prescriptive exercises focus on the subsystems that underlie the development of reading, writing and math; motor control, processing speed, memory, auditory/phonological processing, attention and inhibition, language, systemic integration, spatial reasoning, pattern recognition and more.
Research on the efficacy of these exercises is mixed. In many cases, great gains are seen, but when a random sample of subjects is recruited for a large study, the results are typically not impressive as to how many subjects actually improved. The question then becomes: Are levels of cognitive efficiency fixed? Or, with practice, can one improve a weak area?
The development of our individual cognitive systems, that are required for higher level learning, do not progress on the same timetable. Each system is on a developmental trajectory that approximates most others their age. When a system is immature and not developing as would be expected, exercising that system to work more efficiently and create an integrated circuitry with other systems for the grand goal of improving one’s ability to manage traditional classroom demands, makes total sense. There is no question that in select cases, when the right “immature systems” are paired with the right activities, live or through technology-based exercises, improvement is inevitable and meaningful gains in the integrity of the underdeveloped/immature systems is seen. All of our brain systems depend on each other to communicate and rely on dense interconnected networks. With information moving at tremendous speed (electrical and chemical connectivity) in every direction among 86 billion neurons, the effects of a particular intervention of the overall efficiency of the brain is difficult to measure.
With detailed neuropsychological testing, it is not difficult to clearly define who is a good candidate for what type of cognitive exercise to improve the integrity of a system that is intertwined and codependent on multiple other systems. When one system is strong, it can carry or aid a weaker system.
There is no question that brain training activities can work, but only if the right training is paired specifically with the system that needs the support.