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What’s the Brain Got to Do With Brain Training?

A skillful brain is better than a "fit" brain.

I work in the field of behavior analysis, a field traditionally associated with special education based on principles derived from extensive research on animal learning, led by the late great B.F Skinner. The field has come a long way since its inception, now dealing with all manner of complex human behavior, including problem solving, language, perspective-taking, mathematical reasoning and so on. In particular, a powerful new behavior-analytic theory of human cognition, known as Relational Frame Theory (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes & Roche, 2001), has helped psychologists understand precisely what types of personal learning experiences are needed to maximize our intellectual development. This has been possible because behavior analysts spend a lot of time trying to break into simpler units important intellectual skills, such as reading and problem-solving. It is not really the point of this article to walk through those functional units, which are described elsewhere on this IQbootcamp blog. The important point is that not all “brain training” is based on neuroscientific research. In fact, I would argue that a neuroscientific approach might even be somewhat of a distraction, even if explaining everything in neuroscientific terms is very much in vogue these days.

 The Old False Dichotomy Problem

We all understand that a human organism requires a central nervous system to operate effectively, and we understand that the brain is part of the central nervous system that is of relevance to understanding behavior. But we do not all agree on the exact relationship between brain and development.  The issue is not unlike the nature-nurture debate, insofar as drawing a distinction between a “fit” brain and high levels of intellectual skill, represents somewhat of a false dichotomy, at least from our perspective. This in turn tempts too many psychologists to take the easy and culturally consistent step, of explaining behavioral functions (e.g., skills) in terms of brain function. This is not so meaningful a move conceptually, because the brain develops precisely in response to the stimulation it receives through learning experiences, and it is even explicit in the brain training and brain health literature that brain training exercises might have their effect on our overall mental acuity, precisely because the brain responds to learning experiences by forming new neural links between cells.

Simple (but Incorrect) Logic

The simple logic, that the brain “underlies” behavior, belies a subtle contradiction. More specifically, if brain training is already designed to provide practice at those very skills that require improvement (let’s say memory), why do we get so excited to learn that “the very structure of the brain structure has been altered” in response to practice at this task. What did we think would happen? Did we really think that when a child improves their piano playing through practice, for example, that no physiological changes occurr at all? Of course we expect that the whole organism changes in response to learning experiences, but once this has occurred why do we need to worry about the brain? If the training exercise works to improve intellectual function, or any other skill, that is all we may need to know from a pragmatic point of view.   

Brain changes that accompany skill improvements are interesting and they may be important to identify insofar as they help to fill knowledge gaps in our understanding of brain function and its relation to various behaviors. However, once this understanding unfolds, the activity of the brain, and the skill with which it is associated can be considered two sides of the same coin. In other words, improvements in intellectual skill levels can be viewed at different levels of analysis; the learning achievements associated with those improvements, or the neural correlates of those improvement.  Critically, however, the brain changes do not automatically easily explain the behavior improvements, because they themselves were brought about by the behavior changes they are supposed to explain! For example, the very improvement in remembering skills that are observed as one practices remembering, cannot be explained by the brain changes produced by that practice. To attempt to do so constitutes what philosophers of science call a tautology, and which behavior analysts have always been keen to avoid. If brain or behavior changes explains each other, it seems more parsimonious to behavior analysts to assume that the brain changes are caused by the behavior changes, and not vice versa, as per current fashion.

Cause and Effect?

By focusing on behavior change in the development of cognitive skills training, and by using brain measures only as a secondary means of understanding the effects of that training (and in so doing producing coherent multi-level explanations), we keep focused on the task at hand.  Yes, I am suggesting we treat neural changes as depend outcomes of brain training – not as the explanation for the effects of brain training.  Put simply, the neural changes associated with brain training themselves need to be explained – and we can easily do so by simply looking to the brain training regimen. This is the essence of the behavioral approach.

Of course, neuroscientific activity helps to make sense of unusual behaviors and can even be diagnostic. For example, we might understand a particular behavior once we discover specific brain functions for an individual that are typical of a certain population (e.g., schizophrenics). However, it is critical to understand that we only know that these brain functions are typical of those populations because we have taken our behavioral analyses of schizophrenics as primary in mapping out the brain function associated with that condition in the first instance. We did not discover schizophrenia in the brain – we simply looked at its neutral correlates.  The condition was already mapped out behaviorally – and if it had not been the neural correlates could never have been discovered.

In the same way, we cannot understand what memory “really” is, and therefore “fully” explain it, by looking at its neural correlates, because such studies are necessarily required to study only the correlates of those activities that we have already defined clearly as “remembering behavior”. In other words, if we already know what remembering is, how can discovering the neural correlates alter that definition or correct it in any way (this is worth pondering on for those readers who do not give the importance of conceptual clarity in scientific explanation much thought).  No doubt some readers can think of instances in which neural correlate studies allowed psychologists to “discover” that two quite different behaviors were in fact somewhat related.  This is all part of the building out of our knowledge base and ensuring that our behavioral and neuro-scientific levels of explanation all cohere.  However, it does not follow from this that one must adopt a reductionistic approach in which biological accounts are necessarily more “fundamental” and therefore superior modes of explanation to behavioral ones.

Teach What You Want the Student to Learn

If behavior is what we are trying to improve … teach it! The emphasis on “brain plasticity” and “the growth of neural pathways” that has plagued the commonsensical marketing literature used for much brain training software, has actually inadvertently highlighted the inefficiency of the brain training system itself. This is a system in which behavior is improved by exercising an organ whose cell density and degree of interconnectedness is merely associated with high levels of function in that skill domain. Training you brain will not tell you what the square root of -1 is. That is based on conventional knowledge. And it will not make you any better at reasoning logically in areas in which the rules of logic are conventional (e.g., understand the difference between “if-then” and “if-and-only-if” statements).  Of course, a “fit” brain may make it easier to learn these things – but not if they are taught badly.  This brings us full circle back to that false dichotomy and the relationship between teaching methodologies and brain development. That fit brain is no good at all, if no one knows how to teach, any more than your genes for height are any good at all if you are raised without much protein in your diet.

Behavior analysts teach what they need to teach. They do not focus on indirect means, such as strengthening various organs involved in the skills of interest, because these will get exercised in the course of effective training in any case. Instead, we focus on the task at hand, and worry about the brain changes later.  

It is well noted, even in the popular media, that there is much spin and scientific “gobbeldy-gook” associated with marketing for brain training products. What is not so obvious is the conceptual confusion that underlies the idea that a complex, socially conventional skill (e.g., reading) might spontaneously improve by exercising an organ merely involved in the effective execution of that skill.  Arguing that a person will automatically become smarter by simply exercising their brain “muscle” is like arguing that they can become a better piano player by simply training their finger muscles.

Bryan Roche, Ph.D. is a behavioral psychologist at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
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