MIA Studio/Shutterstock
Source: MIA Studio/Shutterstock

Most parents want their children to reach their academic potential, and they’re willing to go to great effort and expense to help achieve that goal. In recent years, a number of researchers have offered evidence suggesting that two activities in particular are especially effective at improving children’s cognitive abilities — playing chess and learning a musical instrument.

But before you send your child to chess camp or band camp, please read on.

Scientists understand that it can be difficult to assess the significance of a single study in isolation. They prefer waiting for other researchers to replicate experiments before accepting reported effects as valid. Of course, scientists are also human, and naturally they want to promote their pet theories. But collectively, scientists try to keep each other’s biases in check.

Journalists, in contrast, have less interest in scientific objectivity. Instead, they want to report on a hot story before they get scooped. And studies that show children getting a cognitive boost from learning chess or a musical instrument make for good copy. So parents, who get their information about the latest research on child-rearing from the mainstream media, can easily be duped by shoddy science.

In a recent article, British psychologists Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet report on two meta-analyses they recently performed. (A meta-analysis is a statistical procedure for comparing and contrasting the data from a large number of studies.) These researchers evaluated the existing evidence on whether playing chess or music boosts children’s cognitive abilities or academic performance. 

Usually when researchers begin exploring a new topic, some studies will find the proposed effect, and others won’t. Or some studies will find a big effect, while others find only a little one. A meta-analysis can uncover the overall trends in massive amounts of data, and it can identify whether each study is likely to have produced reliable results.

Studies have conclusively shown that children who play chess or a musical instrument score higher on intelligence tests than their peers who don’t. So maybe there’s good reason to think these activities are cognitive boosters. But we have to keep in mind that these studies are correlational, and that correlation does not imply causation. It’s also possible that smart kids are simply attracted to intellectually demanding tasks, like chess and music.

The idea that playing chess or a musical instrument can boost general intelligence or academic performance is based on a concept known as transfer of learning. This is the idea that skills learned in one area automatically carry over to another one. For example, educators long believed that the rigors of learning Latin would help students in their math courses. In 1901, noted psychologists Edward Thorndike and Robert Woodworth conducted a series of experiments on the transfer of learning that exposed this false belief for what it was.

What Thorndike and Woodworth found was that if two tasks are similar, some abilities can transfer from one task to the other. They called this near transfer. So, if you already know Latin, it will make learning Italian much easier, because the two are related languages. But far transfer between two unrelated fields simply doesn’t occur: Learning Latin doesn’t help you understand algebra or geometry.

Thorndike and Woodworth thought they’d laid the mistaken notion of far transfer to rest. But hope springs eternal, and the idea that one task can train your brain to make you smarter overall is just too appealing to give up. And so Sala and Gobet conducted their meta-analyses to determine whether Thorndike and Woodworth had dismissed the idea of far transfer too soon.

The first meta-analysis examined a wide range of studies reporting on whether music instruction impacts overall academic performance. What Sala and Gobet found was that the size of the effect decreased as the experiment became more tightly controlled. In other words, researchers who used slipshod methods generally found big boosts in academic performance, while those who used stringent procedures found little or no academic advantage to learning a musical instrument. A second meta-analysis of studies looking at chess and school performance yielded similar results.

Sala and Gobet concluded that neither chess nor music is a cognitive booster, as has often been claimed. They also cite other studies that likewise found no increase in general cognitive abilities for people who play video games, in spite of recent press reports to the contrary.

More than a century after Thorndike and Woodworth reported their seminal studies on the transfer of learning, claims of brain boosters still abound. However, this most recent analysis of the data merely confirms what psychologists have already known for more than a century: Far transfer simply doesn't occur. Playing video games doesn’t boost your memory or attention outside of the game. And making children play chess or music doesn’t make them smarter.

If your child shows an interest in chess or music — or soccer or computers or any other cognitively demanding pursuit — by all means encourage it. These are all engaging activities worth pursuing in their own right. But don’t foist these “brain-boosting” tasks upon them. If you do, your child is more likely to develop a general dislike for learning, in a sense “busting” their brains instead of “boosting” them.

Correction: In a previous version of this post, I erroneously claimed that “rigorously conducted meta-analyses” challenged the effectiveness of brain fitness software such as Posit Science. In fact, no such meta-analyses exist.

References

Sala, G. & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0963721417712760

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