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Memory training improves intelligence in some children, report says

Brain games can help with abstract reasoning months after the training, but they work only for those who really need and enjoy the exercises, a study says.

June 14, 2011|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times

For schoolchildren, the result could be an influx in video-based training programs that could put eye-popping graphics and engaging gamesmanship in the service of academic skill-building. Many of the newest programs have emerged from a mind meld of neuroscientists and video game designers. The resulting products adapt to their users' progress, dispensing virtual prizes and increasing the level of difficulty to keep a young player motivated and challenged.

"It's train but don't strain your brain," said UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small, author of "The Memory Bible" and creator of a new training program called Memory Power. "You've got to find the sweet spot — we know that."

That formula — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating — turned out to be crucial in the new study. Those children who saw significant and lasting improvements in abstract reasoning were far more likely to be the ones who rated the games as challenging but not overwhelming, Jaeggi said.

She likened the mental exercise of building working memory to a would-be athlete embarking on a regimen of aerobic exercise: A workout that's too easy can lead an athlete to plateau, and one that's too hard can discourage and cause injury.

Other studies have found stronger evidence that working-memory training has the power to help a person not only to remember a shopping list but to be a more agile thinker as well, said Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish neuroscientist who founded Cogmed and has been a pioneer in working-memory research.

Patricia Schwarz, who teaches fifth-graders at L.A.'s Solano Avenue Elementary School, says her children run the gamut from those who hear instructions once and remember them till the task is done to those who get "befuddled" by the time they get to step two.

"There are a lot of kids who need instructions and graphics and words written on the blackboard. It just doesn't work for them the way it does with others," said Schwarz, a 24-year veteran of teaching. Any brain-training that works "would be fantastic," she said at the end of a long day of teaching photosynthesis.

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