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Nothing in this blog post is intended as medical or psychological advice. Should you wish to understand the issues in cognitive training as they pertain to you, consult with your doctor, psychologist, or another licensed healthcare provider. I am neither suggesting that you use cognitive (brain) training or alternate methods of thinking although I have made such a choice for myself. The intent of this post is that you understand the issues with these methods should you be making a choice. 

In the past three decades, methods of cognitive training have been developed by many companies. Services are offered by online companies, individual healthcare professionals, and some psychological testing companies.

The developers-owners of cognitive training methods make many claims about how these methods can improve or maintain GENERAL cognitive (brain) functioning for typical adults, those starting cognitive decline, and those entering the faster decline of dementia.

In most cases, costs associated with receiving cognitive training — especially under the supervision of a licensed professional — can be quite high.

As the term is used, cognitive training consists of repeatedly taking cognitive tests developed usually in psychology research studies and typically presented on a computer. Look at a complex picture flashed on the screen rapidly and say where a selected object (thing, person) was shown on the screen. Look for sequences of numbers and letters. Ignore distracting stimuli when looking at the computer screen. In many cases, these tests look like “old time” computer games like Tetris.

These cognitive training procedures are supposed to make you better at thinking by training your brain in certain types of ways that then improve the ability to do a very general and large set of tasks in attention, judgment, planning, and other cognitive processes. It is assumed that learning to perform well ON THESE SPECIFIC TASKS will help you think better in a general way. Unfortunately, it appears after decades of studying cognitive training, it is found that the training on a test will help you get somewhat (and it is a small somewhat) better at taking THAT TEST ONLY and not in similar cognitive tasks more related to day-to-day activities. Yes, you might get better at identifying flashing letters when they appear on the screen, but there is little, if any, replicable evidence that becoming good at the test generalizes into being good at exercising attention in real world situations.

Just what you always think when you think about psychology. Psychologists study “dumb” tasks that look little like real world situations and then claim that getting good at those tasks will change your life. You usually laughed when you read this stuff in news outlet stories. Nonetheless, cognitive training continues to sell and expand and advertise. Money can be made selling cognitive training to individuals concerned with their current and future ability to think well and remember and maintain independence. Many claims are made that the methods work and the glossy, high-priced advertising is convincing, but the statistics are not. And yes, the companies that sell cognitive testing products claim that the training works if THEY conduct the experiments and evaluate their own products. However, ongoing INDEPENDENT RESEARCH suggests this is NOT the case.

Did you really expect the ethics of cognitive training companies to exceed those of pharmaceutical companies? The false claims to be less? Big money, big pressure to prove that these things work.

Independent psychologists who evaluate the effectiveness of programs and assertions of others do not find much if any, effect of cognitive training on improving general cognitive functioning, thinking, and performance in real-life situations faced by aging adults.

The most important INDEPENDENT EVALUATION appears in a journal of the Association for Psychological Science of which I am a Fellow. APS is one of the two major psychological associations in the USA and designation as a Fellow comes only after a thorough peer evaluation of competence.

Click here to see a short summary of the research that examines all of the research over several decades on cognitive training. The full report is 83 pages. I still understand most of the mumbo-jumbo in the full report. You will have to pay to purchase the full report if you are not a member of APS. My judgment is that the summary is very accurate in presenting the results of this research through what is called a meta-analysis and I doubt that most people need read more than the 1-page summary.

OK then, so cognitive training probably will not turn out to be the big fix for what ails your thinking as you age or you have a neurodegenerative (neurological) disease. Maybe improvements will be made in future decades but right now the effects appear to be tiny at best.

What’s the alternative?

I have argued for a number years that learning alternate ways of thinking and expanding the types of information your brain can effectively process can be very useful throughout your life. While learning such strategies in childhood is best, you can keep learning new ways to think up until the day you die and expect to get some significant return for your work.

What kinds of activities have been shown to increase brain function? Learning additional languages, studying a musical instrument, learning math, creating art or stories, and many others to which we all have access, typically with a minimum expense. These are real-world activities and many are a lot of fun.

As I progressed through cognitive decline and dementia I have come to believe that learning what are called visual thinking methods — arranging information into pictures that organize major ideas and show the “big picture” — can help you in many ways I have documented throughout this blog (Hubaisms.com). Of course, my findings are based only my own observations of myself and not on formal studies. I note, however, that sometimes observations are better sources of information than research studies, especially from individuals touting products they have invested millions of dollars in developing.

I think that the fuzzy research on cognitive training and the fact that mind mapping is seen as effective at most Fortune 500 corporations, many universities worldwide and by millions of users worldwide at this time suggests that learning alternate WAYS TO THINK probably is much more effective than cognitive training (akin to playing a 1980s computer game).

My suggestion is that if you are concerned that your ability to think will decline or you are already experiencing cognitive decline, you take some time (1-8 hours will help you evaluate this) and determine if visual thinking is useful for you. You can read my work on this blog or work created by Buzan when he popularized mind mapping in business and education or look at many other authors who write on this topic such as Nast. Major summaries and videos are available online. If you would like to see someone with dementia use mind mapping, you can click here to watch a number of short videos of my mind mapping process in a new window.

Alternate visual thinking methods that I find useful are SKETCHNOTES, doodles, cartoons, and graphs.

You can try mind maps, sketchnotes, doodles, cartoons, and graphics with a few pencils or pens you already own and a piece of paper (A4 or 8.5×11 in landscape mode).

Later you can buy computer apps to make the visual thinking look better if you want but you need not do so.

Look at the image below to show the way I think about the information in this post visually using a mind map.

If you want me to understand something or remember it, DRAW ME A PICTURE. I’m a lot smarter than you might think if you just talk to me. Oh, and you need not be artistic at all to use the techniques in visual thinking so don’t use the excuse that you have no “talent.”

Click on the image to expand it.