It’s the socialising, not just the bingo: new take on brain training November 5, 2007Posted by Johan in Applied, Cognition, Social Psychology.
Brain training is everywhere these days. From the Nintendo DS phenomenon Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training to the Neuroscientist-endorsed Mindfit, it is suddenly obvious to everyone that giving your brain a proper workout is as important to warding off dementia as getting your pulse up a few times a week is to avoiding heart disease.
I confess to being skeptical. Will my brain really benefit if I suffer through a mind-numbingly tedious working memory task? I think it depends on what your alternatives are. If your alternative is to sit silent in front of the TV, I suspect you will benefit, but isn’t there some other, less boring activity that might also help your brain?
A paper by Ybarra et al (in press) suggests that the answer to that is yes, and the alternative is socalising. Ybarra et al combined correlational and experimental designs to arrive at this conclusion. First, they used questionnaire data to show a positive relationship between the number of social interactions and cognitive functioning. The relationship held for all age groups (24-96), while controlling for a range of other factors.
This is a nice finding, but since there is no experimental manipulation, it is just as valid to interpret the findings to mean that intelligent people socialise more. So Ybarra et al went a step further, and recruited participants for an experimental study.
Participants were randomly assigned to three groups, where each group spent 10 minutes carrying out their task: the social interaction group discussed a current political issue, while the intellectual group did reading comprehension and mental rotation tasks, along with a crossword puzzle. There was also a passive control group who simply spent 10 minutes watching Seinfeld.
In order to assess how these different tasks affected cognitive functioning, Ybarra et al estimated processing speed via a task where participants made same-different judgements about dots, and a working memory task, where participants were read sentences which they had to answer questions about, all the while keeping a section of the sentence in memory.
The table below gives the results.
While the scores for the social interaction and intellectual groups are similar, the passive control group appears to have fared worse. Indeed, significance testing revealed that on each task, the experimental groups did significantly better than the passive control group, while the social interaction and intellectual groups did not differ from each other.
It is worth noting that the intellectual task is quite similar to the type of tasks that brain training programs consist of. These results indicate that instead of suffering under Dr Kawashima, you might as well get into an argument over politics with a friend (The alternative and equally valid interpretation of the data is that watching Seinfeld rots your brain). Discussing politics might just be more fun in any case – Ybarra et al did ask the participants to rate the tasks, but found no significant difference in how much the participants liked their tasks. Still, I would argue that most people will choose a debate over a working memory task any day.
This study is quite inspiring in that a single 10-minute session of intellectual or social stimulation was enough to bring about significant differences in task performance. Furthermore, it really is a testament to the power of social interaction that the intellectual task group didn’t come out ahead, even though they had basically spent 10 minutes doing very similar tasks to the ones they were assessed with. However, a few caveats should be considered. First of all, although the intellectual task resembles actual brain training, they are not one and the same. I would love to see a direct comparison between something like Mindfit and the social interaction condition used here. Secondly, although I wasn’t entirely serious about the possibility of Seinfeld rotting your brain, the fact that performance was tested immediately following the 10-minute training session is potentially problematic. It may be that carrying out an activity, any activity, simply raises your overall awareness more than watching TV does. It would have been nice to see a re-test the following day. Finally, this test only shows an immediate effect. If social interaction is to be taken seriously as an alternative to brain training, more longitudinal studies are needed, where regular training over a longer time is used.
So to conclude, these results indicate that bingo isn’t only good for granny for this reason:
But also for this reason:
Ok, so this particular bingo game might not be to granny’s taste, but you get the point.
Of course, no one can sell you social interactions, so expect brain training business to continue as usual.
Ybarra, O., Burnstein, E., Winkielman, P., Keller, M.C., Manis, M., Chan, E., and Rodriguez, J. (in press). Mental exercising through simple socializing: Social interaction promotes general cognitive functioning. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.