A Q & A Brain Game on Brain Games and Self Improvement


I was interviewed on Global TV BC last week as part of their “Health Series: Improving brain fitness”. Some of the discussion was to revolve around software for improving cognition and cognitive productivity.

What I hadn’t noticed in the various communications leading up to the interview was its scheduled duration: just 4 minutes! That includes the time the interviewer takes to ask her questions… So, I was playing their “brain game” that morning: trying to funnel my thoughts on these subjects into very succinct, helpful answers. Not an easy game.

Making the ‘brain game’ a bit more challenging was the fact that I had to wake up almost three hours earlier than usual to get to the studio on time. (I’m a night owl). And so as not to feel agitated during the interview, I skipped my morning coffee… as a result (as you can see) I actually had trouble keeping my eyes open! But I digress, which is something I couldn’t do in my share of the 4 minutes.

In this post, I won’t deal directly with the questions I was asked or the answers I gave. One of my purposes here is simply to invite reflection on the problem the interviewer, interviewee and audience have in dealing with the knowledge funneling problem. I needn’t say more about it.

The other purpose is to give a few thoughts about the general topic of the interview.

  • “Brain fitness” strictly speaking is about a physical organ: the brain. That means that biological considerations come first (e.g., exercise, nutrition, and sleep). Then there are psychobiological considerations (managing one’s moods, sleep, etc.) “Brain fitness” is not a technical term.
  • “Cognitive fitness” is also not a well-defined or accepted technical term.
  • Cognitive productivity is a concept I informally specified in my Cognitive Productivity: Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective book.
  • However, the key concept of my Cognitive Productivity books is actually to be found in their subtitles. The technical term I’ve proposed for it is meta-effectiveness.
  • In c. 2007-2012, I delved into the research on games designed to improve general cognitive functioning in a broadly transferable way (more or less as would be later described by Simons et al, 2016). There wasn’t much research on the subject then. By the end of 2008, I concluded that the research direction was not very promising, and in any event it would take many years to resolve. I concluded that one’s best bet for improved cognitive functioning is to focus on what I would later call meta-effectiveness: developing the skills and dispositions to use knowledge and technology to become a more effective person.

I said in the Global TV BC interview something to the effect that:

  • If you like playing computer games, that is your choice. But I don’t recommend justifying game playing to yourself by saying it will make you smarter (in the sense of improving your IQ in a way that makes a difference). That’s like loading up on chocolate bars because raw organic cocoa powder has purported benefits. Caveat emptor applies in both directions. There may be specific games that may have a helpful general impact for certain populations under certain circumstances. If someone is looking at brain games to address a clinical concern, I would recommend consulting with a registered psychologist before spending money on software.
  • Certain games can help one improve specific skills (such as flying an airplane or learning a second language) and/or master knowledge (i.e., to learn specific things).

If you are looking for software with which to develop yourself with world class knowledge, then the section on productive practice below is for you. Unfortunately, I couldn’t squeeze a reference to it in my share of the four minute interview ! (And I didn’t want to appear to be promoting any particular software).

Some literature on “brain games”

Coincidently, last month, a developer of ours shared the following article on our internal Slack channel: Researchers Scientifically Create Video Games To Benefit Cognitive Function | Techdirt

My succinct response:

I’ve had a look at some of the original papers. Their results are overstated in TechDirt.

Here is some high caliber information on the subject:

  • Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Does Far Transfer Exist? Negative Evidence From Chess, Music, and Working Memory Training. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 515–520. doi.org/10.1177/0963721417712760
  • Sala, G., Tatlidil, K. S., & Gobet, F. (2018). Video game training does not enhance cognitive ability: A comprehensive meta-analytic investigation. Psychological Bulletin, 144(2), 111–139. doi.org/10.1037/bul0000139
  • Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. L. (2016). Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103–186. doi.org/10.1177/1529100616661983

To quote from Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? – Daniel J. Simons, Walter R. Boot, Neil Charness, Susan E. Gathercole, Christopher F. Chabris, David Z. Hambrick, Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow, 2016:

Measures of cognitive performance, including tests of processing speed, reasoning, intelligence, pattern recognition, and similar constructs, have long been used to predict academic and professional success (Deary,2012; Kuncel, Hezlett, & Ones, 2004). Cognitive and intellectual abilities show stability over time (Kuncel et al., 2004) but also are shaped by experience (Lövdén, Bäckman, Lindenberger, Schaeffer, & Schmiedek, 2010). The promise of cognitive training is based on the following reasoning: If measures of cognitive ability predict real-world performance and success, and if that success depends on those cognitive abilities, then practicing those abilities should improve outcomes—and ultimately improve people’s lives.

Sala and Gobet wrote:

(c) training chess, music, or [Working Memory] capacity does not reliably enhance any skill beyond the skills they train; and
(d) far-transfer effects, when reported, probably stemmed from confounds such as placebo effects. The same pattern of results appears to occur with other types of cognitive training.

In contrast, with the premise of general cognitive training, the concept of productive practice relies on the same kind of reasoning presented in the Simons et al paper. They look to education for cognitive benefits, not to “brain games”. If you want to get smarter, master high-caliber knowledge and learn to apply it when it’s relevant. I would add that it is important to understand that it is difficult to apply what we think we have learned. One can read an article or book, think one has learned from it, but then never remember or apply it. I’ve developed the concept of productive practice along these lines.

Productive practice for mastering knowledge and personal development

Productive practice is a form of deliberate practice that involves using technology. It extrapolates from extensive research on test-enhanced learning, the testing effect, deliberate practice, and other areas of psychology, some of which is reviewed in my first Cognitive Productivity book. That book however is not just a repackaging of previous results. It makes original contributions, which of course risks being out on a limb. However, every one of us needs to place his or her “bets” on how to achieve excellence. Research has not and will never settle all relevant questions one would like answered before one chooses one’s learning strategies..

(The meta-effectiveness framework in Cognitive Productivity uses an integrative design-oriented approach, for instance into the realm of developing attitudes and habits, indicating several new (and exciting) areas for future research.)

I do believe that many adults who would like to use knowledge as a basis for excellence (hopefully the majority) would benefit from software designed to support productive practice. Except that there still isn’t any productive practice software per se! What comes closest to productive practice software are flashcard apps that you can shoehorn into productive practice workflows. As far as I know, the most potent and flexible flashcard app is Anki. Anki is available for free on macOS, Windows and Android. It is payware on iPhone — and well worth the fee.

There’s plenty of free information online about using Anki as a regular flashcard app. And Anki’s website is where you should start if you want to try the software.

In my Cognitive Productivity books, I describe how to use Anki in a productive practice system, which aims to go beyond just remembering information to being able and disposed to apply it. Personally, I use Anki for iOS just about every day.


Whereas I have no financial interest in the business that makes Anki, I’ve led some software development projects on practice software, including at CogSci Apps. However, we decided to shelve that project. My co-founder and I concluded that the likelihood that we can change culture such that enough people would engage in productive practice isn’t sufficiently high. Investors and users won’t easily understand the necessity of productive practice (despite my Cognitive Productivity books.) The market would see productive practice as “extra work” that they are too busy to engage in. This is partly because illusions of learning are so powerful. It is not only students who overestimate the likelihood that they will be able to remember and apply information. Students graduate and become knowledge workers subject to the same cognitive biases. (See chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity.) Nevertheless, as I argued in Cognitive Productivity, if one wants to take control of one’s learning outcomes, true productive practice software should really make a significant difference.

So, at CogSci Apps Corp., we decided to develop Hook. Hook is also based on my Cognitive Productivity books — specifically, it addresses the “meta-access problem” (contextual information retrieval). It is very easy to use, it clearly reduces effort, it requires only a slight change in habits, and it delivers major benefits (or so we claim on analytical grounds).

Hook and Anki

Earlier today, there was a discussion on the Hook Productivity Forum about using Anki with the Hook productivity app. There are some tips for linking Anki “notes” to and from source material.

And for more

I hope you’ve found this article to be a bit more informative than a very brief interview.

But if you enjoyed the Global TV interview of me and want more 🙂 , then for a limited time, screencasts by yours truly are available at Hook App Videos – Hook. We will replace them with more polished screencasts ASAP.

For more media coverage of my R&D see our press page. You’l find our R&D has been covered in the New York Times, The Guardian, Forbes Magazine, Inc, O Magazine (Oprah), and more.

Revision history

  • 2020-02-19. First publication.
  • 2020-02-20. Added literature section and other text.
  • 2020-02-21. Corrections, based on feedback from Jeff Rivett.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Cognitive Science & of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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