June 26, 2023
The idea of cultivating your senses and mental capabilities through training is not a new one. Ancient civilizations like the Greeks, Romans, and Chinese had various practices and techniques that refined cognitive skills.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the study of the brain became more sophisticated. The microscope and new techniques, such as the staining procedure led the way to the neuron doctrine, the idea that the nervous system was composed of discrete individual cells.
This development also sparked the interest in early brain training regimens and self-improvement systems, which could be seen as stepping stones for more modern digital cognitive training methods.
One such method was the Ralston Brain Regime, a course book published in 1891, designed to develop perfect health in the physical brain through various exercises, like positive thinking, mental visualization, and following your train of thought closely. One of the main aims was the prevention of “the common disease of mind wandering”.
Everett Ralston would probably have been aghast to learn about today’s fast-paced digitally saturated world, constantly pulling, pushing, and nudging our attention in various ways.
It is clear that the ability to focus and maintain concentration is more crucial than ever, and cognitive training as a digital therapeutic has emerged as a promising aid for those seeking to improve their attention span and cognitive performance.
It was in the early 2000s that we saw the rise of the first digital evidence-based therapeutic interventions. The development of and research backing these tools invigorated the debate on whether cognitive capacities are malleable or static. Was it really possible to actively strengthen your mind by putting it into rigorous training, or were you left with the genetic card dealt to you by birth?
This initial wave was accompanied by the groundbreaking commercial success of “brain training” as a game concept, creating a multi-million-dollar industry. But the claims made by a growing number of brain training games were often exaggerated and backed by weak or, in some cases, inexistent evidence. This rightfully generated criticism from skeptic voices within the scientific community but also reflected poorly on serious scientific endeavors trying to lay the puzzle that would lead to more knowledge about the underlying mechanisms, and the real efficiency, of cognitive training.
Luckily, the field weathered this storm and a large body of important research has accumulated over the last decades. Large-scale and long-term controlled trials have shown that you can improve certain cognitive functions like your working memory through cognitive training. This matters a great deal, as working memory is closely interlinked with attentional capacity. Strengthening your capability to hold information in your working memory will increase your attention span and ability to concentrate, which will yield improvements in various areas of life.
Today several companies are focusing on developing digital interventions to strengthen attention and treat attention deficits. EndeavorRX from Akilli marked a significant milestone in the field as the first FDA-authorized video game treatment for kids with ADHD, while TALi Digital, an Australian medical technology company, has developed Tali DETECT under the Australian Government initiative, the Cooperative Research Centres Program.
The author of this blog post would of course be remiss not to mention Cogmed Working Memory Training, which is the program backed by the most extensive body of clinical research, and has demonstrated long-lasting effects and transfer effects to other cognitive abilities.
Berger and Fehr’s 2020 study is a notable example of the impact of cognitive training. The study included a total of 572 young German students (6-7 years of age) and spanned four years. The results showed significant near-transfer improvements in working memory performance immediately after the Cogmed Working Memory intervention, with far-transfer effects on academic ability and general cognitive capacity emerging one year later. Four years post-intervention, students who underwent working memory training were admitted to the most demanding and attractive academic track in grade 5, over 50 percent more often compared to the national average! The authors contrast and compare the found effect sizes for these far-transfer effects with considerably more expensive educational interventions like a substantial reduction in class size, on par with almost halving the size of the classroom.
This clearly shows that advancements in digital interventions for attention and working memory, as evidenced by the research, can profoundly impact many lives - particularly those struggling with attention deficits such as ADHD. These interventions have the potential to become invaluable tools when prescribed through healthcare systems or integrated into school curricula, enabling countless individuals to harness the power of focused attention in a distracted world.
This is the fifth and final article in our series on attention. Find part 4 here.