Brain training. What if there was some way to increase memory and attention so marks were improved in school?

Typically psychologists say brain wiring is set at birth. Some people are born with faster systems. Some have better memory storage and recall, some better reasoning and vocabulary. Some have weak memory, reasoning, and vocabulary. For some people, their speaking does not develop clearly but takes time. All the above differences may be above or below the normal range before school even starts.

The cognitive potential is for the most part average and when that is the case, the various systems speak to each other fluently. Most brains function normally given students have had a decent sleep, breakfast, and are not dealing with any trauma that interferes in concentration.

In class, the teacher talks, information is heard, seen, remembered and students make a good sense of the information by connecting it to what is already known. Come time for assessments, the information is ready for output. Studying improves and refreshes the recall of all the information that has been stored, especially if the student has to 'teach' it to another.

A lot of my work has been testing and analysing student’s learning systems. What are their strengths? What are the weak areas? Why does doing homework take so long compared to everyone else? Why do some people just get it all the time in class, make connections, and know everything? Why are some brains slow or stuck easily? Why are some so easily distracted or hear what is being said but need to hear it again to get it? Why do some seem to know the material and then do poorly on tests? Not everyone’s system hums in perfect orchestration. For some people, their systems are unevenly developed and cause frustration.

More and more research shows how plastic the brain really is and how we can make changes. For example, new programmes can treat stroke victims by giving them video activities where they have to stretch am arm, let us say, multiple times and this can recover mobility faster. New medications such as memory enhancers and treatments such as brain training are becoming available. Companies have made these treatment programmes available on the markets to support and enhance learning. If there were targeted practices that improved memory and attention, is it a good idea for our children?

Companies like Cogmed, Luminosity, and BrainRx are competing for the best intensive methods to improve memory and attention. Their research says they have good results. How does it work? A package can be purchased for a year. The activities are much like computer games and provide exercises to stretch memory and attention skills. A score is kept and improvement is measured daily. The only way it helps is if 20 minutes to an hour are committed to the activities 4X per week.

We all know practicing spelling, handwriting, math problems and sentence writing can enhance basic skills. These are also skills that a computer can do for us. Is this where we want to focus our teaching and learning energy? Enhancing memory, creativity, and attention -core cognitive skills- may be the better targets to give our children a leading edge in school as well as with future job markets.

Vivian Huizenga M.Sc. is Primary Counselor, International School Dhaka