Products designed to give babies and young children an educational headstart are hugely popular but they’re mostly backed up by weak science. In some cases, for example with educational DVDs, there’s even evidence of potential harm to language development, albeit that this evidence has been challenged by the creators of the DVDs.
Meanwhile, research with adults suggests that so-called brain training exercises (puzzles and memory and attention tasks on a computer) rarely lead to general intellectual benefits. Instead people just get better on the specific training tasks they complete.
Given this background, the prospects for brain training for babies look decidedly shaky. And yet in a new study, a team led by Sam Wass has shown brain training exercises for babies (focused on attention) led to widespread cognitive benefits over a two-week period. “To our knowledge, this is the first report of distal transfer of training effects following cognitive training in participants younger than 4 years old,” they write.
Wass and his colleagues invited 42 healthy, 11-month-old babies to their lab five times over two weeks. Whilst there, half the babies undertook an average of 77 mins of training in screen-based tasks that varied in difficulty according to each baby’s performance. The other babies spent the same time watching TV clips and animations.
The four attentional training tasks all required the babies to use their direction of gaze to create various effects. For example, in the butterfly task, so long as the baby fixated on it, a butterfly “flew” across the screen as distractors (e.g. house) scrolled in the other direction. As soon as the baby stopped fixating the butterfly, the distractors disappeared and the butterfly remained stationary. In another “elephant” task, the babies were rewarded with animations when they succeeded in fixating an elephant rather than a similarly sized distractor.
Compared with the control group, the babies who undertook the training showed improvements in basic lab measures of cognitive performance, completed at the beginning and end of the two-week training period, including: task-switching ability (a sign of cognitive control), in sustained attention, faster eye movement reaction times and quicker attention disengagement. The effect sizes ranged from .54 up to 1.06 (generally considered medium to large). The researchers argued this was unlikely to be simply due to greater motivation in the trained babies – for example, the improvements to sustained attention were larger towards “interesting stimuli”, indicating a selectivity in the effects. The researchers were surprised that there were no working memory benefits, but said this could be because working memory “is weak at this early age”.
In free play in front of a puppet theatre, somewhat paradoxically (given their increased ability at sustained attention), the trained babies showed a trend toward more, shorter glances. The researchers reasoned this could be because the training had given the babies’ greater flexible control of their attention, depending on context. This is an important result because past research has linked this gaze style at 9 months with superior language development at 31 months. In general, Wass and his team said attentional control could be a “tool for learning” that aids the later acquisition of other skills.
” … It is striking that we found changes following briefer training periods than those used by other studies [with older children],” the researchers said. ” … Further work is required to assess whether this is because infant brains are more plastic and more readily amenable to training or because eye-gaze contingent training is more immersive in comparison with the point-and-click computer interface [using a mouse] used by other groups.”
Wass and his colleagues conceded that more research was needed to assess whether the observed training effects would last into the medium and long term. A possibility is that training effects in babies are incredibly fast, but also quick to dissipate. Regardless, for the time being, this is a study that’s bound to excite competitive parents and educational entrepreneurs alike.
Wass, S., Porayska-Pomsta, K., and Johnson, M. (2011). Training Attentional Control in Infancy. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.004