No “far transfer” – chess, memory training and music just make you better at chess, memory training and music

By Alex Fradera

Learning to ride a BMX obviously helps you handle a racing bike. How about a motorbike? A unicycle? A helicopter? The question of how far learning generalises beyond the original context has continued to vex psychologists. The answer has real-life implications for education and health. For instance, it bears on whether, by undertaking activities like brain training or learning chess, we can expect to boost our overall memory or intelligence – what’s known as “far transfer”. In a new review in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet of the University of Liverpool conclude that in fact the evidence for far-transfer is very weak.

Proponents of “far transfer” point to highly-cited studies suggesting it can happen, such as a paper from 2008 that claimed the kind of “working memory” exercise that’s found in many brain training programmes led to improvements in problem-solving abilities or what’s known as “fluid intelligence”. However, it can be risky to read too much into single studies, so Sala and Gobet conducted three meta-analyses (which combine the data from multiple previous studies), involving three activities that are strong candidates for far transfer: chess, music and working memory training. The research was all focused on children, because you would expect any far-reaching benefits to be greater in those whose cognitive ability is still very much in development.

The results suggested that instruction in chess or music, or working memory training, all led to small-to-moderate gains in broader abilities, like memory, general intelligence, and academic attainment. On the face of it, this is evidence for far transfer. But Sala and Gobet picked apart the studies within the analyses to find something dispiriting: “the size of the effects was inversely related to the quality of the experimental design.”

Limiting the analysis to the best-designed studies, they found little or no evidence of far-transfer. The only exception was a robust effect of working memory training on other memory tasks, which is arguably “near transfer” rather than far transfer. This tallies with an in-depth evaluation of brain training published last year that concluded such training improves performance at the specific skills being practiced, but that claims about its broader benefits have little support once you discount the less stringently designed studies.

So far transfer remains a weakly supported concept. Theoretically, the evidence lines up with the “common elements theory” of learning, proposed by Thorndike and Woodworth more than one hundred years ago: learning will have the most relevance for the domains precisely being practiced, some relevance for domains with lots in common, and little for those more removed. The practical implications for education are straightforward: if you want to acquire a skill, train that skill, or at least something closely related.

Does Far Transfer Exist? Negative Evidence From Chess, Music, and Working Memory Training

Image: Marina Caruso/Getty Images

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

16 thoughts on “No “far transfer” – chess, memory training and music just make you better at chess, memory training and music”

  1. This article does not mention meditation training. There is evidence that meditation (and mindfulness) training lead to “process-specific learning” i.e., learning effects that transfer to new tasks and domains. See for example the following article:
    Slagter HA, Davidson RJ, Lutz A. (2011). Mental training as a tool in the neuroscientific study of brain and cognitive plasticity. Front Hum Neurosci, 10;5:17.
    Also note that meditation and mindfulness practices relate to any experiences that we happen to deal with on a moment-by-moment basis – this is explained in the following article:
    Karunamuni, N., and Weerasekera, R. (2017). Theoretical Foundations to Guide Mindfulness Meditation: A Path to Wisdom. Current Psychology.

  2. I disagree. Learning chess gave me a better understanding of spacial analysis and helped me learn to pay attention to little details in everything I do. I still think back to the moment I realized I needed to pay attention to all the pieces on the board when I miss little things I do.
    Having a good working memory helps me with literally everything I do all the time.
    Learning music helped me with math and I find writing songs to be similar to writing a computer program. I think about them both the same way. They’re both large complete things built from different abstract parts.
    Building a program, using classes and structs built from basic primitives is not much different that building a song by layering different notes and chords into tracks and tweaking them until they work together as a song.
    In both cases there’s certain patterns that do and don’t work together, you have to pay attention to tiny details. One misplaced keyword or drumbeat can mess up a whole program or song.
    I work on both the same way, I start with a base loop for my program or song, I focus on one small piece at a time, then tie it together with the rest, I frequently go back and change old parts because they don’t work well as a whole or I figured out a better way to do it.
    Personally I feel like learning those things helped me be better at life in general.
    Music and chess are both extremely useful for learning about abstraction which is pretty much the most important skill a person can learn. Abstraction makes our society possible. Both of these teach you how to focus on small parts and tie them to a bigger whole. Everything we do is based on these concepts.
    They both teach you to think and plan ahead. If you’re playing a song you have to know ahead of time what’s coming next or at least be able to read music on the fly.
    If you play music with other people it helps with learning to read people and work with others cohesively. You have to be able to tell what the others are doing, make sure you stay on time with everybody as well as keeping track of the song and just about everything else going on.
    Honestly everything I learn I find ways to apply to other things I do in life. Things are a lot more similar than they may seem. Humans only have so mamy skills but we have countless ways to apply them to do amazing things.

    1. Not sure why everyone dogs brain training. I think their just jealous or something. Glad all those things helped. I mean a more powerful brain, is going to make many applications that much easier

  3. I would also disagree but for different reasons. There is a program – Combat Brain Training – developed initially for the US Marines that uses a series of non-digital (key to far transfer) exercises which utilizes targeted neuroplasticity training exercises to improve executive function and processing speed. The brain changes to handle the load in ways that positively impact everything we do, Thousands of people – military elites and pro athletes to brain trauma sufferers and kids with LD – have improved in areas specific to their desired goals. The same exercises improve marksmanship, ACT scores, basketball shooting percentages, depression and BPD, cognitive test scores, etc. All VERY far effect. It is the only program of its kind vetted and approved by Special Operations Command precisely because of this capability. Incidentally it will also help you at chess and music!

  4. The next study will show the opposite results. Transfer seems to be quite situationally dtermined.

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