By Jeff Zimman, Posit Science
A new study shows that computerized brain training can improve the cognitive efficiency of tech workers. The results are particularly intriguing because the efficiency gains were seen in workers recruited from a top research facility, where most workers are regarded as already being high performers.
One implication of the study is that sizable gains in productivity might be obtained by investing in building workers’ cognitive abilities, rather than the current dominant focus of improving productivity by automating repetitive tasks.
These results build on a similar study published earlier this year among blue collars workers (who connect electrical power lines), as well as on individual reports of the benefits of brain training in elite sports from top performers, such as New England quarterback Tom Brady.
The tech workers study was conducted by researchers at the Platypus Institute, an independent think tank which tests and curates neuroscience-based products for industry. The researchers presented their findings this month at the 41st Annual Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference in Berlin, sponsored by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
The researchers found relatively small amounts of neurocognitive training drove significant gains in efficiency, based on standard neuropsychological assessments and brain imaging. In addition, study participants self-reported qualitative gains in workplace performance from the training.
The computerized brain training app used in the study was BrainHQ, which is available to the public from Posit Science as iOS, Android, and web apps. BrainHQ has been developed, tested, refined, and validated by a global team that includes hundreds of university-based scientists.
BrainHQ is the brain-child, so to speak, of renowned neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich, who is credited with discovering that the brain remains “plastic” – capable of chemical, structural and functional change based on sensory and other inputs – throughout life. For the past two decades, Dr. Merzenich has focused on using computers and mobile devices to monitor and improve brain health and performance.
The independent researchers from Platypus Institute recruited 22 technology workers at Fujitsu Labs America for the study. All were measured before and after training on a battery of eight standard assessments (from the Dana Standard assessment battery) to generate a composite index of cognitive efficiency. Participants also underwent electroencephalographic (EEG) recording of brain activity before and after training (resulting in EEG-derived images), and they filled out self-report surveys of their experiences at work. Twenty-one participants completed the study.
Participants were asked to complete 20 half-hour sessions (a total of 10 hours) of BrainHQ training over the course of six weeks; however, some participants did much more training, and some did less.
For analysis purposes, the researchers split participants into two groups: a group that trained more than average and a group that trained less. The “Long Group” completed between 17 and 45 hours (with an average of 30 hours) and the “Short Group” completed between 1 and 14 hours (with an average of 7 hours). This allowed the researchers to measure the effect of the amount of training on results. Before the training, there was no significant difference between the two groups in the cognitive assessments, nor in EEG recording.
Researchers found an overall improvement in cognitive efficiency – measuring the speed and accuracy of cognitive performance – of about 8 percent from the training. And, the data indicated that more training was better – with the Short Group improving by 5 percent and the Long Group by 12 percent.
EEG recording showed the brain increasing in efficient operations in a manner that was parallel to what was seen in the neuropsychological testing.
The researchers indicated that qualitative self-reports from participants further confirmed the findings, sharing a quote from a participant who said, “Since I started brain training, I’ve noticed a change in my focus and memory. I recall more details in my work and can sustain a high level of focus for longer.”
“We perform research to identify the best in applied neuroscience and curate those solutions for globally-recognized clients,” said Dr. Amy Kruse, Chief Science Officer of PlatypusNeuro and a study co-author. “The training-based gains we observed — and the underlying neurophysiological changes we recorded — provide unique insights into benefits of BrainHQ training.”
“This is an important study of the use of our training in the workplace to boost efficiency,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. “As industry looks for ways to increase productivity – especially in the service sector – they often face diminishing returns from further investment in automation. Yet, this study indicates a relatively modest investment in training workers – to have faster and more accurate brains – could have a huge payoff.”
This is the second study published this year on the impact of BrainHQ in the workplace. In April, a study showed that such training could significantly reduce error rates in powerline workers, where a mistake can be fatal. When researchers in that study looked at reportable error incidents over a four-year period (after training), those who trained a small amount (just 12 hours at the beginning of the period) were about nine times less likely to make a reportable error than the untrained control group. When looking at those with “perfect” safety performance records, the researchers reported that 62.5 percent of the workers who did the training were error-free over the entire four-year period, as opposed to just 15 percent in the control group.
“There are more than 150 peer-reviewed journal articles on the benefits of the exercises and assessments in BrainHQ,” Dr. Mahncke noted. “At first, most of those benefits were in healthy aging. Then, many published in studies of different clinical populations with cognitive issues. Then, elite athletes and teams really opened our eyes to what BrainHQ can do for even top performers. These new studies show how having a faster and more accurate brain can make a big difference in the workplace.”
“After all,” Dr. Mahncke concluded, “if you think about the definition of productivity, it’s more and better output – exactly what you’d expect from a faster and more accurate brain.”