IN the back room of a suburban storefront previously occupied by a yoga studio, Nick Vecchiarello, a 16-year-old from Glen Ridge, N.J., sits at a desk across from Kathryn Duch, a recent college graduate who wears a black shirt emblazoned with the words “Brain Trainer.” Spread out on the desk are a dozen playing cards showing symbols of varying colors, shapes and sizes. Nick stares down, searching for three cards whose symbols match.
在郊区一家曾用作瑜伽房的商店后屋，来自于新泽西州格伦里奇16岁的尼克·维奇雷洛(Nick Vecchiarello)坐在桌子前面，对面坐着刚从大学毕业的凯斯伦·达奇(Kathryn Duch)。凯斯伦穿着一件黑色的衬衣，上面印着“大脑培训师”的字样。桌子上摆放着数十张牌，上面画着不同颜色、形状和大小的符号。尼克盯着这些牌，寻找着三张具有相同符号的牌。
“Do you see it?” Ms. Duch asks encouragingly.
“Oh, man,” mutters Nick, his eyes shifting among the cards, looking for patterns.
Across the room, Nathan Veloric, 23, studies a list of numbers, looking for any two in a row that add up to nine. With tight-lipped determination, he scrawls a circle around one pair as his trainer holds a stopwatch to time him. Halfway through the 50 seconds allotted to complete the exercise, a ruckus comes from the center of the room.
“Nathan’s here!” shouts Vanessa Maia, another trainer. Approaching him with a teasing grin, she claps her hands like an annoying little sister. “Distraction!” she shouts. “Distraction!”
There is purpose behind the silliness. Ms. Maia is challenging the trainees to stay focused on their tasks in the face of whatever distractions may be out there, whether Twitter feeds, the latest Tumblr posting or old-fashioned classroom commotion.
On this Wednesday evening at the Upper Montclair, N.J., outlet of LearningRx, a chain of 83 “brain training” franchises across the United States, the goal is to improve cognitive skills. LearningRx is one of a growing number of such commercial services — some online, others offered by psychologists. Unlike traditional tutoring services that seek to help students master a subject, brain training purports to enhance comprehension and the ability to analyze and mentally manipulate concepts, images, sounds and instructions. In a word, it seeks to make students smarter.
这是周三晚上在新泽西州的北蒙特克莱LearningRx机构所进行的培训。LearningRx是遍布全美的 “大脑培训”(brain training)特许经营连锁机构，共有83家，其目标是帮助学员改善认知能力。提供类似商业服务的机构数量在不断增长，它们有些是在线的，有些是由心理学家主导的，LearningRx只是其中之一。传统的家教服务是帮助学生精通某一科目，而大脑培训机构则不同，它旨在提高学员的理解力、分析能力以及大脑接受概念、形象、声音和指令的能力。总之，就是让学生变得更聪明。
“We measure every student pre- and post-training with a version of the Woodcock-Johnson general intelligence test,” said Ken Gibson, who began franchising LearningRx centers in 2003, and has data on more than 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 students who have been trained. “The average gain on I.Q. is 15 points after 24 weeks of training, and 20 points in less than 32 weeks.”
The three other large cognitive training services — Lumosity, Cogmed and Posit Science — dance around the question of whether they truly raise I.Q. but do assert that they improve cognitive performance.
“Your brain, just brighter,” is the slogan of Lumosity, an online company that now has some 25 million registered members. According to its Web site, “Our users have reported profound benefits that include: clearer and quicker thinking; faster problem-solving skills; increased alertness and awareness; better concentration at work or while driving; sharper memory for names, numbers and directions.”
Those results are achieved, the companies say, by repurposing cognitive tasks initially developed by psychologists as tests of mental abilities. With technical names like the antisaccade, the N-back and the complex working memory span task, the exercises are dressed up as games that become increasingly difficult as students gain mastery.
Conceived to appeal to adults, especially baby boomers looking to stanch the effects of aging, Lumosity now draws one-quarter of its audience from students between the ages of 11 and 21, according to Michael Scanlon, the company’s scientific director. “I was taken aback that so much of our user base is so young,” he said. “The particular audience I had in mind at the earliest stages of the company was my mother.” In response to requests from schoolteachers, the fee is now waived — $15 a month — for students in their classrooms. More than 1,000 teachers and 10,000 students have enrolled this year, Mr. Scanlon said.
For the one-on-one training at LearningRx, fees are decidedly higher, from about $80 to $90 an hour in Upper Montclair. The students come with learning disabilities, with grades they want to improve in a competitive academic environment, all with hopes of just being sharper.
TAYLOR WEBSTER, 16, trains daily for lacrosse with a personal coach. “She has natural athletic ability,” said her mother, Samantha Newman-Webster. “But it’s really through her training that she has been able to achieve to the point where she’s being sought out by college recruiters.” Would brain training, the family wondered, do for her grades what physical training did for her lacrosse game?
16岁的泰勒·韦伯斯特(Taylor Webster)每天都会跟私人教练学曲棍球。她母亲萨曼莎·纽曼-韦伯斯特(Samantha Newman-Webster)说，“她有运动天赋。但正是通过训练，她才获得了大学招生人员的青睐。”她的家人在想，既然体能培训帮助她提高了曲棍球技术，那么大脑培训是否也能帮她提高学习成绩呢？
Ms. Newman-Webster enrolled Taylor, already a B student at the private Montclair Kimberley Academy, at LearningRx in February. “I felt like I wanted to do whatever I could to make her learning easier, faster, deeper,” she said. “I knew she was going to be taking the SATs, and they say it will improve whatever you’re trying to do.”
纽曼-韦伯斯特女士2月份在LearningRx为泰勒报了名。泰勒目前就读于私立蒙特克莱金伯利学院(Montclair Kimberley Academy)。纽曼女士说，“只要能让她能学得更轻松、更快、更扎实，我觉得我可以付出一切。我知道她将参加SAT考试，而且LearningRx说培训对女儿从事的一切活动都有所帮助。”
Speaking by cellphone on the way to a lacrosse game, Taylor explained, with a laugh, what it’s like: “In the beginning your head is sore. Honestly, I had headaches after going there the first few times. It was kind of tedious and made my brain hurt. But I started getting better and better at it. It kind of became a competition for me to do better each time.”
She’s now studying for the SAT. “It used to take me an hour to memorize 20 words. Now I can learn, like, 40 new words in 20 minutes.”
Others — a majority, according to LearningRx — seek cognitive training in the hopes of remediating a learning disability.
Nathan Veloric had learning issues since elementary school. Last December, he had just graduated from William Paterson University with a degree in communications when his mother heard about LearningRx from a business networking group. His goal was to build up skills. “I’ve got to keep on bettering myself,” said Mr. Veloric, whose first job out of college is as a part-time cashier at a CVS near his home in New Providence, N.J. “I’m happy to have a job in this economy. While looking for something better I’m working my way up at CVS — I’m trying to go full time and then get into their management training program.”
自小学开始，内森·维罗瑞克(Nathan Veloric)就存在学习障碍。去年12月，他刚刚从帕特森大学(William Paterson University)毕业，拿到了传播专业的文凭。那时，他的母亲从一个商业交流小组中得知了LearningRx机构。他的目标是提高自己的技能。维罗瑞克说，“我得不停地鞭策自己。”他毕业后的第一份工作是在新泽西州新普罗维登斯的一家CVS连锁药店做兼职收银员，这家店就在他家附近。“我非常高兴能在当前这个经济环境下找到工作。在寻找更好的工作机会的同时，我正准备向CVS高层进军——我正在争取取得全职工作并进入他们的管理层培训项目。”
Of his brain training, he said, “I don’t know if it makes you smarter. But when you get to each new level on the math and reading tasks, it definitely builds up your self-confidence.”
Nick Vecchiarello struggles with attention deficit disorder. “During middle school we had every kind of tutor known to man,” said his mother, Diane. “Name it, we’ve done it” — stimulant medication, sessions with a psychologist. “He never liked anything to do with education.” A brochure from LearningRx showed up in the mail, and the scientific aura around the program impressed the Vecchiarellos. They decided to spend $12,000 for a year of visits, one to three times a week.
“It has been a financial strain,” acknowledged Nick’s father, Richard, a fifth-grade teacher in nearby Fair Lawn. “Yes, I think it’s made a change in Nick. His grades are better. If it gives him a leg up on life, you can’t put a price on that.” In September, after six months, Nick and his parents decided he had made enough progress to stop his medication.
For all the glowing testimonials, there are postings to be found online from parents of children with learning disabilities, complaining about substantial fees and minimal benefit.
Whether the results last beyond the blush of training — indeed, whether I.Q. can truly be bolstered in a meaningful way — are questions on which serious scientists still disagree. Studies have been published in recent years finding that intelligence can be improved through training, but not enough of them are of sufficient scientific quality to convince everyone in the field.
One skeptic is Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and founding editor of the influential academic journal Intelligence. His research would seem to offer reassurance to college-bound brain trainees, because he has found a close correlation between I.Q. and SAT scores. “All of these tests are pretty much the same thing,” he said. “They measure general intelligence.”
凯斯西储大学(Case Western Reserve University)心理学教授道格拉斯·德特曼(Douglas K. Detterman)便是其中的一名怀疑者。他还是权威学术期刊《智商》(Intelligence)的创始编辑。他的研究似乎为备考大学的培训学员们打了一剂强心针，因为他发现智商与SAT分数有着紧密的关联。他说，“这些测试都是大同小异的。他们衡量的都是一般智商。”
The catch, however, is that Dr. Detterman believes that cognitive training only makes people better at taking tests, without improving their underlying intelligence. Dr. Detterman said of brain training, “It’s probably not harmful. But I would tell parents: Save your money. Look at the studies the commercial services have done to support their results. You’ll find very poorly done studies, with no control groups and all kinds of problems.”
Executives at traditional tutoring and test-prep services tend to share Dr. Detterman’s view — perhaps not surprisingly, because some of the brain training programs pitch themselves in direct contrast to standard tutoring. (“Brain Training vs. Tutoring,” says the headline of a LearningRx brochure. “Is tutoring what your child really needs?”) Bror Saxberg, chief learning officer of Kaplan Inc., questions whether improving performance on an intelligence test will translate directly to improved grades and test scores.
“I keep looking for good studies that show how math performance or an ability to write an essay or some other really important set of skills have been dramatically enhanced for normal kids,” Dr. Saxberg said. “What you care about is not an intelligence test score, but whether your ability to do an important task has really improved. That’s a chain of evidence that would be really great to have. I haven’t seen it.” Dr. Saxberg, by the way, holds a master’s in mathematics from Oxford University, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
萨克斯伯格博士说，“我仍在寻找有力的研究证据，看看这些培训是如何大幅度提高普通孩子的数学解题能力、写作能力或其他一些重要技能的。人们关心的不是智商测试分数，而是从事重要工作的能力是否得到了真正的改善。能有这一系列的证据当然是再好不过的了，但是我一直都没有看到。”值得一提的是，萨克斯伯格博士同时还拥有牛津大学(Oxford University)数学硕士学位，麻省理工学院(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)的电子工程和计算机科学博士学位以及哈佛医学院(Harvard Medical School)的医学博士学位。
Still,a new and growing body of scientific evidence indicates that cognitive training can be effective, including that offered by commercial services.
Oliver W. Hill Jr., a professor of psychology at Virginia State University in Petersburg, recently completed a $1 million study, yet to be published, financed by the National Science Foundation to test the effects of LearningRx. He looked at 340 middle-school students who spent two hours a week for a semester using LearningRx exercises in their schools’ computer labs and an equal number of students who received no such training. Those who played the online games, Dr. Hill found, not only improved significantly on measures of cognitive abilities compared to their peers, but also on Virginia’s annual Standards of Learning exam.
位于彼得斯堡的弗吉尼亚州立大学(Virginia State University)的心理学教授小奥利弗·希尔(Oliver W. Hill Jr.)最近完成了一项100万美元的研究项目，但尚未发表。该项目由国家科学基金会(National Science Foundation)出资，用于测试LearningRx培训内容的效果。他观察了340名中学学生，这些学生在一个学期之内每周花两个小时的时间通过学校计算机实验室来做LearningRx提供的练习，另外有340名学生则没有接受这项培训。希尔博士发现，相对于那些没有接受培训的学生，玩LearningRx在线游戏的学生在认知能力方面有了极大的改善，而且他们的弗吉尼亚州年度标准学习考试(Standards of Learning exam)成绩也有了很大幅度的提高。
He’s now conducting a follow-up study of college students in Texas and, he said, sees even stronger gains when the training is offered one on one.
Michael Merzenich, who spent years conducting brain plasticity research in animals as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, started Posit Science to make the results of his research more widely available. “This is medicine,” he insisted. “It is driving changes in the brain.”
迈克·莫赞尼奇(Michael Merzenich)是加州大学旧金山分校(University of California, San Francisco)的教授，他一直在动物身上从事大脑可塑性研究。为了推广他的研究成果，他创建了Posit Science公司。他坚持认为，“培训相当于药物。它能使大脑产生变化。”
The programs offered by Posit, Lumosity and Cogmed are now being used by psychologists not affiliated with the companies to help people with diagnosed cognitive disorders, including traumatic brain injury, A.D.H.D., and the aftereffect of chemotherapy.
Kristina K. Hardy, a neuropsychologist at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, is testing the use of Cogmed with childhood cancer survivors, whose ability to learn is sometimes significantly reduced after chemotherapy and radiation. Founded by a Swedish neuroscientist, Cogmed was bought in 2010 by Pearson, the largest provider of testing and teaching materials, and is offered via psychologists and other clinical specialists.
国家儿童医学中心(Children’s National Medical Center)神经心理学家克里斯蒂娜·哈迪(Kristina K. Hardy)正在癌症痊愈儿童身上测试Cogmed公司的疗法。化疗和放疗极大地削弱了一些孩子的学习能力。Cogmed由瑞典神经科学家创建，于2010年被最大的测试和教学材料供应商培生集团(Pearson)收购。心理学家和其他诊所的专家都在用Cogmed提供的疗法。
“I entered this work with some skepticism that just doing some computer work at home could help anybody,” she said. “I thought we wouldn’t be able to move the needle on their cognitive abilities. And not everybody has been able to make gains. But I’ve had some kids who not only reported that they had very big changes in the classroom, but when we bring them back in the laboratory to do neuropsychological testing, we also see great changes. They show increases that would be highly unlikely to happen just by chance.”
Julie Schweitzer, director of the A.D.H.D. Program at the University of California, Davis, published a study in July finding that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who used Cogmed for 25 days were significantly better able to stay on task and to perform on a test of working memory — the ability to not just hold but to juggle items in the mind despite brief distractions.
加州大学戴维斯分校(University of California, Davis)注意缺失多动症项目主任朱莉·施瓦茨(Julie Schweitzer)于7月发表了一项研究，在使用Cogmed公司的疗法25天之后，患有注意缺失多动症孩子的任务注意力和工作记忆测试（保持注意力并且在存在轻微干扰的情况下仍能处理问题的能力）的分数都有了极大的改善。
“We got positive results, but it was a very small study,” she said. It involved just 26 children. Even so, she said: “In general, I’m cautiously optimistic about the potential for cognitive training. I’m concerned that some of the studies out there have not had the rigor that ought to be there. But I think the potential is there.”
AT Lumosity’s headquarters on the sixth floor of a rehabbed building in downtown San Francisco, bicycles line a wall, the meeting room has foosball, and the intensely focused young employees tap at their computers in a sprawling room without cubicles. It could be mistaken for a satellite office of Google. Except, oh, wait a minute, that guy who won the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament five times in a row? He actually quit Google last year to work here.
Lumosity的总部位于旧金山市中心经过翻修的一座大楼的六楼。在那里，自行车排成了墙，会议室里放着桌面足球，全神贯注的年轻雇员们在一个没有隔断、摆放杂乱的房间里面对着电脑敲着键盘。人们可能会把这当成是谷歌(Google)的分部。除了，呃，等一会，那个在美国填字游戏锦标赛(American Crossword Puzzle Tournament)获得五连冠的人？他的确于去年辞去了谷歌的工作转而效力于这家公司。
“I looked around for a place that would get me closer to the kinds of games and puzzles I enjoy,” said Tyler Hinman, who is now a software developer and game designer at Lumosity. “But where crosswords and Sudoku are intended to be a diversion, the games here give that same kind of reward, only they’re designed to improve your brain, your memory, your problem-solving skills.”
More than 40 games are offered by Lumosity. One, the N-back, is based on a task developed decades ago by psychologists. Created to test working memory, the N-back challenges users to keep track of a continuously updated list and remember which item appeared “n” times ago. Practice on the N-back has been shown in some studies to lead to significant increases in fluid intelligence. Unlike crystallized intelligence, the mental storehouse of knowledge and procedures, fluid intelligence is the ability to solve novel problems, to see patterns and understand complex relationships — to find order in the chaos.
Not all the exercises offered by the commercial services carry the scientific pedigree of the N-back. Some offered by LearningRx exude an undeniable whiff of the theatrical, like having trainers shout and clap to help students learn to ignore distractions.
Perhaps that reflects the company’s origins. Whereas the founders of Posit, Cogmed and Lumosity all have advanced degrees in psychology and neuroscience, the founder of LearningRx obtained his Ph.D. in pediatric optometry.
“Largely my focus was on visual training,” Dr. Gibson said. Treating children with problems involving focusing or eye movement, he developed an interest in dyslexia and other learning disorders. “I realized I could help those who had eyes crossed, but I wasn’t helping very much with their academic performance,” he said. “I started reading the literature about training abilities of every skill, not just visual, but auditory and memory and speed of processing.”
Dr. Gibson is self-taught in the field of psychology; his confidence in his program, he said, comes from the gains students make on I.Q. tests. Trainers and franchise owners must be college graduates but need not have expertise — beyond the training given to them by LearningRx. Ms. Duch and Ms. Maia, the Montclair trainers, have B.A.’s in psychology.
“This has been a process since 1986,” Dr. Gibson said. “We have so systematized the program that the educational background of the trainers and franchise owners is not an issue. I don’t come from the perspective of an academic. We’re not part of Duke University or Harvard. We have to get results to justify the fees that we charge and get referrals.”
吉普森博士说，“自1986年以来我们的培训一直在发展中。 项目已经高度系统化，因此培训师和店主的教育背景对我们来说不是问题。我自己学的就不是这个专业。我们也不隶属于杜克大学(Duke University)或哈佛大学(Harvard)。我们必须通过结果来证明培训是物有所值的，并藉此获得他人的推荐。”
Back at the franchise in Upper Montclair, Nathan Veloric is trying to do his “speed numbers” exercise just a bit faster, in 45 seconds rather than 50, still without missing a single pair of numbers that add up to nine. Four times in a row he goes down a list, each time missing just one of the pairs.
“O.K., try it again,” says Ms. Duch. “I know you’re getting tired. Just give me two more tries.” And again she starts the timer.