February 5, 2020

Employers routinely invest in new technology to improve productivity, but research has shown that investment should really be made more in people. Brain training has proven to create significant gains for employers, when done in the right way.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution our goal has been to increase productivity and prosperity through capital investment in machines. A parallel, and perhaps more direct, path is to invest in people.

In the 21st century, the most important thing that people bring to work is not their hands, but their brains. Recent developments in neuroscience have yielded an entirely new kind of workplace training aimed at making people’s brains faster and more accurate.

It’s not your father’s (or mother’s) cognitive training

Psychologists developed cognitive training decades ago, often based on strategies and tips for remembering things. In the past ten years, however, neuroscientists have developed a new type of cognitive training – often called brain training – that is based on how the brain actually develops and changes over time.

This new type of training is the outgrowth of the study of brain plasticity – how experience and learning can actually change the brain chemically, physically and functionally.

Positive and negative brain plasticity

We engage positive brain plasticity every time we learn a new skill – like when your employer decides that everyone is now required to use a new email system. At first, you might be slow to use the new email system, and you make mistakes – because the systems in your brain that process what you see are getting surprising and unfamiliar information (new icons, new menus) that don’t fit into the categories with which you are familiar.

Your brain has to literally rewire itself, so that it can quickly and accurately process the new information – and let you use your new email system with speed and confidence. Typically, this happens through intensive, repetitive, and progressively challenging tasks. That training results first in chemical change (as neuromodulators fill the brain so we can attend and learn), then structural change (as new neural pathways are built from our learning), and ultimately, new functional abilities (as we gain new skills).

Brains also engage in negative plasticity. For example, as we age, information processing in the brain typically becomes slower and less accurate (actually starting in our late 20s or 30s). This can lead to challenges – such as hearing well in a noisy meeting room. Scientists view this negative aging process as like learning – but in reverse.

Gains in cognitive abilities from brain training exercises

The challenge of cognitive aging has led brain scientists to develop brain training exercises that have now been shown in scores of peer-reviewed studies to make the brain faster and more accurate.

Gains have been shown not just in the tasks trained, but in standard cognitive tests of memory and attention, and even in everyday functions — like safe driving and maintaining a good mood — that are far removed from the details of the trained exercises. Studies also have suggested that brain chemicals associated with attention are upregulated, and studies in animal models have shown that the brain itself is actually healthier at a cellular level.

Brain training gains now shown in the workplace

This past year, results were released from three workplace studies on the impact of this type of brain training on diverse groups of workers. Brain training that made people’s brains operate faster and more accurately showed improvements in people’s workplace performance.

The three studies were in very different environments: among electric power line workers, who significantly improved safety; among law enforcement officers, who significantly reduced shooting errors; and among top technology workers, who showed greater cognitive efficiency.

The exercises used in all three studies progressively train visual operations of the brain to be more attentive and faster, and all the exercises were from BrainHQ. Here’s what the researchers found:

Power line workers study

Electric power line workers climb polls to evaluate problems and connect wires. They really are not supposed to make errors – which can be costly or fatal – but they are human, and mistakes get made.

Independent researchers randomised 43 power line workers into a group asked to do 90 minutes of training a week for eight weeks (a total of 12 hours) and a control group. After eight weeks, the training group did significantly better at a standard assessment of attention and error: the sustained attention to response task risk assessment. The researchers than followed each group for four more years, looking at OSHA data on actual reportable workplace incidents.

Researchers found a significant difference over the four-year period — 62.5% of the trained group was error-free, compared to 15.8% of the control. On an odds-adjusted basis, at any point in time, the control group members were nine times more likely to make an error than the trained group.

Law enforcement

Law enforcement officers are called on to make split-second decisions that can have life or death consequences. Researchers posited that faster and more accurate decisions under tighter control could affect these outcomes.

Independent researchers randomised officers into an intervention group (assigned training in visual speed, accuracy, and inhibition control exercises) and a control group (assigned training in visual memory and spatial relations exercises). The officers were asked to train for 10-15 minutes per day for four weeks.

The officers went through a pre-training ‘shoot/don’t shoot’ assessment on a shooting range with live ammunition. Each officer was told to shoot at a target of a man holding a gun and to withhold fire from a target of the same man holding a cell phone. Targets popped up and down across the range at a speed of less than a second per target. Initially, there was no difference between the two groups.

After the training, the researchers found the intervention group was significantly better (29%) than the control group in overall accuracy. More, importantly, they found the most common error in a live fire situation was not withholding firing. Looking at that error, the researchers found the intervention group had a 60% decrease in shooting the unarmed target.

Tech workers

Independent researchers wanted to see if this type of training could improve performance even in top knowledge workers. They asked workers at the labs of a leading global technology company to train for six weeks.

Workers improved in cognitive efficiency, as measured by both imaging and standard assessments, by about 8%. Those who trained more than the median of 17 hours improved by 12%, while those who trained less improved by 5%.