Cognitive training (which is also called brain training) involves activities designed specifically to strengthen one or more cognitive skills. Some cognitive training programs focus on individual cognitive skills, while others are more com­prehensive and integrated, focusing on a large number of cognitive skills at one time. They may be computer-based or use paper-and-pencil activities or a variety of other approaches.

While people participate in cognitive training for various reasons, the most common reason for children to be in a cog­nitive training program is to improve their capacity to learn.

There is often confusion about the difference between cogni­tive training and brain games. The world is full of games, puz­zles, software and other activities that involve mental processes. But most are intended for entertainment rather than mean­ingful impact on learning capacity. For a cognitive training program to have significant impact, it needs to be designed according to specific neuroscience principles.

Cognitive training must take a multi-disciplinary approach to have lasting, meaningful results. Integrating the best prac­tices from clinical and educational psychology, auditory and vision developmental therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language pathology, neurology, and other disciplines builds a foun­dation for the right kind of cognitive training. Combining the best information from all these areas of expertise is the cornerstone of effective cognitive training, which is how these neuroscience principles were derived.

Principle 1: Neuroplasticity

The general term for the brain’s ability to change and to develop in response to its environment and the demands being placed on it is “neuroplasticity.” Essentially, the human brain develops by organizing itself, creating and pruning neural pathways, based on its unique experiences. Brain development and specific patterns of neural connections are not genetically predetermined in the way that attributes like red hair or blue eyes are determined. While intellect and learning ability are guided by our genetic code, they arise in significant part through the process of development. The plasticity of the brain is greater in children, but the brain exhibits the ability to change and develop throughout life.

Principle 2: Automaticity

When an individual performs an activity repeatedly, the skill becomes automatic (embedded in procedural memory) and does not require conscious thought to execute (like riding a bike or driving to a familiar location). The frequency and intensity of the challenge, over an appropriate amount of time (several weeks at least) is what develops skills to the level of automaticity.

Principle 3: Integration (cross-training)

Cognitive skills are highly integrated in effective brain functioning. When our brains perform a variety of automatic functions simultaneously, those activities must be coordinated to be effective (seeing and motor control, to give a simple example, in eye-hand coordination). If certain skills are weak or deficient, that will impact the efficiency of other mental processes and the overall effectiveness of mental functioning.

Repeating a single skill over and over can lead to improvement in that skill and ultimately automaticity, but the integration of multiple skills is what pushes critical skills more quickly to the nonconscious level. The approach of putting demands on multiple skills at the same time, referred to as “cognitive loading,” is exploited in a comprehensive “cross-training” approach that integrates multiples skills within an exercise and across exercises. It is believed that effective cross-training significantly enhances the transfer of stronger cognitive skills to tasks beyond the specific tasks that are trained.

Principle 4: Progressive challenge

Cognitive development occurs at the outer edges of our competence. If a task is too far above our current state of development, we will become frustrated and may not persist. If tasks are too easy, we become bored. The optimal level of challenge is sometimes called the Zone of Proximal Development. Effective cognitive training is designed with the methodical sequencing needed for “smart practice” (intense and rewarding repetition). This means that they avoid the kind of predictable progression that would cause the brain to lose interest and engage with less intensity.

Principle 5: Frequency and Intensity

Promises of meaningful cognitive change in five minutes a day or usage for a couple of weeks are not credible. To have a significant impact on cognitive skills in a way that is lasting and transfers to academics and everyday activities, a cognitive training program typically requires a usage protocol of three to five times a week, in thirty to sixty-minute sessions for three months or more.

Principle 6: Feedback

Immediate feedback is necessary to enable error correction and faster, more accurate learning. The speed of feedback also enables more repetitions to be executed in a given amount of time. In addition to the feedback overtly provided by a video game, there is evidence that success in a video game is related to release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in learning and feelings of reward.

Positive encouragement is offered continuously as the user progresses through the program. Human coaching is an important aspect of feedback and effective programs are designed to incorporate a trained and supportive coach.

Principle 7: Engagement

Stimulation is an important factor in motivating attention and meaningful participation in a learning activity. In fact, the science and education communities are increasingly recognizing the value of digital game-based learning. The compelling characteristics of good video games motivate initial engagement with a challenging activity and can help sustain motivation as the challenge progresses. Persistence motivated by a feedback loop reinforces and supports the natural mechanisms in the brain that reward us for accomplishing something challenging. The themes, characters, animation, and interactive elements stimulate interest and help provide intrinsic motivation to persist and overcome more difficult levels.

About the authors


Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your child learns differently, now what?