Evaluating our favourite brain boosters

11/16/2017 – Most parents want their children to reach their academic potential, and they’re willing to go through great effort and expense to help them achieve that goal. In recent years, a number of researchers have offered evidence suggesting that two activities in particular are especially effective at improving children’s cognitive abilities. These are playing chess and learning a musical instrument. But before sending your kid to chess club or band camp, please read on.

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Music and chess do not enhance cognitive ability

By David Ludden Ph.D.

Scientists understand that it can be difficult to assess the significance of a single study in isolation. They prefer waiting for other researchers to replicate experiments before accepting reported effects as valid. Of course, scientists are also human, and naturally they want to promote their pet theories. But collectively, scientists try to keep each other’s biases in check.

Journalists, in contrast, have less interest in scientific objectivity. Instead, they want to report on a hot story before they get scooped. And studies that show children getting a cognitive boost from learning chess or a musical instrument make for good copy. So parents, who get their information about the latest research on child-rearing from the mainstream media, can easily be duped by shoddy science.

In a recent article, British psychologists Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet report on two meta-analyses they recently performed. (A meta-analysis is a statistical procedure for comparing and contrasting the data from a large number of studies.) These researchers evaluated the existing evidence on whether playing chess or music boosts children’s cognitive abilities or academic performance.

Usually when researchers begin exploring a new topic, some studies will find the proposed effect and others won’t. Or, some studies will find a big effect, while others find only a little one. A meta-analysis can find the overall trends in massive amounts of data, and it can also identify whether each study is likely to have produced reliable results.

Studies have conclusively shown that children who play chess or a musical instrument score higher on intelligence tests than their peers who don’t. So, maybe there’s good reason to think these activities are cognitive boosters. But we have to keep in mind that these studies are correlational, and that correlation does not imply causation. It’s also possible that smart kids are simply attracted to intellectually demanding tasks like chess and music.

The idea that playing chess or a musical instrument can boost general intelligence or academic performance is based on a concept known as transfer of learning. This is the idea that skills learned in one area automatically carry over to another area. For example, educators long believed that the rigors of learning Latin would help students in their math courses. In 1901, noted psychologists Edward Thorndike and Robert Woodworth conducted a series of experiments on the transfer of learning that exposed this false belief for what it was.

What Thorndike and Woodworth found was that if two tasks are similar, some abilities can transfer from one task to the other. They called this near transfer. So, if you already know Latin, it will make learning Italian much easier, because the two are related languages. But far transfer between two unrelated fields simply doesn’t occur. For example, learning Latin doesn’t help you understand algebra or geometry.

Thorndike and Woodworth thought they’d laid the mistaken notion of far transfer to rest. But alas, hope springs eternal. The idea that one task can train your brain to make you smarter overall is just too appealing to give up. And so Sala and Gobet conducted their meta-analyses to determine whether Thorndike and Woodworth had dismissed the idea of far transfer too soon.

The first meta-analysis examined a wide range of studies reporting on whether music instruction impacts overall academic performance. What Sala and Gobet found was that the size of the effect decreased as the experiment became more tightly controlled. In other words, researchers who used slipshod methods generally found big boosts in academic performance, whereas those who used stringent procedures found little or no academic advantage to learning a musical instrument. A second meta-analysis of studies looking at chess and school performance yielded similar results.

Sala and Gobet concluded that neither chess nor music is a cognitive booster, as has often been claimed. They also cite other studies that have likewise found no increase in general cognitive abilities for people who play video games, in spite of recent reports in the press to the contrary.

More than a century after Thorndike and Woodworth reported their seminal studies on the transfer of learning, claims of brain boosters still abound. However, this most recent analysis of the data merely confirms what psychologists have already known for more than a century, namely that far transfer simply doesn't occur. Playing video games doesn’t boost your memory or attention outside of the game. And making children play chess or music doesn’t make them smarter.

If your child shows an interest in chess or music—or soccer or computers or any other cognitively demanding pursuit—by all means encourage it. These are all engaging activities worth pursuing in their own right. But don’t foist these “brain boosting” tasks upon them. If you do, your child is more likely to develop a general dislike for learning, in a sense “busting” their brains instead of “boosting” them.

Reference paper (PDF)

Sala, G. & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0963721417712760

About the author

David Ludden, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Iowa, and is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach.

Dr. Ludden’s research interests focus on the role that language plays in human psychology—from perception to persuasion, from attention to attitudes, from motor skills to mental states. Much of his writing focuses on how our social world both shapes and is shaped by the language we speak. However, he also considers himself a generalist and is fascinated by all aspects of the study of human experience.

The above article appeared in Psychology Today, October 28 2017, and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author. David Ludden welcomes feedback from the chess community.


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fons fons 11/18/2017 05:29
@ theflyingllama

No offense but anecdotal accounts are meaningless. Only a rigorous and properly conducted scientific study can determine the truth in any matter. Or at least it's the only way to come as close as possible to a correct understanding of things.

(Science is not a religion, it's just a methodology based on logic. If you "believe" in logic then you believe in science.)
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 11/18/2017 09:38
@ theflyingllama : I don't say that you are wrong, but "obvious" isn't an argument... It is necessary to "transfer" "obviousness" into objective data. Or, at least, to be a beginning of an argument, to state some sort of a reasoning. I remember having heard of a professor who frequently said that when someone says that something is "obvious", nearly every time, it means that this person hasn't the slightest idea how to demonstrate his point... personnaly, I quite agree with this...
theflyingllama theflyingllama 11/18/2017 08:12
This article tells me more about the very limited cognitive ability of these scientists, and their very limited ability at enhancing my cognitive ability. Being both an avid musician and a chess player, it is quite obvious to me that it does develop cognitive abilities beyond chess/music.
NJD NJD 11/17/2017 03:01
People take up chess or music not to enhance their cognitive abilities, but because they already have cognitive abilities.
e-mars e-mars 11/17/2017 02:55
Finally. I've been waiting for this for ages. Being "smart" is the pre-condition for anything else. Something you may discover, enhance, develop, (mis)guide through good / bad education. There's nothing such as "booster": "being smart" is the booster itself.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 11/17/2017 08:41
@ Bartman : Yes, I agree, about Einstein ! But I was speaking in more general terms, because I think that many persons consider music to be nearly the opposite to mathematics...
Bertman Bertman 11/17/2017 08:13

No doubt, but I don't think the compositional aspects of music were what challenged Einstein the most. The hand and finger technique, with the bow, and finally the interpretation and phrasing were undoubtedly what defied him the most.
vanhelsing vanhelsing 11/17/2017 12:56
So it would seem that genes are indeed relevant (to a small extent).
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 11/16/2017 04:59
@ Bertman :

Your last post is particularly interesting !

It is indeed very true that chess does develop discipline and that it "works a wide variety of intellectual parts of the brain", as you very well said. And it seems to me very convincing that these elements MUST have positive consequences besides chess.

As for the "neural pathways", it is quite interesting, but I must admit I have no knowledge on this subject, so I cannot have a real opinion on this ! Even if this (about Einstein) : "Perhaps it increased his imagination and ability to think of things differently (AKA outside of the box)." does seem convincing even without prior knowledge on the "neural pathways" subject...

As a side note, when you say about Einstein : "music was as different from mathematics and physics as could be", it depends ! I practiced music at a rather high level, and, for example, harmony, polyphony, counterpoint, etc., can be quite related to mathematics at a high level ! For example, "structurally", Bach's Art of Fugue, Goldberg Variations, or The Musical Offering, and Beethoven's piano sonatas op. 106 to 111, Diabelli Variations, and his last string quartets (op. 127 to 135) have quite real links with mathematics !
fons fons 11/16/2017 04:39
Article in a nutshell:

"It’s also possible that smart kids are simply attracted to intellectually demanding tasks like chess and music."

@ Bertman

"Thus, Einstein's study of the violin (music) may indeed have been a subtle cognitive booster, but not in any normally measurable way."

Well if you can't measure it it's just speculation. It could be true. Or it could not be true.

I have also read that brain boosters ward off the decline in cognitive abilities as you grow older. This seems plausible to me and supported by many examples of people doing just that. But of course they are not getting smarter, there's a difference.
Chessspawnvt Chessspawnvt 11/16/2017 04:32
As many chess players have discovered, chess play can be enhanced with the use of amphetamine salts (Adderall). Add to that a small amount of alprazolam (Xanax) to reduce competition anxiety and you're going play a much better game of chess.
Bertman Bertman 11/16/2017 02:59
In my interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he made a similar contention, saying that the most positive aspect of becoming a strong chess player was that it required discipline, and that developing discipline was a necessity for success in any field.

That said, I tend to view it a bit differently. Chess works a wide variety of intellectual parts of the brain, especially at the higher levels, since some chess skills only come forth at later stages, such as conceptual planning. These skills are not directly transferable to anything else, at least not in an obvious way. Perhaps a military strategist will disagree? However, that chess does work the brain is undeniable. It may not make you smarter per se, but it works the brain quite thoroughly, and much like working out at the gym won't make you a better martial artist or footballer, it will improve performance in a more subtle way. A healthier brain or healthier body will reap its benefits.

Another aspect to consider, also more subtle is that of neural pathways. Developing skills that force your brain in radically different ways is known to significantly increase the neural connections, though measuring the benefits beyond this is obviously much more challenging. Thus, Einstein's study of the violin (music) may indeed have been a subtle cognitive booster, but not in any normally measurable way. Perhaps it increased his imagination and ability to think of things differently (AKA outside of the box). That said, this was for him, where music was as different from mathematics and physics as could be.

Food for thought.
Lachesis Lachesis 11/16/2017 01:15
I suspected as much before I read this article.