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Chess, memory training and music just make you better at chess, memory training and music

24 November 2017

Learning to ride a BMX obviously helps you handle a racing bike. How about a motorbike? A unicycle? A helicopter?

The question of how far learning generalises beyond the original context has continued to vex psychologists. The answer has real-life implications for education and health.

For instance, it bears on whether, by undertaking activities like brain training or learning chess, we can expect to boost our overall memory or intelligence – what’s known as “far transfer”. In a new review in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet of the University of Liverpool conclude that in fact the evidence for far-transfer is very weak.

Proponents of “far transfer” point to highly-cited studies suggesting it can happen, such as a paper from 2008 that claimed the kind of “working memory” exercise that’s found in many brain training programmes led to improvements in problem-solving abilities or what’s known as “fluid intelligence”. However, it can be risky to read too much into single studies, so Sala and Gobet conducted three meta-analyses (which combine the data from multiple previous studies), involving three activities that are strong candidates for far transfer: chess, music and working memory training.

The research was all focused on children, because you would expect any far-reaching benefits to be greater in those whose cognitive ability is still very much in development.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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