Saturday, September 27, 2014

A study comparing speed training to crossword play

A couple recent papers by a research group by Fredric Walinsky have come out of a large study using cognitive training to see if there are benefits of a specific video-game style intervention (in the image) a year after practice.  They happened to compare their speed-training with an 'attention control' that was actually a crossword puzzle, and so I thought it would be interesting to review the results here.

 The PLoS paper from 2013 on this should be accessible to anyone, although the  JAH paper is paywalled. These both came out of the same study, but looked at different outcomes.  The PLoS paper looked at a set of cognitive tests, whereas the JAH paper looked at activities of daily living and depression

This study out of the University of Iowa study used the a "UFOV" (Useful Field of View) training study shown in the image above. In this test, participants (trainees) need to quickly identify a target that is either central or peripheral, with and without distractors.    The study involved training middle-age and older adults for about ten hours (five weekly two-hour sessions) on this fairly demanding test, and then doing a follow-up after a year and looked at whether there were any benefits.  This UFOV is nothing like crossword play, but as an 'attention control', they used ten hours of crossword play. 

After a year follow-up, people were no better at the game unless they had had 'boosters', but this contrasted to the control participants who actually got slightly worse at the game--potentially a natural consequence of aging. As a consequence, there seemed to be a real advantage of training in this game, especially for people who got 'boosters'--additional training after the first 5-week training session was complete. This was true for a whole set of cognitive tests, especially in contrast to the crossword control.  Some of the benefit seems to be because the crossword control actually got worse.  The JAH paper claims to show an improvement in activities of daily living and depression--everyday things you need to function in the world.

Many people play crossword puzzles to help them maintain mental agility, and so it is important to recognize what this experiment does and does not show. It does look like there is some benefit to this UFOV in comparison to ten hours of crossword play for a couple weeks over the period of a year. 

A couple facts coming out of Moxley's recent paper on crossword experts are relevant to interpreting this.  First, ten hours of play is pretty minimal in comparison to the average crossword enthusiast, who Moxley found played around 3 hours a week.  Next, Moxley showed that time away from play had negative effects on crossword players, and so a ten month break might be expected to harm even enthusiastic players.  But this doesn't show crossword puzzles are ineffective at helping maintain mental abilities, especially for the scale of time some invest.  Long-term deliberate play may have some very specific benefits in terms of verbal memory retrieval and the like.

Also, the UFOV is a speeded test, but most casual players don't treat crossword puzzles as such.  However, many people do; it might be that deliberate practice at speed-solving could be effective. The problem is that novices can't speed-solve, because they don't know enough.  In my lab, we are currently looking at ways to allow non-experts to solve crossword puzzles (i.e., by giving dynamic hints and such), in order for them to be more useful in training.  We haven't aimed at cognitive skills training yet, but that may be in the future.


Wolinsky, F. D., Vander Weg, M. W., Howren, M. B., Jones, M. P., & Dotson, M. M.  (2013). A Randomized Controlled Trial of Cognitive Training Using a Visual Speed of Processing Intervention in Middle Aged and Older Adults. PLoS One,

Wolinsky, F. D., Vander Weg, M. W., Howren, M. B., Jones, M. P., & Dotson, M. M. (2014). The Effect of Cognitive Speed of Processing Training on the Development of Additional IADL Difficulties and the Reduction of Depressive Symptoms: Results From the IHAMS Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Aging and Health. doi:10.1177/0898264314550715

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