Brain Ware Safari

BrainWare Safari is a computerized brain-training program designed to improve working memory—the ability to hold information in your mind long enough to accomplish a goal (like remembering a phone number long enough to dial it). It is also designed to reduce impulsivity and increase attention. The “games” in the programs look and feel like video games, but are designed to exercise parts of the brain that aren’t working at their optimum level.

BrainWare Bulletin


Summer 2014

From the President:

If you are one of the fortunate who still have some time before school starts back up again and are wondering how to gear the brains in your charge back up for the academic challenges that will face them this fall, you might consider taking a look at our Avoid Summer Brain Drain activities.

End Summer Brain Drain

I avoided summer brain drain myself by participating in Dr. Pat Wolfe's week-long program on applying neuroscience to teaching and learning. This is an annual summer course that is worth every moment of the time. One of my fellow trainees, a principal from Minnesota, found himself wondering as he traveled to Kansas City what had possessed him to spend part of his vacation in a training program. It did not take long for him to conclude that it was one of the best trainings he had ever participated in. Finding new friends and colleagues to share your passion for understanding the brain may well be the best part.

If you can't wait until next summer, three of my fellow Brainy Bunch members, Sarah Armstrong, Margaret Glick and Lou Whitaker, will be holding a workshop in Orlando, Florida, November 6 and 7, called "Looking through the Lens of Neuroscience." You can learn more by downloading the workshop flyer or by visiting the website at: http://www.neuro-educationcons... .

Also, in November, the annual Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston promises to provide some fascinating new insights. This year's conference, "Teaching Focused Organized Minds," will be held November 20-22, 2014. If you're there, I hope you will stop by for my presentation which I'm calling "Better Focused and Focused Better." You can find more information on the conference at

But you don't even need to wait until November to brush up on your brain knowledge. We have a fascinating Neuroscience in Education webinar coming up in September on the Adolescent Brain. Click to register.

Best wishes for what remains of this too-short summer!

Betsy Hill President & COO

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In this issue: 

  • What a Difference 3 Weeks Make!
  • Rethinking Remediation in Higher Education
  • PTSD and the Brain
  • A Checklist for Evaluating Cognitive Training Programs

What a Difference 3 Weeks Make!

In our work with schools, we stress the importance of implementing BrainWare SAFARI with the right frequency and the right intensity. In fact, cognitive training will not be optimally effective without them (see the criteria for cognitive training in the last article in this newsletter). The recommended frequency for BrainWare SAFARI is 3 to 5 times per week for 10 to 14 weeks. When we see total sessions of 30 or more over a 10-14 week period, and the right intensity of usage (which is helped greatly by purposeful coaching by the teacher), we see consistent, dramatic gains in cognitive skills.

To make the kinds of changes in the brain that get skills to the level of automaticity requires this kind of intense and intentional workout over several weeks. This year, a real life example showed what a difference three weeks can make.

Students at St. Paul’s Catholic School in St. Petersburg, Florida who qualified for formal accommodations used BrainWare SAFARI in the spring of 2013, with their teacher, Ms. Carol Bauer, as their coach. Ms. Bauer assessed them before and after using BrainWare with three paper-and-pencil timed tests of the Woodcock Johnson III Cognitive Battery (WJIII). The tests were Visual Matching, Decision Speed and Pair Cancellation.

These three tests are frequently used in schools because they are easy to administer to a group, unlike most of the WJIII tests which need to be administered one-on-one. The results of these three tests should not be considered an overall measure of the students’ cognitive growth from using BrainWare SAFARI, bur rather an indicator that can be compared to previous studies showing growth across a broad spectrum of cognitive abilities.

In 2013, the St. Paul’s students used BrainWare SAFARI for 10 weeks, an average of 2.5 sessions a week, yielding 26 sessions on average. This was slightly lower than the recommended protocol. However, Ms. Bauer’s purposeful coaching made sure the students moved through the program effectively, and the WCJIII tests showed an improvement of an average of 8 months. While 8 months of growth may seem quite remarkable in 10 weeks’ time, previous studies have shown average improvements of over a year. When we reviewed the results, we recommended that students’ time in BrainWare be extended to 12 weeks so that they would get a minimum of 30 sessions.

In January of 2014, Ms. Bauer used BrainWare SAFARI with a second group of students qualifying for formal accommodations. These students used BWS for 13 weeks, an average of 2.3 sessions a week, yielding an average of 30 sessions. The same tests were used as pre- and post- assessment, and the impact of increased time in the program showed. The St. Paul’s students in 2014 increased their abilities on the WJIII tests by 1 year 1 month, an extra 5 months of cognitive gains. The improvement of more than a year was comparable to studies with the same tests.  

What a difference 3 weeks make!

This article summarizes a more expansive and referenced white paper on the same topic.  Click here to access the white paper.

The remediation statistics are sobering. Over half of students who enroll in 2-year colleges take remedial courses in English and/or math. Almost 20% of those enrolling in 4-year colleges do so. The rates for low-income students are even higher – 68% and 39% respectively.

Of even greater concern is that higher education’s remediation efforts don’t seem to be working. Of those enrolled in remedial courses in a 2-year college, 62% complete remediation, but less than 10% graduate within 3 years. For students taking remedial courses in 4-year colleges, almost 75% complete remediation, but only 35% graduate within 6 years. It doesn’t seem that remedial courses in college are delivering the skills required for post-secondary academic success.

While remediation at the college level has traditionally focused on bringing students up to speed in reading and math, being ready for post-secondary work is not simply a matter of reading at a sufficient level, or knowing algebra. It is also a matter of “non-academic” skills like communication and collaboration, as well as the level of a student’s cognitive development. In fact, cognitive development is not a requirement for high school graduation nor is it measured as a prerequisite to college admissions, but it is nonetheless critical for success. And the lack of fully developed cognitive skills may, in fact, be the root cause of students’ lack of achievement in reading and math. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development pointed out in a recent report, “The evidence points to differences in cognitive skills as an explanation of a majority of the differences in economic growth rates across OECD countries.”

Cognitive skills are more than just a complement to academic skills. They are foundational, and in many respects they are precursors to educational success and the learning process itself. In the last several years, an awareness of the connection between cognitive skills and educational success has grown and research is showing that cognitive abilities contribute to academic achievement.

Many researchers have illustrated how brain development can impact school readiness and achievement, including cognitive control, visual-spatial skills, planning, attention, simultaneous and successive processing and a variety of other cognitive processes. As a result of these and other research efforts, educational and developmental psychology researchers are starting to see the need to find ways to add training of cognitive skills to the education system.

While the principles of cognitive skill training have been developing over several decades, only recently has there emerged a practical and scalable approach to the development of cognitive skills that can rapidly improve cognitive capacity and a student’s potential for success. The effectiveness of cognitive skills training in a video-game format was shown in research published in 2007. The software program that was the subject of the study was, of course, BrainWare SAFARI.

Since then, we have worked with public, private and charter schools across the U.S. to replicate and extend the findings from the original research. While the initial study and much of the subsequent field research has examined the impact on elementary and middle-grade students, what is known about the plasticity of the brain and the essential principles of cognitive development would suggest that positive results could also be achieved in a college-age population.

The evidence suggests that it is time to rethink remediation in higher education and make sure that college students have access to cognitive skills training to address their lack of preparedness, academically and cognitively. Doing so may provide an opportunity for many students to achieve their dreams of a college education and the advantages that entails by giving them the foundation and the capacity for academic success at the post-secondary level.

Within the last two decades, the term PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) has become a household word, but the signs of PTSD and, most importantly, effective treatments are not as widely understood.  PTSD affects many veterans, but also affects people who have not served in the military.

We were very honored and grateful to have Tony and Janet Seahorn discuss the topic in our Neuroscience in Education webinar in May. Tony and Janet are the authors of Tears of a Warrior, which discusses their personal experiences with PTSD and sheds light on the hope that is now evident in their lives and the experiences of other veterans. Tony Seahorn is an Army veteran, who served in Vietnam, earning multiple medals, including two Bronze Stars for heroism and two Purple Hearts. Jan holds a PhD in Human Development and Organizational Systems, and teaches neuroscience at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Before the term PTSD became widely accepted, the after-effects of being in combat were sometimes acknowledged as “combat fatigue,” but the profound changes in the brain have not been recognized until more recently. During the webinar, Jan explained that experience sculpts the brain, starting in utero and continuing throughout our lives.Everything we do and everything that happens to us – good or bad – changes the brain physically to some degree.

As Jan explained, our brains have some wonderful ways of helping us survive, including the ability to rev up our capacity to fight or flee when we encounter a dangerous situation. A threatening situation alerts our brain to release cortisol and adrenaline, gets our heart beating faster, and shuts down systems like digestion and even our immune system, that are not necessary for immediate survival. One area of the brain that essentially shuts down is the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for planning, intention and thinking. When there is a threat, our bodies – like those of other animals – send blood and oxygen to our extremities so that we can fight or run. We aren’t thinking, just doing what we need to in order to survive the threat.

When the threat is over, the responses of animals and humans is quite different. As Robert Sapolsky describes in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, animals quickly return to normal levels of adrenaline and cortisol and do not continue to be affected by the event. Humans, on the other hand, have the ability to think and replay the threat which can keep us in a state of high alert – ready to respond if the threat should return. It is also very common for the traumatic events to be remembered only at a subconscious level.The sensory inputs through which we experienced a traumatic event – the sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensation, and of course, what we saw, are stored and anyone of them can be a trigger for another fight or flight experience without us even being aware that our reaction is connected to the original event.

As Jan and Tony discuss in the webinar, Tony’s experiences in Vietnam included many such triggers, although it took quite some time for anyone, including his family, workplace, and doctors to put the pieces together as PTSD.

Once Tony’s PTSD was understood, the search for therapies and approaches to dealing with the condition began. As Jan and Tony shared during the webinar, different therapies and techniques work for different people, but they are all designed to help the person calm the physical reactions and get back into a state where their prefrontal cortex is working again and they can think logically and rationally to recognize that they are not actually in a survival situation.

If you’d like to hear more about Tony and Jan’s inspiring and hope-filled story, you can access the recorded webinar in the Neuroscience in Education Webinar Series archive by clicking here.

A Checklist for Evaluating Cognitive Skills Training Programs

With the multitude of “brain-training” options on the market today, it is helpful to keep in mind the essential components that will make a program effective and rewarding.

1.    Frequency, intensity and repetition to drive cognitive skills to the level of automaticity.

Just like going to the gym once a week might let you feel less guilty, but doesn’t do much for strength, flexibility or stamina, it takes 3 to 5 times a week for a number of weeks to make a really noticeable difference with cognitive training.

2.    Progressive challenge.

Sometimes this is called the zone of proximal development, but whatever it’s called, it’s about making sure you are always challenged, but not too far above your current ability level. Novelty and changing expectations are also important aspects of making sure the level of challenge is appropriate.

3.    Instantaneous feedback.

We learn from our mistakes. Adjusting, correcting, and trying until we "get it" are the essence of learning. And just as critical, feedback from the computer is not judgmental. It’s wrong or right … and no one else has to know.

4.    Characteristics of good video games.

It starts with graphics, characters and animation, but it’s about the “gamification,” not just about random graphics and scores. Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are central. If the program is any good, it will get hard – probably very hard – for the user at some point. Motivation to persist is sustained through a program that effectively uses gamification to give the user the a sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

5.    Comprehensive and integrated development of cognitive processes.

If skills are trained separately, then your brain will expect to use them separately. Cognitive training has another similarity to physical exercise – a cross-training approach will get you farther faster and enable the skills to be called upon in a variety of activities.

6.    Evidence that the video-game training develops cognitive processes and translates to other activities (academics, sports, life).

Ask these three questions: What science supports the training methodology for the skills being developed? What research support is available that the program results in improvements in the skills developed? What evidence is provided that the cognitive improvements translate to greater academic and life success?

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