Brain-based skills like problem solving and language abilities may not seem to go hand in hand, but a new study led by UCI cognitive scientist Mark Steyvers says aptitude in one can forecast performance in the other. Findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, suggest a person’s general learning ability may be constant across a variety of tasks.

“We were interested in learning how people train across multiple cognitive tasks like memory, attention, reasoning and problem solving, and whether improvement in one task related to improvement in another,” says Steyvers. “We found that not only did improvement in one task relate to improvement in another; it could also be used to predict it.”

For the study, Steyvers partnered with Robert Schafer of Lumosity, an online brain training platform. They analyzed performance data of more than 36,000 participants, ages 18 to 90, spanning 51 games that targeted different cognitive skills. The researchers found that good performance in one area - measured by speed and accuracy - could predict success in a game with a completely different cognitive emphasis. While the findings are focused to in-game performance, Steyvers is excited about their potential real-world application.

“Think about the possibilities this could present to a human resources team who might use testing to determine whether a person is a good fit for a job, or if an employee is going to be able to grasp an expensive, complex training program,” he says. “Looking for a current skill set may be not as important as we previously thought. Instead, a better strategy might be to look at a person’s general cognitive aptitude since the findings show that a smart person can pick up multiple skills.”

The study represents the second time Steyvers has collaborated with Lumosity to analyze the platform’s extensive user data to draw findings from in-game performance. The previous study found online brain games can extend in-game “cognitive youth” into old age, and that training enables seniors to multitask mentally on par with those 50 years younger. The work earned Steyvers and parent company Lumos Labs the Future of Privacy Forum’s first-ever Award For Research Data Stewardship for employing privacy techniques to transform data on user play into innovative cognitive science research.

“Collaboration with Lumos Labs has enabled me to access the right data, without fear of compromising individual privacy,” says Steyvers. “Industry partnerships enable researchers to access large-scale data sets that enable more extensive and precise investigations of human learning than is typically achievable conducting tests in a laboratory.”

Findings are available online at Nature Human Behaviour.



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