Cognitive Training

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Video games often try to be “realistic” by getting the details right in how everything looks and sounds, but this physical fidelity isn’t as important in a training simulation as cognitive fidelity, Daniel Gopher explains:

My main inter­est has been how to expand the lim­its of human atten­tion, infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing and response capa­bil­i­ties which are crit­i­cal in com­plex, real-time decision-making, high-demand tasks such as fly­ing a mil­i­tary jet or play­ing pro­fes­sional bas­ket­ball. Using a ten­nis anal­ogy, my goal has been, and is, how to help develop many “Wimbledon”-like cham­pi­ons. Each with their own styles, but per­form­ing to their max­i­mum capac­ity to suc­ceed in their environments.

What research over the last 15–20 years has shown is that cog­ni­tion, or what we call think­ing and per­for­mance, is really a set of skills that we can train sys­tem­at­i­cally. And that computer-based cog­ni­tive train­ers or “cog­ni­tive sim­u­la­tions” are the most effec­tive and effi­cient way to do so.

This is an impor­tant point, so let me empha­size it. What we have dis­cov­ered is that a key fac­tor for an effec­tive trans­fer from train­ing envi­ron­ment to real­ity is that the train­ing pro­gram ensures “Cog­ni­tive Fidelity”, this is, it should faith­fully rep­re­sent the men­tal demands that hap­pen in the real world. Tra­di­tional approaches focus instead on phys­i­cal fidelity, which may seem more intu­itive, but less effec­tive and harder to achieve. They are also less effi­cient, given costs involved in cre­at­ing expen­sive phys­i­cal sim­u­la­tors that faith­fully repli­cate, let’s say, a whole mil­i­tary heli­copter or just a sig­nif­i­cant part of it.


The need for phys­i­cal fidelity is not based on research, at least for the type of high-performance train­ing we are talk­ing about. In fact, a sim­ple envi­ron­ment may be bet­ter in that it does not cre­ate the illu­sion of real­ity. Sim­u­la­tions can be very expen­sive and com­plex, some­times even cost­ing as much as the real thing, which lim­its the access to train­ing. Not only that, but the whole effort may be futile, given that some impor­tant fea­tures can not be repli­cated (such as grav­i­ta­tion free tilted or inverted flight), and even result in neg­a­tive trans­fer, because learn­ers pick up on spe­cific train­ing fea­tures or sen­sa­tions that do not exist in the real situation.


In one [study], which con­sti­tuted the basis for the 1994 paper, we showed that 10 hours of train­ing for flight cadets, in an atten­tion trainer instan­ti­ated as a com­puter game — Space Fortress — resulted in 30% improve­ment in their flight per­for­mance. The results led the trainer to be inte­grated into the reg­u­lar train­ing pro­gram of the flight school. It was used in the train­ing of hun­dreds of flight cadets for sev­eral years. In the other one, spon­sored by NASA, we com­pared the results of the cog­ni­tive trainer vs. a sophis­ti­cated, pic­to­r­ial and high-level-graphic and physical-fidelity-based com­puter sim­u­la­tion of a Black­hawk heli­copter. The result: the Space Fortress cog­ni­tive trainer was very suc­cess­ful in improv­ing per­for­mance, while the alter­na­tive was not. The study was pub­lished in the pro­ceed­ings of the Human Fac­tors and Ergonomic Soci­ety: Hart S. G and Bat­tiste V. (1992), Flight test of a video game trainer. Pro­ceed­ings of the Human Fac­tors Soci­ety 26th Meet­ing (pp. 1291–1295).

This led to IntelliGym‘s basketball training software:

In order to develop a basketball cognitive training tool, our researchers mapped the brain skills that are required for top performance in the game of basketball. These include (among others) reading plays, positioning, decision making, team work, and execution under pressure. Together, they constitute what is usually referred to as game intelligence. With this map in hand, the researchers designed a system that simulates the exact same skill set.

IntelliGym Basketball


  1. David Foster says:

    Airline flight training on high-end simulators apparently does not currently include recovery from full aerodynamic stall. Two main reasons for this: (a) difficulty in real-time modeling of the turbulent flows that exist over wings and control surfaces, and (b) the assumption that the goal should be to *prevent* stalls — recovery will lose altitude, and this can be dangerous if there is other traffic below you — and that with proper attention to avoidance, recovery will not be necessary. These assumptions, though, are receiving scrutiny, especially in the wake of the Airbus/Air France crash.

    Perhaps a cognitive-training approach could be useful here: even if you’re not modeling the stalled behavior of the airplane correctly, the recognition of a stall and the primary necessary recovery action — yoke or stick forward, nose down — could be reinforced.

    On the other hand, the multiplicity of control modes on the Airbus may mean that the trainer would have to incorporate considerable detail as to the aircraft systems.

  2. David Foster says:

    Here’s a case in which simulator physical fidelity may well have been important: the commuter airliner crash near Buffalo a few years back. When the stick pusher activated, the airplane’s last-ditch defense against a stall, the flight crew reacted incorrectly, pulling back and overpowering the pusher. I believe (but have not researched this carefully) that the simulator which had been used for training did not include a stick-pusher feature, if that is the case, then the pilot & copilot had quite likely never experienced the physical sensations involved.

    Also, it’s reported that the crew had seen a video on tailplane icing, a condition under which the nose would tend to drop and the proper recovery action actually would be back yoke. The NTSB apparently did not think this was a likely factor given the very short time interval between the stick-pusher activation and the pilot’s pull on the yoie.

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