How Brain Training Can Boost Intelligence

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Could a simple memory workout make you smarter? An intriguing new study by researchers at the University of Michigan suggests it can — a finding that adds a wrinkle to the prevailing notion that IQ is largely fixed by genes.

The study involved 62 elementary- and middle-school children from southeast Michigan who were randomly assigned to train on one of two video game-like computer tasks. One group performed a mental-training exercise aimed at improving working memory, the ability to hold and retrieve information in the short term. The other group practiced general knowledge and vocabulary skills. Both groups trained for one month, five times a week for 15 minutes per session.

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At the end of the intervention, many of the kids who had engaged in the working-memory task had boosted a key attribute of their intelligence — by some five points. Specifically, they improved their performance on tests of so-called fluid intelligence, the ability to solve new problems and reason abstractly.

Researchers have long debated whether fluid intelligence — considered a significant predictor of educational success — could be reliably improved by training. Fluid intelligence is thought to be independent of learning, experience or education and, therefore, mainly governed by genes. (By contrast, the other component of overall intelligence, crystallized intelligence, which involves the acquisition of discrete bits of knowledge, improves with learning.)

The Michigan researchers found that kids had not only enhanced their fluid intelligence after training on the working-memory tasks, but that they also maintained the gains for three months after training ended.

The authors compared the effects of the brain-training task to that of physical workouts:

Physical training has an effect not only on skills that are trained, but also on skills that are not explicitly trained. For example, running regularly can improve biking performance. More generally, running will improve performance on activities that benefit from an efficient cardiovascular system and strong leg muscles, such as climbing stairs or swimming.

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There were several limitations to the findings, however. To start, the size of children’s improvements was inconsistent. It’s possible that kids who saw greater gains in fluid intelligence were those who started out at lower ability levels and simply had more room to improve.

Further, not every child improved. The authors suggested that students who failed to benefit from the working-memory training found the task too difficult or boring, and became frustrated and disengaged. Indeed, the training task — known as the n-back test — is a chore, even when dressed up in a video game. Wired‘s Jonah Lehrer described it thusly:

It begins with the presentation of a visual cue. For the kids in the experiment, the cue was the precise location of a cartoon character. In the next round, the cue is altered — the cartoon character has moved to a new location. The job of the child is to press the space bar whenever the character returns to a spot where it has previously been, and to ignore the other irrelevant locations. As the children advance in the task, these locations move further back in time, forcing them to sort through an increasing amount of information.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s not clear whether higher scores on tests of fluid intelligence have any real-world significance: whether they naturally translate to better grades or improvements in other abilities — or for that matter whether they predict better jobs or more life success down the line.

For now, the Michigan researchers are planning to investigate whether the same training task could benefit children with deficits in working memory and attention. Lead author Susanne Jaeggi and her team are also working on an intervention that can be easily implemented in schools and other educational settings.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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