Can you make yourself smarter? Science declares: “Maybe.”

The New York Times (“Can You Make Yourself Smarter?”) draws attention to some recent studies suggesting that 15–20 minutes of brain training a day for a few weeks, might lead to increased intelligence. Or, you know, not.

First, some context:

“Psychologists have long regarded intelligence as coming in two flavors: crystallized intelligence, the treasure trove of stored-up information and how-to knowledge (the sort of thing tested on “Jeopardy!” or put to use when you ride a bicycle); and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence grows as you age; fluid intelligence has long been known to peak in early adulthood, around college age, and then to decline gradually. And unlike physical conditioning, which can transform 98-pound weaklings into hunks, fluid intelligence has always been considered impervious to training.”

Ok. The article goes on to discuss research done with third graders and computer-based memory tasks. But where things get a little fishy to me is the leap between training working memory, to intelligence —

“Because the deceptively simple game, it turns out, targets the most elemental of cognitive skills: “working” memory. What long-term memory is to crystallized intelligence, working memory is to fluid intelligence. Working memory is more than just the ability to remember a telephone number long enough to dial it; it’s the capacity to manipulate the information you’re holding in your head — to add or subtract those numbers, place them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an analogy is equally dependent on working memory; you can’t follow even a simple statement like “See Jane run” if you can’t put together how “see” and “Jane” connect with “run.” Without it, you can’t make sense of anything.

Maybe my neuroscience friends can help out on this one, because I do wonder — even supposing brain games can help improve working memory (and all indications thus far are that they do to some extent) wouldn’t a law of diminishing returns come into play at some point? Can repeating the same gamified task again and again really lead to meaningful change in intelligence … or does your brain just get really, really good at playing the game?

For those that are curious, you can try the Dual NBack Game here. (ps: it requires the hated Microsoft Silverlight plug-in). And more —

“N-back challenges users to remember something — the location of a cat or the sound of a particular letter — that is presented immediately before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back), and so on. If you do well at 2-back, the computer moves you up to 3-back. Do well at that, and you’ll jump to 4-back. On the other hand, if you do poorly at any level, you’re nudged down a level. The point is to keep the game just challenging enough that you stay fully engaged.”

So … how transferrable are these memory skills? Even ignoring the separate topic of IQ/intelligence, can games truthfully make you smarter? The NYT article mentions one or two studies that seem to indicate the relationship between brain training and intelligence is far from causal:

“… while most skills improve with practice, the improvement is generally domain-specific: you don’t get better at Sudoku by doing crosswords. And fluid intelligence was not just another skill; it was the ultimate cognitive ability underlying all mental skills, and supposedly immune from the usual benefits of practice. To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.”

I don’t have a particular bone to pick with the general concept of brain training. If you don’t use your brain, you’re most likely not going to get smarter. Neuroplasticity is a deeply interesting concept to me — but how you actually make yourself smarter is up for debate. In the meantime, I don’t see the harm in brain-games-as-Angry-Birds-alternative, but it still won’t make you a genius.

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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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