Put down your Sudoku and your crossword puzzles. There are promising new studies out that suggest you could improve your reasoning and problem solving abilities, actually boosting your reasoning scores rather than just making someone better at the specific skills they are practicing (like when you complete Sudoku or work a crossword puzzle). The appeal of improving our intellectual ability through brain training games has allegedly become a trillion dollar industry.
These games are based on the idea that training our memory and attention will increase our overall intelligence. Companies like Luminosity, Cogmed and Nintendo have been cashing in on this latest trend of brain training games regardless of the lack of concrete evidence to support their claims. Despite ongoing debate, companies are quickly stepping in to offer “brain building” games that promise to increase a variety of intellectual abilities. The brain games are activities that require the player to remember information, attend to information and make judgments, comprehend texts or imagine how an object would look in different orientations (spatial skills).
People have been interested in improving intelligence for over a hundred years. However, until the mid 2000’s, they were not very optimistic about this endeavor. A now classic study was published in 2008 by Jaeggi and Buschkuehl in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that gave new hope to this age-old quest. This study showed an improvement in reasoning ability after the participants spent just minutes a day doing an exercise called ”N-back training” (see ‘The Classic Study” below).
Prior to this study, the bulk of the research was murky at best and most considered the brain training games media hype with no well documented evidence to back it up. In fact, in 2009 one neuroscientist, Peter Snyder of Brown University, reviewed almost 20 software studies and concluded that they were “underwhelming” and marred by flaws. In fact, more than a third of those were too shoddy to even include in his analysis. The most well-known bashing of IQ training was a June 2010 article in the journal Nature by neuroscientist Adrian Owen. He reported the results of an experiment he did with the BBC which had 11,430 participants; they each took a before and after battery of IQ tests and completed a 6 week online program that replicated the commercial brain building software (the N-back was not among those offered). He concluded that, “Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”
Since that time, new studies have been published which purport to improve working memory. These studies showed an increase in cognitive abilities when the games tapped in to working memory. One of the core skills of working memory is the ability to control attention. If you can improve the ability to control attention and therefore working memory then you can, theoretically, improve intelligence.
What is working memory?
Working memory is a crucial brain function; it is the ability to maintain information in an active, easily retrieved state, especially when under conditions of distraction or interference. It goes beyond simply storing information to include processing information and being able to mentally manipulate that information. For example, it is not just the ability to remember a string of numbers but the ability to add or subtract numbers, to put them in reverse order or sort them from high to low. Understanding a metaphor or an analogy also requires working memory. University of Michigan psychologist, John Jonides, presented his research findings that showed that practicing tasks like the N-back game, which tap into working memory, for 20 minutes per day for 20 days significantly improved performance on a standardized test of fluid intelligence. That improvement lasted for up to three months.
What is fluid intelligence?
Psychologists have long considered general intelligence to be made up of two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. Crystallized intelligence is the stored up information you have gathered over the years as well as how-to information (like how to ride a bike), whereas fluid intelligence is the ability to solve new problems or adapt to new situations. As you age, crystallized intelligence grows but fluid intelligence peaks in early adulthood and then begins to gradually decline. Long term memory is basic to crystallized intelligence and working memory is essential to fluid intelligence. Unlike crystallized intelligence, fluid intelligence has previously been thought to be immune from the usual benefits of practice. Psychologists believed that training could not improve this fundamental cognitive ability until Jaeggi’s 2008 experiment came along.
The classic study
Over the past 30 years, theorists and researchers have been exploring how working memory functions, developed tests to measure it and investigated its relationship to fluid intelligence. In 2008, Jaeggi took one of these tests of working memory and turned it into a training activity to boost working memory in young adults. Jaeggi stated, “If you train your attention and working memory, you increase your basic cognitive skills that help you for many different complex tasks.” The training generally requires 15-25 minutes of work per day, 5 days per week. Improvements have been shown in as little as 4 weeks. Follow up studies by others have shown similar improvements in preschoolers, children, college students and the elderly. The studies used an activity called the” N-back game”. This game requires the participant to remember something- the location of a cat in a window or the sound of a specific letter- that is presented immediately before (1-back), the time before last (2-back), the time before that (3-back) and so on. To make it harder, Jaeggi and Buschkuehl used a “dual N-back task” where the participants were required to recall both auditory and visual cues at the same time.
In a follow up to their 2008 study with young adults, Jaeggi et al published a paper last year that reported the results of N-back training with children. Only those children who improved significantly had gains in fluid intelligence, although all children improved somewhat. Those gains lasted 3 months after the training which was a positive sign for long lasting effects. It is unknown how much longer the improvement will last, although Jaeggi indicated that the effects would probably not be permanent without continued practice.
The debate continues for now; the most recent studies seem to show promise but most still have their flaws (small groups of participants or use of only one measure of fluid intelligence, etc). Based on the most recent research, it would seem that if the particular game taps in to working memory, there might be some benefit- and studies have shown this is particularly true for individuals with ADHD and the elderly.