Brain training: Can it make us smarter?

Can You Make Yourself Smarter? asks the New York Times. Research suggests that training “working memory” and attention carries over to other cognitive skills.

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.

“We see attention and working memory as the cardiovascular function of the brain,” says Susanne Jaeggi, whose research has challenged the consensus that “fluid intelligence” can’t be improved.

Training the brain has shown results for preschoolers, elementary students, college students and the elderly in a variety of studies, reports the Times.  There’s no proof yet that the training leads to “real-world gains in schooling and job performance . . .  but already, people with disorders including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.) and traumatic brain injury have seen benefits from training.”

There are skeptics:

. . . the most prominent takedown of I.Q. training came in June 2010, when the neuroscientist Adrian Owen published the results of an experiment conducted in coordination with the BBC television show “Bang Goes the Theory.” After inviting British viewers to participate, Owen recruited 11,430 of them to take a battery of I.Q. tests before and after a six-week online program designed to replicate commercially available “brain building” software. . . .  “Although improvements were observed in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained,” he concluded in the journal Nature, “no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.”

Others say brain training transfers to other skills, such as reading comprehension for college students.

A Berkeley researchers, Silvia Bunge, compared disadvantaged children who played a reasoning game with those who played games designed to boost response times.

After eight weeks of training — 75 minutes per day, twice a week — Bunge found that the children in the reasoning group scored, on average, 10 points higher on a nonverbal I.Q. test than they had before the training. Four of the 17 children who played the reasoning games gained an average of more than 20 points. In another study, not yet published, Bunge found improvements in college students preparing to take the LSAT.

The Times story is “a bit — but only a bit — too optimistic,” writes Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

  Fluid intelligence is one’s ability to reason, see patterns, and think logically, independent of specific experience. Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is stuff that you know, knowledge that comes from prior experience. You can see why working memory capacity might lead to more fluid intelligence–you’ve got a greater workspace in which to manipulate ideas.

“There are enough replications of this basic effect that it seems probable that something is going on,” writes Willingham. But it’s not clear that training working memory will improve performance on a variety of cognitive tasks.


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