Brain Training: Opinions Regarding Joining the Craze

In the end, for all of us, the best test of cognitive abilities is one for which there is no answer key. It’s called life. Dan Hurley on brain training in Smarter

In 2012 science journalist Dan Hurley wrote a series of articles for the New York Times Magazine on the subject of brain training. By the end of 2013 he had a book, Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power.

Can human intelligence be trained beyond one’s innate level? According to Hurley, many experts now think so. Some don’t.

But first, what is intelligence exactly? Hurley tells Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific American: “Intelligence is what allows us to learn from our experience, to gain insight into life, to juggle multiple demands. With the internet these days, information is everywhere. But intelligence is how we make sense of all that information.”

More specific info from Hurley’s NY Times Magazine material:

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.

The thing is, some 2008 research by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl started to blow this latter statement out of the water. They had tested some students regarding their abilities at a computer game known as N-Back and found they were able to significantly increase their fluid intelligence.

Many other claims have also been made about boosting intelligence. Ben East, The Guardian, addresses this in his book review:

Playing your unborn child Mozart will increase its intelligence. So might feeding it fish oil. Physical exercise, nicotine, coffee, Nintendo’s Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, meditation…all have been heralded as pathways to making us smarter.

Some of these, as US journalist Dan Hurley explores in this intriguing book about ‘training’ intelligence, are plain nonsense: academia quickly proved there was no Mozart Effect (learning a new instrument is more likely to have benefits), fish oil may even have a negative impact on later cognitive abilities and Nintendo itself said Dr Kawashima was purely for entertainment. Hurley does a fine job of wading through the research and also embarks on an enjoyable project to try and increase his own ‘fluid’ intelligence – the underlying ability to learn which usually peaks in early adulthood. He begins seven programmes which he thinks have proven successful – including an exercise boot camp and learning the lute – and tests himself at the beginning and end of the process.

What were the results? Kirkus Reviews reports, “After three and a half months of training, for two to three hours daily, tests show his fluid intelligence increased by 16 percent.”

Some pertinent quotes about brain training from Hurley’s interview with Scientific American:

  • “Even some of the psychologists who have found strong benefits for training feel nervous about the commercial advocacy of companies like Lumosity. We all know that physical exercise builds muscles…but we don’t yet know exactly which kinds of cognitive exercises work best. That said, I have counted about 75 randomized, placebo-controlled trials (and they’re all cited in my book) demonstrating significant benefits from various kinds of cognitive training—from ‘working memory’ training to physical exercise, learning a musical instrument, mindfulness meditation, transcranial direct-current stimulation and more. I found only four randomized, placebo-controlled trials that found no benefit whatsoever. That’s pretty overwhelming.”
  • “There is no question that training causes structural and functional improvement in the brain, as seen on MRI. Most of the changes are seen in the frontal areas of the brain, where high-level thinking occurs.”
  • “A handful of researchers, most of them connected to Georgia Tech, continue to loudly insist that intelligence training is a bunch of baloney…But those arch-skeptics have pretty well lost the argument. At this point, the vast majority of the 200 or so researchers I interviewed believe that cognitive training can work.”

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