Train Your Brain. Really.

May 5, 2008 at 12:52 am 2 comments

Fluid intelligenceFluid intelligence (abbreviated Gf) is the ability to understand novel situations and to solve otherwise new-to-you problems by drawing relationships from concepts. In short, it is abstract reasoning — the ability to think and to do without relying on past experience.

Until recently, many psychologists believed that fluid intelligence was a genetic trait. Everyone has some level of fluid intelligence, but just how much is pre-determined by one’s biology.

A fascinating new study, however, hints at the promise that we can increase our fluid intelligence.

Published this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory,” is an article that: (1) explores the relationship between working memory and Gf, and (2) details how improving working memory can increase one’s fluid intelligence.

(What is working memory? Good question. It’s a kind of short-term memory process that allows for the temporary storing and manipulation of information. Just how short-term? Think seconds-long. For example, it’s the kind of memory we use when asking a gas station attendant for directions. We remember “turn left at the third light, stay straight for two blocks, then make a right at the intersection of Jones and Geary” just long enough to process it. But these details do not enter our long-term memory.)

The NYT has a great summary of this exciting research. In “Memory Training Shown to Turn Up Brainpower,” Nicholas Bakalar summarizes and offers highlights from the NPAS journal article:

First they measured the fluid intelligence of four groups of volunteers using standard tests. Then they trained each in a complicated memory task, an elaborate variation on Concentration, the child’s card game, in which they memorized simultaneously presented auditory and visual stimuli that they had to recall later.

The game was set up so that as the participants succeeded, the tasks became harder, and as they failed, the tasks became easier. This assured a high level of difficulty, adjusted individually for each participant, but not so high as to destroy motivation to keep working. The four groups underwent a half-hour of training daily for 8, 12, 17 and 19 days, respectively. At the end of each training, researchers tested the participants’ fluid intelligence again. To make sure they were not just improving their test-taking skills, the researchers compared them with control groups that took the tests without the training.

The results were striking. Although the control groups also made gains, presumably because they had practice with the fluid intelligence tests, improvement in the trained groups was substantially greater. Moreover, the longer they trained, the higher their scores were. All performers, from the weakest to the strongest, showed significant improvement.

“Intelligence has always been considered principally an immutable inherited trait,” said Susanne M. Jaeggi, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Michigan and a co-author of the paper. “Our results show you can increase your intelligence with appropriate training.”

Why did the training work? The authors suggest several aspects of the exercise relevant to solving new problems: ignoring irrelevant items, monitoring ongoing performance, managing two tasks simultaneously and connecting related items to one another in space and time.

This is the abstract from the NPAS journal article:

Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory
Susanne M. Jaeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Walter J. Perrig


Fluid intelligence (Gf) refers to the ability to reason and to solve new problems independently of previously acquired knowledge. Gf is critical for a wide variety of cognitive tasks, and it is considered one of the most important factors in learning. Moreover, Gf is closely related to professional and education success, especially in complex and demanding environments. Although performance on tests of Gf can be improved through direct practice on the tests themselves, there is no evidence that training on any other regiment yields increased Gf in adults. Furthermore, there is a long history of research into cognitive training showing that, although performance in trained tasks can increase dramatically, transfer of this learning to other tasks remains poor. Here, we present evidence for transfer from training on a demanding working memory task to measures of Gf. This transfer results even though the trained task is entirely different from the intelligence test itself. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the extent of gain in intelligence critically depends on the amount of training: the more training, the more improvement in Gf. That is, the training effect is dosage-dependent. Thus, in contrast to many previous studies, we conclude that it is possible to improve Gf without practicing the testing tasks themselves, opening a wide range of applications.

Play, think…
J.R. Atwood


Entry filed under: think. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Being Fit Isn’t Enough The Magic Bullet

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. iq training  |  July 5, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Hello, J.R.

    After I saw this report in the NY Times, I was so impressed that I got hold of the full paper, contacted Jaeggi and her team, and developed a software program using the same method so that anyone can achieve these improvements at home.

    I’ve personally found that the program brings some not so subtle improvements. For instance, I usually have to work hard at the Thursday puzzle in the Times, and sometimes don’t finish it. But this week I rattled it off in about thirty minutes. The program records working memory scores and they just keep going up, just as Jaeggi’s study showed. Highly recommended.

    Martin Walker
    mind evolve, llc
    iqtesttraining dot com

  • 2. Leo  |  July 14, 2008 at 1:06 am

    Or you could just go to and do it online for free.

    This task is trivially easy to turn into a computer program. I was going to do it myself, but then found the site above. I suppose it’s a free world …


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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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