The “Welcome to your Brain” Team on Wild Side

Neuroscientists Sam Wang of Princeton and Sandra Aamodt of Nature Neuroscience, are guest bloggers at the Wild Side (Olivia Judson’s blog) on the New York Times today.  They have written about how working memory training can improve IQ.  Here’s an excerpt, but you should read the whole thing, especially the caveats.

A recent paper reported that training on a particularly fiendish version of the n-back task improves I.Q. scores. Instead of seeing a single series of items like the one above, test-takers saw two different sequences, one of single letters and one of spatial locations. They had to report n-back repetitions of both letters and locations, a task that required them to simultaneously keep track of both sequences. As the trainees got better, n was increased to make the task harder. If their performance dropped, the task was made easier until they recovered.

Each day, test-takers trained for 25 minutes. On the first day, the average participant could handle the 3-back condition. By the 19th day, average performance reached the 5-back level, and participants showed a four-point gain in their I.Q. scores.

The I.Q. improvement was larger in people who’d had more days of practice, suggesting that the effect was a direct result of training. People benefited across the board, regardless of their starting levels of working memory or I.Q. scores (though the results hint that those with lower I.Q.s may have shown larger gains). Simply practicing an I.Q. test can lead to some improvement on the test, but control subjects who took the same two I.Q. tests without training improved only slightly. Also, increasing I.Q. scores by practice doesn’t necessarily increase other measures of reasoning ability (Ackerman, 1987).

Since the gains accumulated over a period of weeks, training is likely to have drawn upon brain mechanisms for learning that can potentially outlast the training. But this is not certain. If continual practice is necessary to maintain I.Q. gains, then this finding looks like a laboratory curiosity. But if the gains last for months (or longer), working memory training may become as popular as — and more effective than — games like sudoku among people who worry about maintaining their cognitive abilities.

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