Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Becoming smarter by online brain training?

Some time ago, we reported on a few studies that had found it to be possible to improve our ability to reason, to solve problems, and to deal with new information, in short, our fluid intelligence. There are quite a few commercial online brain training programmes that build on these findings, and there are many people out there who buy them. But do they really work?

In an article in The Guardian / The Observer, journalist Elizabeth Day reviews some of the research on the effectiveness of such programmes. She summarises the study by Jaeggi and colleagues that found working memory to be improvable, which in turn improved participants’ performance on an IQ test. We reported on this study and a subsequent one in an earlier post. However, she also reports on a study by Thomas Redick from Purdue University and his colleagues that failed to replicate the findings by Jaeggi and colleagues. Adrian M. Owen and Adam Hampshire from Cambridge University summarised the findings and conducted their own study usingvarious different tasks, not only one. They come to the conclusion that people improve on the tasks they train, but that there is no transfer effect to other tasks, even if they are closely related.

In an interview, David Z. Hambrick from Michigan State University, one of the co-authors of the aforementioned study, outlines the findings by Jaeggi and colleagues and his own findings. He makes a few interesting points in this interview. He says that even if we improve our performance on a reasoning test, this does not mean that we are more intelligent because intelligence is a whole bundle of abilities. He also outlines that it is not yet clear what actually is the basis for intelligence or its common factor and thus what we actually improve by brain training. It may be working memory, but it may just as well be attention, or both. But he makes it clear that we do not have convincing evidence for the fact that we can really improve our intelligence by online brain training, nor do we have evidence that it is NOT possible.

In the end, he suggests two things: improving our crystallised intelligence (i.e. knowledge) and doing physical exercise. Both are known to be improvable, whereas with online brain training, we are simply not sure (yet). We will keep you updated on the recent developments in this field!

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