Brain is plastic. Especially when it comes to things like working memory. Working memory is very critical to functioning everyday. A larger working memory also helps you do well in mathematics, sciences and engineering etc. in addition to improving your everyday life.
Say on your way to work in the lobby you meet a person whose start up is doing something very interesting and you want to schedule a meting with her to follow up. You got her name, email and phone number (a phone number in US typically ranges from 7 to 10 digits depending on if you have to remember area code). You don’t have a pen to write down the number. A couple of your collegues greet you on your way to the elevator. Someone in the elevator says it’s a nice day out side. Another person says, the weekend is supposed to be sunny. As you get off the elevator, you run into your boss’s admin that says to forward the work order for the job that’s going to need approval and it needs to be done as soon as you get to your office. Some of this trivia but your brain is trying to keep remembering the phone number and the name of the person you met in the lobby, and also the tasks you need to get done that morning.
How much of this can you remember when you get to your office? This is your working memory capacity. The more you have the smarter you are.
Now that we understand working memory is very important for intelligence, how do we improve it? You can do cross word puzzles, sudoku etc. But the problem with this type of exercises is, it has diminishing returns after the first couple of times. It’s like going to the gym and doing biceps (same weight and same exercise). No physical trainer will ever recommend this is what you need to do for a healthy body. Healthy and fit brain is the same. You need well tuned program that varies enough to tone all the necessary skills.
This interview shows insights into how you can increase your working memory and effectively be smarter than you are.
The interview published (in May 2008) in Sharper Brains is with Martin Buschkuehl, one of the University of Michigan Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab researchers involved in the cognitive training study that has received much media attention (New York Times, Wired, Science News…) since late April, when the study was published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
They recruited 70 students aged around 26 years and set half of them on a challenging computer-based cognitive training regimen, based on the so-called “n-back task.” This is a very complex working memory task that involves the simultaneous presentation of visual and auditory stimuli. The experimental group watched a series of screens on their computers, where a blue square appeared in various positions on a black background. Each screen appeared for half a second, with a 2.5 second gap before the next one appeared. While this happened, the trainees also heard a series of letters that were read out at the same rate.
At first, students had to say if either the screen or the letter matched those that popped up two cycles ago. The number of cycles increased or decreased depending on how well the students performed the task. The students sat through about twenty-five minutes of training per day for either 8, 12, 17 or 19 days, and were tested on their fluid intelligence before and after the regimen using the Bochumer-Matrizen Test (this is a problem-solving task based on the same principle as the very well known Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices. However, it is more difficult and therefore especially suited for academic samples).
Participants in the experimental group did significantly better on the fluid intelligence test (which was not directly trained) than participants in the control group. Those in the control group had not gone through any training. The control group did improve slightly, but real “trainees” outperformed them (see Figure Xa). Furthermore, we found that the improvement was dose-dependent: the more they trained, the larger the gain on fluid intelligence.
What are the particular aspects of the University of Michigan study that surprised you the most?
First, the clear transfer into fluid intelligence, that many researchers and psychologists take as fixed.
Second, I was surprised to see that the more training the better the outcome. The improvements did not seem to peak early.
Third, that all trained groups improved, no matter their respective starting points. In fact, students with lowest fluid intelligence seemed to improve the most. But that was not the main focus of our study, so we can not say much more about it.