‘Brain Training’ May Boost Working Memory, but Not Intelligence

Medical Xpress, October 8, 2013

Brain training games, apps, and websites are popular and it’s not hard to see why—who wouldn’t want to give their mental abilities a boost? New research suggests that brain training programs might strengthen your ability to hold information in mind, but they won’t bring any benefits to the kind of intelligence that helps you reason and solve problems.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“It is hard to spend any time on the web and not see an ad for a website that promises to train your brain, fix your attention, and increase your IQ,” says psychological scientist and lead researcher Randall Engle of Georgia Institute of Technology. “These claims are particularly attractive to parents of children who are struggling in school.”

According to Engle, the claims are based on evidence that shows a strong correlation between working memory capacity (WMC) and general fluid intelligence. Working memory capacity refers to our ability to keep information either in mind or quickly retrievable, particularly in the presence of distraction. General fluid intelligence is the ability to infer relationships, do complex reasoning, and solve novel problems.

The correlation between WMC and fluid intelligence has led some to surmise that increasing WMC should lead to an increase in fluid intelligence, but “this assumes that the two constructs are the same thing, or that WMC is the basis for fluid intelligence,” Engle notes.

To better understand the relationship between these two aspects of cognition, Engle and colleagues had 55 undergraduate students complete 20 days of training on certain cognitive tasks. {snip}

The researchers administered a battery of tests before and after training to gauge improvement and transfer of learning, including a variety of WMC measures and three measures of fluid intelligence.

The results were clear: Only students who trained on complex span tasks showed transfer to other WMC tasks. None of the groups showed any training benefit on measures of fluid intelligence.

“For over 100 years, psychologists have argued that general memory ability cannot be improved, that there is little or no generalization of ‘trained’ tasks to ‘untrained’ tasks,” says Tyler Harrison, graduate student and lead author of the paper. “So we were surprised to see evidence that new and untrained measures of working memory capacity may be improved with training on complex span tasks.”

The results suggest that the students improved in their ability to update and maintain information on multiple tasks as they switched between them, which could have important implications for real-world multitasking:


Topics: ,

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.