Intelligence Improvement With Training
> 4/29/2008 3:27:37 PM

Until relatively recently, the brain was thought of as an entirely static structure. But the paradigm shifted when scientists found evidence that new connections can quickly form and that entirely new neurons can be generated in adult brains. Even after this revelation, the predominant view was that, while some cognitive functions could improve, there were other forms of intelligence that were circumscribed before adulthood. Fluid intelligence especially was assumed to be innate, but a study by Dr. Susanne Jaeggi, published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that fluid intelligence can ebb and flow throughout life.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve novel problems without relying on crystalized knowledge. On tests of fluid intelligence, a bright child can outperform an average adult with decades of experience to draw on. Dr. Jaeggi tested adult volunteers for baseline fluid intelligence before assigning them a training program designed for this study.

The training program required subjects to keep track of complex sounds and images. The program fine-tunes itself to present a constant challenge by easing up if the subject makes mistakes and ramping up the difficulty after many correct answers in a row. Subjects used the program 30 minutes every day for either 8, 12, 17 or 19 days.

After all of these short training periods, fluid intelligence scores showed significant improvement. A small fraction of this rise can be attributed to exposure to the previous fluid intelligence test, but the control group showed that those who did not perform the daily task missed out on much greater improvement. Additional evidence can be gleaned by looking at the way that improvement rose in step with days of training. Those who trained for 17 days did better than those who only went 12 days, but were not quite as good as those who stuck in there for two extra days. Unfortunately, the study was not designed to determine whether there is an upper limit to this benefit, or how long the boost lasts.

This study chips away at the fatalistic idea that our ability to handle new tasks is set in stone early on. Everyone knows that the brain can be prepared for a history test by storing important dates, but new studies frequently remind us of just how versatile the brain is, and this study demonstrates that even a few hours of training can prepare it to handle unexpected, novel problems. Previous studies have shown that mental exercise can stave off cognitive decline, and these new results suggest that you may even be able to regain or surpass the cognitive ability of your youth.

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