In recent years the idea of ‘brain-training’ has really taken off. There are a wide selection of games and software packages that claim to help you hone your intelligence. So many, in fact, that it’s confusing for consumers. Which games work? Do any of them work? The bottom line is that, whilst more research needs to be done, we can be fairly confident that psychologists have figured out how to increase your IQ.
Removing the Blocks to Increasing your IQ
Before I get into the methods that do seem to work in increasing intelligence, its important to recognise the things that stop people doing it. There are three big blocks to boosting IQ:
1. Believing it can’t be done
To be fair, up until comparatively recently, psychologists believed that your IQ was something you were born with and that it couldn’t be improved. Your DNA and your personal brain structure basically determined it and whilst you could learn new things, and you could certainly damage your intelligence (e.g. through malnutrition or drug abuse) you couldn’t really improve the underlying engine of your brainpower: your IQ. However, just over a decade ago, two new findings about the brain gave us the first hints that IQ-boosting was possible. Firstly Neuroscientists found that our brains can grow even as we age, and that they can re-wire themselves (this is called ‘neural plasticity’). This came as a shock to many scientists, and it means that if the brain can grow and improve, perhaps it can improve its intelligence level? The second piece of evidence was a study conducted in 2002 by the Swedish psychologist Torkel Klingberg, which found that people with attention deficit disorder were able to increase not only their attention levels, but their general intelligence, through software training that helped improve their working memory (I’ll return to this shortly).
2. Believing in the myth of the brain as a ‘muscle’ that needs training
The second myth that gets in the way of increasing IQ is looking at brain-training as though it’s like muscle-training. Training a muscle is basically a simple thing: the more you work it, the stronger it gets, and the stronger it gets, the better it is at any activity. This is not the case with IQ-training. With most things that people think are effective at brain-training – e.g. playing regular video games, or completing crossword puzzles – you may improve some specific types of brain-power (e.g. attention, visual skills, or word skills) and you may get better at that specific thing, but you won’t necessarily improve your IQ in general. What we need is not just to get better at video games or crosswords, but improve our IQs so that we are better at any challenge that we care to throw at our brains!
3. Falling for all the confusing claims
The last barrier to increasing our IQ is all the confusing claims that are out there. There are so many techniques, pills, foods and games that people claim will help increase our intelligence. Such a variety of claims can either lead us down the wrong pathways (pursuing solutions that don’t really work) or make us do nothing as we can’t decide which solution to follow.
Measuring IQ-boosting can be tricky
Before I get into how to increase your IQ, one last warning! We still don’t know everything about how to increase intelligence, because putting together experiments that are truly water-tight and give us results that we can be confident in is hard.
I’ll give you a couple of examples.
Lets say that we do a large study and find that out of a thousand people who regularly do Sudoku puzzles, three-quarters have an IQ of over 120 (I’m just making this up as an example), whereas out of a group of randomly picked people who don’t do Sudoku puzzles only one in ten has an IQ of over 120. This might look like Sudoku increases IQ! And, if there were companies who sell Sudoku puzzle books, or software, they might jump upon this finding as proof of the brain-boosting properties of the puzzle. However, it might just be that people who had a higher-IQ were more attracted to doing these puzzles in the first place, rather than the puzzles causing any increase in IQ. So any experiments or studies need to have tight controls to figure out whether a particular technique increased IQ or was just a consequence of someone already having a higher IQ. The gold-standard here is to have randomized trials. i.e. you take a group of people and randomly decide who is going to be undertaking the training.
Another problem is what’s called the placebo effect. Its long been known in medicine that just giving someone a pill – even if it’s a sugar pill with no medicinal properties – can help make them feel better. Call it the power of belief: an expert giving you a treatment can just boost your confidence and faith that you’ll get better to the point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy! Similarly with IQ, if you take two groups of people and make one go through a hard brain-training program every day for several weeks, and the other group doesn’t, then the first group might just assume they should be getting more intelligent and therefore have greater confidence, resulting in them just trying harder when they are re-tested at the end of the training. To counter-act this effect you need to run a placebo-controlled study. In other words, in order to make sure that your results are not due to a placebo effect (or how much of your results are due to a placebo effect), you run a group who go through a very similar experience (thus making them think they might be getting the training, and hence increase their confidence) but you leave out the most essential part of the training. For example, with an experiment on brain-training software, you give your placebo group a software game to train on, but one which you don’t think has the same brain-boosting properties that you’re interested in.
Its problems like these that mean devising studies to test the effectiveness of IQ-boosting is not easy, and therefore it will take us time before we have a complete and thorough understanding of it. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence for several things that can boost intelligence. In particular there’s one powerful key to intelligence that if we train, will boost our IQ.
The Key to increasing IQ
Working memory is like the desktop of your mind. It’s the number of bits of information you can work on at one time without burning out or loosing track of the pieces. We all know that if we have a cluttered desk with very little free space to work on, it makes concentrating on getting things done much harder than if we have a large, clean uncluttered desk. Similarly with our minds, the more ‘space’ we have to hold many bits of information in our minds at once, the smarter we become. We are better able to see patterns, because we can manipulate and compare more things at once. The great majority of our thinking involves understanding patterns, so improving in this area can help us right across our lives. And the exciting thing about working memory is that it improves through training!
Unlike practising at a particular thing (such as Crossword puzzles or video games) when you train someone’s working memory they don’t just get better at working memory games, they get better at everything. This is the very essence of what IQ is trying to predict: the one factor that will move everything. It’s a bit like the one log in a beaver’s damn, which it holding it all together (and if moved, will cause the damn to collapse!) or the one stick in the game kerplunk, which if pulled out, will cause the most marbles to fall.
So what evidence is there that training your working memory will increase your IQ?
The evidence for working-memory training
The study that I mentioned before, conducted by Torkel Klingberg in 2002 really kicked things off. It showed that working memory training in people with attention deficit disorder increased IQ. The experiment was repeated in 2008 with people who didn’t have attention deficit disorder, and also showed a positive result.
This is important, as there are essentially two types of IQ-boosting. Firstly, there is improvement of IQ in people who are facing some challenge to their natural IQ levels, either through attention deficit disorder, or through some form of dementia like Alzheimer’s disease. The second type, which is probably harder to achieve, is boosting your IQ when you don’t have any challenges to it. In other words, there may be a great many things that will help someone with attention deficient disorder, or help protect someone against Alzheimer’s disease, but far fewer things that can boost your IQ when you don’t face these challenges. The higher your IQ already is, the harder it is to push it higher.
So if working-memory training can improve the IQ of ‘ordinary’ people, then it’s a big deal. Furthermore, as of 2013, there have been 22 randomized, placebo-controlled studies that found increases in IQ after brain-training, for up to 8-months after the training.* As you might expect in a field that is only just beginning to be understood, there are also a handful (around 4) of studies which failed to show an increase in IQ after training, although even in these studies other benefits were found. So, overall, the weight of evidence seems to be showing that even when brain-boosting doesn’t raise IQ, it can still have other cognitive benefits.
So what are the work-memory training games actually like?
IQ Training Games
One of the most popular forms of working memory games is called the ‘N-back’. Basically this a type of computer game whereby you need to follow a pattern, and every time the pattern repeats itself you press a key. For example, imagine a series of 9 squares: 3 rows by 3 columns, and they light-up, one by one, in a random order. In the N-back game you have to press the key every time a square lights up, for example, in the same position as it was 2 goes back. This means that you constantly have to track 2 positions of the pattern. Once you’ve mastered that, the game gets a little harder and you have to press the key when the square lights up in the same position as it was 3 positions back. And so on. Lastly, to make it even harder, most of these games are actually ‘duel N-back’, meaning that as well as a visual pattern, you also simultaneously have to keep track of a sound pattern, such as a voice reading out a series of numbers or letters. The principle is exactly the same: you have to track the pattern a certain number of steps back.
The fact that the game gradually gets harder according to your skill level (a feature which psychologists call ‘adaptive’) means that the game is more effective, as its constantly pushing you to the limits of your ability. In other words it’s stretching your working memory.
Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power
Recently, a science journalist called Dan Hurley decided to investigate the scientific evidence for the various techniques that are claimed to boost IQ. As science is still in the early days of testing out these claims, there is still some confusion, however he was confident enough to pick seven things for which there appears to be sufficient evidence to support. He then ran an experiment on himself, first testing his IQ, and then spending six months on a regimen of using all these purported IQ-boosters. At the end, he did indeed see a significant boost to his measured intelligence of 16.4% (on a measure called Raven’s test). However, on another IQ test, he only achieved an increase of 1 point. Yet as his IQ was already very high – 136 – it may be that it’s just very hard to push a high IQ even higher. A more average IQ may be easier to improve.
Of course, the limitation was that, by doing multiple things at once, its impossible to say exactly how much each thing was helping. It may be that only one thing was, or multiple things, or it could have been the combination of things. Nevertheless it’s interesting that he did experience a measurable increase in intelligence. So what were the things that he did?
The Magical 7 IQ-boosters!
Here are the seven things that Hurley found to have promising levels of evidence that they can boost IQ:
1. Working memory training
2. Exercise (both aerobic and resistance training)
3. Learning a music instrument or voice training
4. Mindfulness meditation
7. Transcranial direct-current stimulation (fDCS)
The working memory training is like the N-back game I’ve just described. Exercise, may be surprising, and perhaps often gets overlooked as it doesn’t feel like a brain-boosting activity, yet there is evidence that both aerobic and resistance training exercise can increase IQ. Voice training was found to be even more effective than learning a musical instrument, although that also had a positive effect. Mindfulness meditation has long been practiced as a method of calming the mind and reducing stress, but also seems to help boost IQ. Nicotine and coffee, as stimulants, seem to have an IQ-boosting effect, although no-one would advocate taking your Nicotine along with tobacco (i.e. smoking). Hurley took his in the form of Nicotine gum. Lastly, transcranial direct-current stimulation is a form of small current applied to the scalp, which stimulates the brain.
The evidence is building that it is possible to increase your IQ through training or stimulating your brain. The effects are probably bigger for those who have existing challenges – such as attention deficit disorder- and may be particularly helpful in helping prevent cognitive decline in old age. However, even if you are a healthy adult with no mental challenges, it may still be possible to increase your intelligence.
Have you tried to boost your IQ through any of the methods I’ve described? If so, let me know how you got on. Message me through this page.