Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Games improve mental performance

I’d better start playing those memory games.

Do games improve mental performance?

Memory workouts shown to sharpen abstract reasoning skills.

Heidi Ledford

Can training one aspect of the mind, such as memory, improve overall mental sharpness? Researchers conducting a study on healthy college students suggest that such mental cross-training does work.

The notion that a few daily puzzles and quizzes sharpens the intellect and staves off cognitive decline is controversial (see Brain craze). Most research has shown that such brain games do little more than allow the participant to develop strategies for improving performance on that particular task. The improvement does not typically extend beyond the game itself.

But a new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that a group of college students improved their performance on a pattern-recognition test — a commonly used intelligence test — after training their working memory1.

Brain games

Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, both now at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and their colleagues recruited 70 participants from the University of Bern in Switzerland, and trained them on a rigorous memory test. The test consisted of a string of events: every three seconds, a small white box would appear on the screen in varying locations while at the same time a letter of the alphabet was read aloud.

Participants were asked to indicate when the current box-letter combination matched what they saw and heard some number of trials back. The number of trials that the test subjects had to remember depended on how well they did on the test — someone with a good memory might be asked to recall what they saw six trials previously, for example.

Participants practised this test for 25 minutes a day for 8 to 19 days. After that, they were given a pattern-recognition test to assay ‘fluid intelligence’ — the ability to solve problems, use abstract reasoning, and adapt to new situations. A typical intelligence test, often called an IQ test, will measure both fluid intelligence and ‘crystalline’ intelligence — a measure of learned abilities such as vocabulary or specific skills.

The researchers found that those who had trained on the working memory test scored on average a little more than one point better than the control group in a test of 29 questions. The effect was larger among those who trained for longer.

Buschkuehl compares the memory training task to learning how to drive a car. Previous studies have shown that if you learned to drive a car, you could can probably handle a truck as well, he says. The new results are like learning to drive a car, and then finding that you are also better able to fly an aeroplane, Buschkuehl says.

The real world

It’s unclear, however, whether this improved ‘intelligence’ would make a difference to a person’s life. “The impact of fluid intelligence on adult day-to-day life is not clear,” says Phillip Ackerman, a experimental psychologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. “Based on 100 years of research on human intelligence, fluid intelligence is not closely related to professional success,” he says.

One way to test the impact of Buschkuehl’s memory test in real life situations would be to try it with a set of workers — air-traffic controllers, for example — whose performance on the job has been linked to fluid intelligence. If a controller can handle more planes after the training, Ackerman says, “it would represent a significant contribution to understanding how abilities in adults can be improved.”

Other researchers are keen to see if the improvement extends to people with memory or intelligence deficiencies. “It would be great if you could show that people with cognitive impairment would improve as well,” says Todd Braver, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Buschkuehl says that they hope to expand their research to include children with developmental problems — including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — or patients facing cognitive decline in old age.

It will also be important to determine how long the effect lasts: participants in the study took their intelligence tests within two days of ending their memory training.

Meanwhile, Buschkuehl has gathered some anecdotal evidence of real-world effects: after the study was completed, he received letters from some of the participants. “They said that after the training they were more attentive,” he says. “They could more easily follow lectures, or had less trouble understanding the papers they read.” Such self-reporting, however, will struggle to be convincing without some quantitative way of monitoring improvement.


Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., Perrig, W. J. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA advanced online publication, doi:10.1073/


April 29, 2008 - Posted by | brain | , , , ,


  1. I think Nintendo are currently making an absolute fortune from this very concept with their brain training game.

    Comment by Tim Guy | May 1, 2008 | Reply

  2. Jaeggi and Buschkuehl’s study is the first to be able to demonstrate a link between training and improvements in general intelligence. They used a demanding training method over a good period of time. This is the difference between sweating at the gym for several weeks and watching golf on TV.

    I was so impressed that I contacted the research team and developed a software program using the same training method so that anyone can achieve these improvements at home. IQ Training Program

    Martin Walker
    mind evolve, llc

    Comment by IQ Training Brain Exercises | July 13, 2008 | Reply

  3. […] This study, published in April of 2008, was led by Susan Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, done at the University of Michigan, and has been cited in various publications including the New York Times, and Wired magazine.  The study participants – college students – increased their scores of working memory through a training regimen that lasted from eight to 19 days.  Working memory is a form of fluid intelligence that researchers have generally thought to be fairly fixed throughout life.  This study demonstrated that at least fluid intelligence is likely more plastic than has previously been thought.  (Fluid intelligence is often considered one type of intelligence, with crystallized intelligence being the other.  Crystallized intelligence draws on existing skills, and information in long term memory that has been learned, while fluid intelligence is the measure of manipulating various new concepts.  It involves problem solving, working memory, and to some extent, creativity.) […]

    Pingback by Recent Research « Language Fix | September 20, 2008 | Reply

  4. I’m not sure whether this ‘over one point increase’ is one more correct answer on the given test, or an increase of about one IQ point. If it’s the latter, it seems pretty paltry.

    If twenty days produces an increase in IQ of one point, does that mean three years for forty points? Hmmmf…

    Mind you, I haven’t read the paper.

    Comment by Matt | November 16, 2008 | Reply

  5. I am guessing that the IQ increase would not be linear, but would taper off to a level that marks reaching the potential of the individual.

    Comment by pragmasynesi | November 16, 2008 | Reply

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