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Jeffrey ClementToo many Americans believe that students (and adults) cannot become smarter.

This belief is terribly destructive because it leads to a defeatist attitude (”I just can’t do any better than this in school”), it leads people to select easy tasks when they can (to ensure success so that they look smart) and it leads people to think of failure not as a chance to learn and improve, but as frightening feedback about their lack of innate ability. (Carol Dweck is the orginator of these important insights, and I recommend her book on the subject, Mindset).

In fact, people can become smarter, and new data indicate that it may be possible in a way that we had thought was impossible.

Two factors contribute to mental abilities: what you know, and your ability to work with what you know. When I say “work with” I mean combine in new ways, notice details of, make new comparisons, and so on. A limiting factor of smarts is one’s speed and facility in making these combinations. For example, you might calculate 8 X 16 in your head, but you would not try to calculate 341,963 X 789. Why not? The procedures to do the calculations are the same in both problems, but in the second you know that you would run out of “mental space.” The same space limitation applies in many mental tasks, for example, keeping several clauses in mind as one untangles the grammar of a complex sentence. People with more mental space (and who can use it more effectively) do better in school and are more successful in the workplace. Indeed, the amount of mental space you have correlates fairly well with scores on standard intelligence tests.

So a method of increasing people’s mental space would be of enormous educational significance. But no one has been able to find such a method. Rather, researchers have pointed to ways that one can cheat the limitation. Readily available factual knowledge is of tremendous help, as I’ve described in this article. For example, if you know that 9 X 7 = 63, you need not use valuable mental space to do that calculation as part of a more complex problem. (And indeed, knowledge of math facts is known to be an important component of competence in algebra and beyond.) But researchers have believed that mental space itself cannot be changed. As I put it in my recent book, “What you get is what you get.”

Recent research published in the Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences indicates that that conclusion may have been wrong. Susanne Jaeggi and her colleagues claim that they have developed a training regimen that increases the size of working memory (the term researchers use for mental space). Plenty of researchers have tried giving people practice on standard working memory tasks. The typical finding is that people get better at the task with practice, but the improvement does not transfer to other tasks, leading to the interpretation that people improved by learning some strategies for that particular task; the improvement did not reflect improved working memory.

Jaeggi and her colleagues dug a little deeper and tried to develop a training task that didn’t just rely on keeping a lot of stuff in working memory, but one that exercised the processes that manipulate things in working memory: binding things together, recombining them, shifting attention to different things in working memory, and so forth. In their task, subjects watched a computer screen and every 3 seconds a square would appear in one of six positions. Simultaneously, they listened to a tape over headphones of a voice saying the names of one of six letters. The subject’s job was to monitor the square positions and the letters and to indicate when one or the other repeated. So if the subject heard C. . . P. . . P. . . T. . . R. . . T. . there was a button she was to press when she heard the second P. Simultaneously, she was to monitor the positions of the squares, and press a different button if the position of a square repeated.

If the subject could do that task without making many errors, the experimenter made it more difficult by asking the subject to respond not for simple repetitions, but when the stimulus had been the same two positions back instead of one. So in the series above, P would no longer call for a response, but the second T would. If the subject made a lot of mistakes the task reverted to the easier, one-back version, but if the subject succeed with the two-back task the experimenter increased it to 3-back! The adaptive character of the task ensures that it is always challenging, but not impossibly difficult, and also gives the task its name: the n-back task. 

This task taxes working memory. Each time a new stimulus appears, the status of the letters you had been holding in working memory must be updated, you must make a new comparison, decide whether to respond, and you must do these things for both the square positions and the numbers.

Jaeggi’s subjects practiced this task for between 8 and 19 days, about 30 minutes per day.

The surprising result was that subjects improved not just on the task itself, they got better on a standard intelligence test, compared to pre-training scores on the same test. The intelligence test requires subjects to compare figures of increasing complexity and to find patterns among the features of the figures. (See here for an example.) The test (Raven’s Progressive Matrices)  has multiple forms so you can give the same test more than once. A no-training control group improved a bit when taking the test a second time due to practice effects. Working memory training added a significant boost above that. Especially important was that a dose effect was observed: subjects practiced the working memory task either 8, 12, 17, or 19 days, and more practice led to greater increases in intelligence test scores.

This result is surprising because the outcome measure–the intelligence test–seems so dissimilar from the training task.

So should parents start looking for home versions of the n-back task?

That’s probably premature. There are a few important caveats to keep in mind.

First, this is just one study, and we would obviously like to see it replicated, preferably with a different profile of subject. (All of the subjects in the study were college students.)

Second, we don’t know yet whether the effects last, whether one would need to continue the training every day, or indeed, whether people would habituate to the training and training needed would increase. We just don’t know.

Third, the outcome measure–the Raven’s Progressive Matrices task–is itself supposed to be used as a predictor of behaviors we think of as important, like success with schoolwork. It would be important to see whether the training directly influences those outcomes that we really care about.

Despite these caveats, it’s an exciting first indication that there may be another way (in addition to increasing your knowledge base) to boost intelligence.

*          *          *

homeimage12Dan Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom, typically posts on the first and third Mondays of each month.


Posted in Education
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24 Responses to “A New Way to Become Smarter”

  1. Bob Young Says:

    Excellent work. It will be amazing if it becomes successful.And I really want that.I think it should work to boost the intelligence.I hope so.

  2. Sarah Polin Says:

    This post reminded me the famous quote by Christoper Robin which says:

    “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”

    It is unfortunate that we don’t take these wise pieces of advice seriously.

  3. WorriedParent Says:

    I wonder is there any measurement for the converse situation? I mean, does under-utilizing, under-challenging working memory stunt intelligence? We know about “wild children; children severely deprived in early years” having significant life-long deficits-that’s not what I’m asking about. Rather, what about people living in an otherwise rich environment but being formally taught with small, short lists of information- with the intent of never overwhelming working memory?

  4. Lauren Says:

    As a teacher, I believe every bit of this article. When kids struggle in a subject they think they are stupid and stop trying. It is hard to convince them they can do it. This would be a good thing to do in school to help the students.

  5. Stas Says:

    Enough to see all these people what did not finish school beside high tech specialists, to understand what education DO makes people smart.


  6. Tuc Ma Says:

    As a parent of a toddler and owner of a Maryland Computer store, I am always looking for ways to improve his young and developing mind. We play matching games (his favorite) and reading flash cards. I know he may be still a little young, but if this technology can make a real difference than I am all for it.


  7. Samantha Says:

    Education does play a large and important part of an individuals’ brain development. But scientists still have a long long long long way until we can find the direction correlation. Keep in mind, causation does not cause correlation. I think it’s truly hard to comprehend how one becomes “smart.”

  8. Tracy W Says:

    Wow - exciting

  9. Edwin Says:

    I truly agree with this article. Oftentimes we stop challenging our mind because we are easily discouraged by complexities. If only schools can have the same training tasks available for students. Imagine the kind of impact it may have for our kids.

  10. David John Says:

    Nice article. But I couldn’t agree more because school is not just to study, it’s a “real” place for kids to interact and socialize with other kids.
    This can’t be done with hoe study.


  11. Designer Resume Says:

    Interesting article. I have also recently by chance come across recently released research results by well known US Psychologist (Richard Nisbett) who suggests mothers can increase their childs IQ by 8 points by having 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day whilst pregnant. The theory behind this is that exercising large muscle groups increases blood supply to the brain. - Makes sense! Fleur

  12. Steve M. Says:

    If you would like to try this out for yourself, you can download a free Dual N-back exercise program at:

  13. to our health Says:

    As an adult learning a second language , I can attest that it is possible to become ’smarter.’ It’s a struggle but it is possible, especially as an adult. After 4 months of intense study of French, understanding the French language has gotten much easier. I believe we are not limited to what little we know.

  14. ~nsj Says:

    it reminded me of Christoper Robin’s famous quote:

    “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”

    It is unfortunate that we don’t take these wise pieces of advice seriously anymore!!

  15. Online Tutor Says:

    Leaning makes us wise while the learned ability to apply those skill in impressive ways makes us smart.

  16. School of English Says:

    To put it in simple terms, once you have a negative thought that you cannot do or achieve a particular thing that’s really half the battle lost. We alwasy need to think there is scope for improvement and we can achieve it by just correcting somethings in ourselves. As simple as that at times. Cracking a tough nut is not always that hard if you do it smartly.

  17. William Says:

    Isn’t it odd that the answer to “can you become smarter?” might be different than the answer to “can you improve your skills?”

  18. William Says:

    Could part of the problem be that the label “smart” comes from other people rather than one’s self?

    If the question “are you smart?” is about the same as “do other people think you are smart?”, then perhaps something isn’t right.

  19. William Says:

    Which of these answers is more likely from a student? (anyone really)
    “Are you smart?” - Yes
    “Are you stupid?” - NO

  20. William Says:

    I’m sorry, I can’t seem to stop thinking about all this.

    I recently heard a speaker say something that stuck with me: “its not because I’m stupid, its because this stuff is really hard.”

    You said “Two factors contribute to mental abilities: what you know, and your ability to work with what you know.” What about your motivation? effort? and/or willingness to work?

    I seem to recall someone telling me that Einstein wasn’t a super-genius so much as he just worked really hard at solving the puzzles that interested him.

  21. Jihoy Advertisements Says:

    The good thing about this article is that the Author made certain things clear that this is a study and results yet found are probably premature. If you re read the article keeping in mind the last three points mentioned, you will enjoy more.

  22. Custom e learning Says:

    There are so many e-learning course available on the internet and you can find many websites that will introduce you to a language and give you course material and also conduct online exams for your benefit and gauge one’s progress.

    I think e-learning systems are a boon for those wanting to learn any foreign language.

  23. Stock Trading Says:

    We are all smart in our own ways. What is the basis of setting someone as smart or dumb.

    Mistakes are termed as dumb and achievements as smart moves.

  24. medical dictation Says:

    Negative thoughts like students (and adults) cannot become smarter are just misplaced you are becoming smarter each day. When you read news you are becoming smarter when you care for your environment you are becoming smarter.

    You can always take a medical dictation and if you you excel at that then consider yourself smart also the US Spell Bee Competition throws up so many smart kids every year how can America then be a dumb country.

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