Brain training is big business. From online websites to video games to mobile apps, it seems like there are plenty of ways to give your brain a bit of a boost. But does all this brain training really work? Can it increase your cognitive abilities or your IQ?
According to a few recent studies, while these brain training tools might help sharpen your abilities to retain information, they won't necessarily increase your intelligence or improve your ability to reason and think abstractly.
Study Looks at the Impact of Test Prep on Intelligence
Students today take a wide variety of standardized tests, from assessments throughout elementary school to evaluations required for college admission. While test prep for such assessments can increase factual knowledge, one study suggests that this prep does little to increase overall IQ.
Why? While test preparation increases what psychologists refer to as crystallized intelligence, it does not increase what is known as fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence includes facts and information, while fluid intelligence involves the ability to think abstractly or logically.
In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers looked at the IQ scores and test scores of approximately 1,400 eighth-grade students. While schoolwork helped increase the students' test scores, it had no effect on measures of fluid intelligence. The authors suggest that fluid intelligence is a much better indicator of abilities such as problem-solving ability, abstract thinking skills, memory capacity, and processing speed.
While the study found no indicator that test preparation improved IQ, that does not mean that this preparation has no value. Research clearly shows that having high scores on standardized tests is linked to having high scores on other important tests including Advanced Placement tests, the SAT, and the ACT.
Crystallized knowledge is also important for many areas of life, both in school and later on in the workforce. For example, factual knowledge is important for doing well in math classes and for later applying that knowledge in the real-world.
Study Suggests Brain Training May Not Increase Intelligence
In another study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers found that while brain training games did increase performance on specific tasks, they didn't lead to a general improvement in overall intelligence. In the study, 60 participants were tested on their ability to withhold an action. After seeing a "go" signal indicating either left or right, the participants had to press a key corresponding to the correct direction. In about a quarter of the trials, however, a beep was sounded immediately after the go signal that meant that the participant was not supposed to press any key.
Compared to the control group, which received no such beep, the participants in the experimental group showed increased levels of activity in brain areas associated with inhibitory actions. However, the researchers saw no corresponding activity in areas of the brain associated with working memory.
According to the researchers, brain training games can result in a temporary increase in the ability to perform a specific task. However, they probably do not have much of an impact on overall intelligence.
Is Brain Training Worth It?
Given the results of such studies, you might be wondering if brain training has any value. After all, if it doesn't increase intelligence, then what good is it? While such brain training and other test prep instruction might not result in an increased IQ, it does increase knowledge and can improve abilities in specific areas.
So go ahead, sign up for that brain training website or download that brain-boosting app. Just be aware of what you are likely to get out of using such tools. Ignore false promises that suggest your IQ will soar and instead focus on increasing your factual knowledge, challenging yourself, and having a bit of fun.
Learn more about some common brain myths:
- Do You Really Only Use 10 Percent of Your Brain?
- Are People Really Left Brain or Right Brain Thinkers?
- Does Drinking Alcohol Really Kill Brain Cells?
Berkman, E. T., Kahn, L. E., & Merchant, J. S. (2014). Training-induced changes in inhibitory control network activity. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34, 149-157. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.3564-13.2014
Harrison, T. L., Shipstead, Z., Hicks, K. L., Hambrick, D. Z., Redick, T. S. & Engle, R. W. (2013). Working memory training may increase working memory capacity but not fluid intelligence. Psychological Science, 24(12), 2409-2419. doi: 10.1177/0956797613492984
Nicholson, C. (2013, Dec. 19). Test prep doesn't help raise intelligence scores. Scientific American. Retreived from http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/test-prep-doesnt-help-raise-intelli-13-12-19/
Nicholson, C. (2014, Jan. 14). Brain-training games may not improve overall intelligence. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/brain-training-games-may-not-improv-14-01-14/