Published online 28 April 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.784

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Do games improve mental performance?

Memory workouts shown to sharpen abstract reasoning skills.

Can memory games improve your overall intelligence?PUNCHSTOCK

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.”

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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. 

  • References

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