Can Cognitive Training Make You Smarter?

Monday, April 21st, 2014

Dan Hurley (Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power) discusses cognitive training:

What kind of effect does cognitive training have on the brain?

There is no question that training causes structural and functional improvement in the brain, as seen on MRI. Most of the changes are seen in the frontal areas of the brain, where high-level thinking occurs. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, has been shown to produce increased white-matter connections between the anterior cingulate cortex, an important region for complex decision-making, and the rest of the brain.

What cognitive functions did you find are most trainable?

Working memory is the ability to juggle multiple items of attention, to manipulate and analyze information. If you try to multiple 26 by 37 in your head, the reason it’s so hard is because of the demands it puts on your working memory. Tons of studies, including the latest one by Randy Engle, show that by training on certain kinds of working-memory tasks, you can improve your working memory overall. This is profoundly important for your ability to multi-task and think through complicated problems.

What interventions are the most effective in improving cognitive ability?

Working-memory training has proved really useful, although exactly which kinds of working-memory tasks are most useful remains unclear. Susanne Jaeggi has focused on the N-back task, which anyone can check out online at  Others prefer various other kinds of working-memory tasks. But plenty of research also shows that physical exercise, learning a musical instrument, and mindfulness meditation can all bring significant benefits. One of the coolest parts of my training was learning to play the Renaissance lute.

Teenagers everywhere want to know: are there any cognitive benefits of first-person shooter games?

Absolutely. These games are so good at improving reaction times that they are used by the U.S. military to train pilots and operators of drones. These games can also improve the “useful field of view,” your ability to see and respond to stimuli at the periphery of your vision, which is incredibly important when driving a vehicle. Other computerized games have been shown to improve older people’s ability to distinguish very fine differences in shades of gray. Strangely, this ability has been shown to be one of the single most important markers of longevity. So if you get better at it, will you actually live longer? That’s not yet clear. But improving your ability to see and respond to your environment can be potentially lifesaving.

How important is exercise?

Research has proved beyond doubt that the brain is actually connected to the heart and lungs via something called the “neck.” Physical exercise is perhaps the best-proved method for improving cognitive function in older people. It’s also critical for children and middle-aged sloths. Some researchers believe that cardiovascular exercise is best, while others insist that strength training is more important.

What about vitamins? Which one should take the most of if I want to think more quickly? Or should I just continue to drink lots and lots of caffeine?

I know that many people believe in the benefits of vitamins and dietary supplements. But there are no good studies showing that any of them really help cognitive function. Large studies of fish oil given to pregnant women have even suggested that there might be some risks to the intellectual abilities of their children. Caffeine, on the other hand, has been repeatedly shown to enhance not just attention, but motivation and even, most recently, memory. And if you can believe it, nicotine also helps. Cigarettes and other forms of tobacco are of course extremely dangerous and greatly increase the risk of cancer, heart disease, and much more. But studies in both humans and animals confirm that nicotine, given through a patch or gum, can be a great cognitive enhancer. I actually started using a 7 mg nicotine patch and found it useful, without any noticeable addictiveness.

Can mindfulness meditation make you smarter? What cognitive functions are most affected by mindfulness meditation?

A series of studies by Michael Posner and Yi-Yuan Tang have shown that mindfulness meditation can enhance all kinds of cognitive abilities. Mind-wandering is not helpful when you’re trying to write an article or take a test. On the other hand, some recent studies have suggested that allowing your mind to wander can also be helpful when you need a breakthrough. Some of the greatest scientific insights have occurred when scientists were spacing out.

How transferable are improvements in specific cognitive functions to intelligence more generally?

It’s easy for psychologists to give you a series of tests, have you practice some exercises, and then run follow-up tests to see if you improve better than people who didn’t do those exercises. But figuring out what the real-world benefits are to those improvements is much, much harder. A recent study of older adults given just ten hours of training found that even ten years later, they still enjoyed significant benefits in daily functioning. A hundred years of studies have proved that IQ tests and other tests of cognitive function are very, very predictive of real-world abilities. They’re not perfect—no test is—but on average, just like blood-pressure tests, they’re pretty good at predicting how you’ll do in the future. Many large corporations, as well as the U.S. military, give these tests not because they love tests, but because they really help pick out people who can be successful from those who just lack the ability to learn and function.

Leave a Reply