Virtues of Cognitive Workout: New Research Reveals Neurological Underpinnings of Intelligence

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How much does environment influence intelligence? Several years ago University of Virginia Professor Eric Turkheimer demonstrated that growing up in an impoverished and chaotic household suppresses I.Q. – without nurture, innate advantages vanish. What about genes? They matter too. After decades of research most psychologists agree that somewhere between 50% and 80% of intelligence is genetic. After all, numerous studies demonstrate that identical twins raised apart have remarkably similar I.Q.’s.

A 2008 paper out of the University of Michigan turned all of this on its head. The researchers led by Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, now at the University of Maryland, found that participants who engaged in short sessions of “cognitive training” that targeted working memory with a simple but difficult game known as the n-back task boosted a core feature of general intelligence called fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence improves with age and experience. Fluid intelligence, in contrast, is the capacity to make insights, solve new problems and perceive new patterns to new situations independent of previous knowledge. For decades researchers believed that fluid intelligence was immutable during adulthood because it was largely determined by genetics. The implication of the 2008 study suggested otherwise: with some cognitive training people could improve fluid intelligence and, therefore, become smarter.

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