If you take the time to read up on the scientific and theoretical literature regarding the effectiveness of brain-training, you will eventually encounter the truth of the matter: we don’t know whether it works or not. This is not to say that there isn’t compelling and enlightening research into human intelligence and the benefits of mental fitness, there is; the trouble however is both a lack of scientific consensus, leaving us unable to resolve the issue statistically, as well as an upper limit to our understanding of the physics of intelligence. At this boundary of our scientific insight we are left to face the inscrutable complexity of the mind without any certainty.
But uncertainty never stopped anyone from making a buck, and brain training is a big and rapidly growing industry. According to one study, it has grown from a healthy $210 million in 2005 up to a billion dollar bonanza; and it is forecasted to generate as much as $6 billion by the year 2020. It is in such situations (the money makin’ situation) that science loses some of its credibility with the discerning mind. Companies such as Cogmed, Lumosity and Cognifit furnish potential customers with myriad respectable and shiny scientific reports to validate their claims. This is suspicious of course, science is no more immune to the influence of desired results than it is designed to be.
To be fair, the scientific community’s interest in intelligence has been around for more than a century, and many of these companies were recently formed as a result of research done prior to their existence. However, skeptics have generated their own library of equally respectable (if not quite so shiny) research that disputes the capacity of these games to improve anything but game playing. Where does all this leave us, the somewhat intrigued, somewhat skeptical consumer?
Common sense suggests that puzzles and mental challenges might keep you sharper than less engaging activities. Then again, your common sense reminds you, it seems quite a stretch to imagine that sudoku has changed anyone’s life. Although… it is true that physical fitness prefers regular, incremental efforts, so might it be conceivable that the daily toning of some atrophied neurons could lead to a bulging brain over time. And clearly the more engaging and enjoyable the puzzles, the more likely you are to do them, the same way gummy-bear vitamins succeeded where those traditional pill-shaped bricks of multivitamin failed.
As is so often the case, handling the truth is an exercise in ambivalence (which is good for mental flexibility). The potential impact of brain training is dependent on the user, and in nobody’s studies is it performing miracles, but clearly there is some benefit to stimulating your mind in this way, though maybe not just for the reasons we would expect.
Models of the Mind and the IQ Debate
Theories regarding intelligence and the mind were long the exclusive provenance of philosophers Along came psychology with high ambitions of science (if not always scientific methods), and early in the 20th century the IQ test was developed. Initially it was a tool for diagnosing mental deficiency, but as the techniques were refined it became possible to test a variety of individual mental capacities and then compare them across a population. While these tests are still a staple of the field today, the have faced a great deal of controversy, and controversy is food for science. It is in the struggle to determine if an IQ test could measure what it claimed to that workable theories about the mind were developed. One of the most important is the theory of multiple intelligences.
Raymond Cattell developed a theory of general intelligence (know as “G”) part of which is a distinction between crystallized (Gc) and fluid (Gf) intelligence. Crystallized intelligence is the store of knowledge and experiences we have accumulated, as well as our ability to apply this information, while fluid intelligence is described as the ability to process and handle new information or unfamiliar situations. An IQ test is supposed to take a balanced and unbiased measurement of both, and then produce a numerical value which can be compared to someone else's. While IQ tests are a useful approximation, it is possible that two people with the same score can have very different types of intelligence. And so a hydra is born, the Herculean task to define intelligence.
Neuroscience has brought provided insights into the physical structures and functions of the brain, but it by necessity must work up from definable units and pathways. Some progress has been made, it has revealed some of the basic physics of learning, the concept of long-term potentiation, and brain imaging has revealed the prefrontal cortex as the locale of working memory, but there remains a void between these small scale understandings and the spectacular psychological phenomenon that is human intelligence. The hard sciences give reason to believe that regular stimulation is essential to the creation and maintenance of neuronal connections, and it is also clear that humans raised in a more stimulating environment tend to be more intelligent, though it is not a rule. Clearly intelligence is both genetic and also a product of environmental factors, but it is anyone’s guess where one ends and the other begins.
We find ourselves again in the mental-yoga pose of downward-facing uncertainty. Unable to define intelligence biologically we are stuck with the IQ test and the consolation that while it may not measure all aspects of intelligence it measures something.
Clearly anyone can take IQ tests and improve, but they aren’t really smarter, just more practiced. Then again, they are testing higher, which means that their brain is more capable at solving certain types of problems more quickly and accurately. What is intelligence but the ability to interpret information, process it and produce accurate results in a timely fashion?
It is from this foundation that brain games developed into an industry. Brain games are essentially an endless series of IQ tests that track your improvement and adjust the difficulty to keep it challenging, making you more, and more, and more prepared for the intelligence test known as life. Whether there is any merit to this, no one can claim to be certain.
Many of those who use brain games, or partake of other puzzles, claim that they feel sharper, and while this is an impossible thing to substantiate scientifically, there have been some psychological experiments that might support an alternate view of the benefits of brain games.
There is evidence that a person’s self-confidence is correlated with their ability to achieve at the peak of their regular capacity, which is to say that you are more likely to do well on an IQ test if you believe that you will. Similarly, it seems that being in a good mood has a positive effect on learning. These findings, and others like them, suggest that part of the positive impact of playing brain games is that by believing you are getting smarter, and by having fun and building your confidence in your ability to take IQ tests, you may in fact be maximizing your brains ability to learn and utilize your mysterious intelligence.