Many scientists have long believed that a person’s IQ is determined by their genes and therefore not subject to change. But new research may prove that we can give our brains a workout that will actually improve our intelligence.
The study, which took place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that memory tasks performed regularly can nudge your IQ up a few points — and the uptick remains in place several months later.1 So just as you can exercise to condition your body to be healthy, you just might be able to exercise your brain to its optimum potential.
The subjects were 62 children in elementary or middle school from Michigan who were randomly placed in one of two groups. The first group was instructed to play video games on the computer that were really mental training exercises meant to improve working memory, which functions to store and retrieve information in the short-term. The second group also played video games on the computer, but theirs were instead focused on vocabulary and general knowledge subjects. All of the volunteers participated five times a week for 15-minute sessions over the course of a month.
When the experiment was over, the children in the memory-training group had raised their IQ by an average of five points. The gains came in one particular area of intelligence called fluid intelligence, which involves the ability to solve problems and employ reasoning. Fluid intelligence is the segment of our overall aptitude that is believed to be entrenched in our DNA and not subject to changing or improvement through education or experience.
But in this study, the fluid intelligence levels of the participants rose due to the memory tasks they performed. In addition, when the children were retested three months after the initial experiment, the IQ points they had gained remained with them, suggesting a potentially lasting effect. However, it should be noted that the study was small, and not every child showed improvement.
Then again, earlier studies by the same research team at the University of Michigan in 2008 also showed that brain training can improve our general problem solving abilities as well.2 The greater the number of days the subjects received the brain training, the greater their rate of improvement on tests of fluid intelligence. It appears that working memory and fluid intelligence may have connected neural networks.
And it’s not just children who can benefit by exercising their brains and boosting their intelligence. We all know about the problems of cognitive decline that occur so frequently as we age. The brain is actually producing new cells throughout our lives, but in most people, those cells never fully develop and eventually die off.
Research published by the Society for Neuroscience back in 2006 demonstrated the benefit of keeping your brain active. The scientists tagged rats’ new brain cells with a chemical marker. Some of the rats were given a stimulating “learning exercise” to master over two weeks. The remainder of the rats were kept in a dull, unstimulating environment. After one week, both groups showed about 5,000 new cells formed in the hippocampus of their brains. The two groups were then re-examined one week later. In the unstimulated group, all 5,000 cells had died, but in the “learning” group, the 5,000 cells had not only survived, but had matured into functionally wired neurons. Even better, the more difficult the tasks the rats learned, the more cells that matured and became functional neurons. For more on how what you do changes structures in your brain, check out How Health and Environment Change Your Brain.
Keeping yourself mentally active can help improve your intelligence and protect you from eventual — but possibly not inevitable — cognitive decline. Do whatever interests you to challenge your brain: crossword puzzles, listening to classical music, learning a new language, taking adult education or college classes; the list goes on and on. The more you do, the more your knowledge, intelligence, and even your brain itself will grow.
1 Jaeggi, Susanne M.; Buschkuehl, Martin; Jonides, John; Shah, Priti. “Short- and Long-Term Benefits of Cognitive Training.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 13 June 2011. National Academy of Sciences. 21 July 2011. <http://www.pnas.org/content/108/25/10081.abstract?sid=cd1089ab-ea30-4227-a9ae-bc5e2689ab7b>.
2 Jaeggi, Susanne M.; Buschkuehl, Martin; Jonides, John; Perrig, Walter J. “Improving Fluid Intelligence With Training on Working Memory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 28 April 2008. National Academy of Sciences. 22 July 2011. <http://www.pnas.org/content/105/19/6829.abstract?sid=9b99a313-29ab-4f9f-b207-07bc5f2288da>.