Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock
Source: Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Are you smart?

It’s a question that we all hope to answer in the affirmative. But how do we know for sure? Intelligence is not simply defined; the ability to recall information, speak profoundly, or maintain a high GPA can all be—and often are—used as indications of how bright one is.

Part of the difficulty in gauging smarts is that many of our evaluations focus on distinct psychological processes, such as working memory (which temporarily holds information needed to complete tasks) and long-term memory. In an effort to measure intelligence holistically, we’ve turned to IQ tests, which evaluate the fundamentals of cognitive processing. But still, we run into problems: Not all IQ tests are consistent with each other, and it can be hard to determine exactly which skills they evaluate. This may be why IQ scores fall short when it comes to predicting academic success; a 2012 study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology suggests that while IQ dictates one’s ability to self-learn, self-control is a better determinant of performance in the classroom.

Is there a way to more comprehensively and consistently assess cognitive ability? Scientists on a quest to understand the dimensions of intelligence have suggested one: measuring what’s called executive functioning.

Executive functioning involves three subprocesses—inhibition (self-control and selective attention), working memory, and the ability to mentally switch between aspects of a task (cognitive flexibility). Not only are these combined abilities necessary for the cognitive processing of everyday life, but research has also shown that self-reported deficits in executive functioning are predictive of academic difficulties among college students. Executive functioning, this evidence suggests, may be the best single metric by which to determine intelligence across a wide array of disciplines and contexts.

One of the methods used to assess it, the feedback learning paradigm, is fairly simple. Three boxes are shown on a screen, and subjects are instructed to sort different items, which appear one at a time, into the boxes. If they select the correct box for an item, a plus sign appears, but if subjects choose the wrong box, they instead see a minus sign. The subjects’ objective is to learn from the positive and negative feedback which kinds of objects should be sorted into each of the boxes.

Until recently, this paradigm had only ever been applied in a laboratory setting, leaving scientists unsure of whether it would actually foretell academic success, as the research based on self-reports suggested it might. Noting this gap in the research, Sabine Peters and a team of researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands sought to bridge it with a novel study, recently reported in Developmental Psychology, that examined how lab data translates to the classroom.

In the lab, Peters presented 228 subjects between the ages of 8 and 25 with the traditional feedback learning paradigm. As subjects received positive and negative feedback on their actions, Peters gathered fMRI data to assess the neural activity of each subject and monitored their use of feedback to make correct choices. As a control, IQ and working memory were also measured.

Two years later, each of the subjects received math and reading assessments. Peters found that both higher scores during the feedback learning exercise and patterns in the students' brain activity during that exercise predicted better results on the later academic tests. Higher reading scores were particularly associated with increased neural activity in the left superior dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; higher math scores were most notably correlated with activity in the pre-supplementary motor area and the anterior cingulate cortex. Neither IQ or working memory evaluations alone could better predict subjects’ math and reading scores, which “suggests that other aspects of executive functioning (besides working memory alone) are likely implicated in both feedback learning and math and reading,” Peters says.  

Could this measure of executive functioning be the best gauge of how smart we are? Tracy Alloway, a psychologist and expert on working memory, says that her research points to executive functioning as a more consistent evaluation across cultures than IQ. “For example, we found that even nonverbal IQ tests demonstrate cultural differences,” she says. “However, other executive function skills, such as working memory, were relatively culture-fair.” Since the feedback learning paradigm taps into a number of skills that link it to learning, she says, “it is very likely that this could prove to be an effective method of understanding success in the classroom.”

Despite her findings, Peters is in favor of even broader evaluations. “Executive functioning is a very important aspect, but it does not account for every aspect of intelligence,” she says. How smart a person is, it seems, may be too complex to fully evaluate with just one test.

Nevertheless, these findings raise a new question about intelligence—not how to measure it, but how we might improve it. It’s possible that by practicing feedback learning tasks, one could train the underlying skills necessary for success in math and reading, Peters suggests.

Nancy Garon, a professor of psychology at Mount Allison University whose research focuses on early development of executive function, agrees. “Training feedback learning would definitely be worth trying,” she says. “There are so many studies suggesting that executive function skills are plastic—that training can improve a variety of executive functioning skills.”

In a world where we all seek shortcuts to improvement, this is a tantalizing thought. “It needs to be tested, of course,” says Peters, “but I do think it might be possible.” —Kirsi Goldynia

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