David Hambrick’s recent New York Times opinion piece—“I.Q. Points for Sale, Cheap”—warns that we should be skeptical of the recent studies that claim to show that intelligence can be improved through training. The title itself suggests that these IQ points can be bought cheaply simply because these gains are likely hollow. The truth is that at this point the scientific community as a whole just isn’t sure whether genuine intelligence can be increased through training.

However, some psychologists believe they have found a way to increase intelligence that only requires hours of training. Here is a summary of that famous 2008 study led by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl:

“In the Jaeggi study, the researchers began by having participants complete a test of reasoning to measure their “fluid” intelligence—the ability to draw connections between things, solve novel problems and adapt to new situations. Then some of the participants received up to eight hours of training in a difficult cognitive task that required paying careful attention to two streams of information (a version of this task is now marketed by Lumosity); others were assigned to a control group and received no such training. Then all of the participants took a different version of the reasoning test. The results were startling. The authors reported that the trained participants showed a larger gain in the reasoning test than the control group did, and despite the relatively brief period of training, this gain was large enough that it would be expected to substantially improve performance in everyday life.”

The desire to improve intelligence is not new. There have been many large scale attempts in the past which have been unsuccessful. Hence the skepticism of many researchers, including Zach Shipstead, Thomas Redick, and Randall Engle who published a thorough critique of the working memory training literature (which included discussion of the study summarized above).

Perhaps we can find ways to improve intelligence one day. However, maybe brain training isn’t the only way to approach the issue.

As Richard Haier pointed out in my article Could Brain Imaging Replace The SAT?: "The goal of our research is not to replace the SAT with brain imaging. The goal is to understand what it is about brain characteristics that make some people smarter than others. As we learn about brain/intelligence relationships and mechanisms, we might be able to manipulate the brain to substantially increase intelligence using neurochemicals or other means."

You can go on the web today and find numerous online IQ tests that claim to tell you just how smart you are and many sites even claim that their brain training games will increase your intelligence. If you are really serious, you can find a licensed psychologist to give you an individually administered IQ test. And it turns out that if you’ve taken the SAT or ACT, you can even translate these scores into IQ scores.

However, I think that the reason the desire to improve intelligence has always been popular is because as a society we really care about smarts. The recent article in The New York Times “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?” along with Hambrick’s latest opinion piece shows that trying to make ourselves smarter has become something of a societal obsession. And the key is that we want to get smarter without having to put in much effort. That is why short term training studies are so alluring. However, why are we so obsessed with improving IQ or intelligence? Shouldn’t we be more focused on helping each person use their intelligence to accomplish whatever they are capable of and in the process allow them to develop their skills and abilities more naturally?

Arthur Jensen, when he was asked whether there was any value in knowing your IQ wisely shared the following:

“I’ve never bothered to find out my own IQ, because I don’t know what I could do with it if I knew it. It has been much more useful to me to determine, in relation to my specific goals, what specific things I knew or could do and what things I didn’t know or couldn’t do, and then set about working to learn the necessary things. That done, you go on the same way to the next step, whatever it may be. Your acquisition of knowledge and skills gradually cumulates to some level of mastery in the things of importance for the realization of your ambitions. The notion of some neutral, norm-referenced level of intellectual capacity or potential never crosses one’s mind in the whole process. This doesn’t mean that I could do anything, but I can do what I try to do, with some effort, and I don’t believe that knowing my IQ would ever have been of any use to me in the process of trying to achieve any of my goals. Even if I did happen to know my IQ, I certainly wouldn’t let that knowledge limit what I would try to do.”

So knowing your IQ doesn't really matter. And don't be fooled into thinking that online brain training games will increase your intelligence in any meaningful way that will help you pursue your goals. Rather, find something that you want to master and put in the hard work to realize your ambitions. Who knows? Maybe in the process you might even make yourself smarter.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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