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Why Does Brain Training Make You Smarter?

Scientific research on attempts to improve intelligence

Source: David Buss, American Scientist © 1985 Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, used with permission

The promise of greater intelligence by playing brain enhancing video games is appealing. Everybody seems to agree that intelligence is one of the two most attractive qualities in a romantic partner. In a longitudinal study of 7,403 Baby Boomers, researchers found that the average income difference between a person with an IQ score of 130 (top 2% of society) earns about between $6000 and $18,500 more per year than your average bloke with an IQ of 100. If you carefully examine the last 100 years of psychological research, intelligence (IQ) is an excellent predictor of academic performance, creativity, learning ability, information processing speed, and success in love, work, and meaningful personal goals

Intelligence matters. Adults are showing a substantial rise in degenerative brain diseases and the need to figure out how to reverse cognitive decline has never been more important. Finding paths to increase intelligence in adulthood will benefit individuals, families, and society. Thus it is unsurprising that global spending on brain enhancing technology is insane. According to market research firms, consumers spent $210 million in 2005, $1.3 billion in 2013, and the projection for 2020 is $6,000,000,0000! Thus, it is no small question as to whether brain enhancing technology works and if so, how. 

Enter my colleagues at George Mason University. They asked a simple question - are the benefits of brain enhancing computer apps nothing more than a placebo effect? That is, are people's beliefs about the malleability of intelligence driving the benefits of cognitive training? In a 2016 study, my colleagues found the answer. Despite industry claims, there is little evidence that the actual training in brain games produce superior intelligence. 

Patrick McKnight, used with permission
Source: Patrick McKnight, used with permission

They recruited people for their study with two advertisements. In one, they search for people interested in testing out a tool to enhance intelligence. The expectations of potentially becoming more intelligent are built-in. In the other, they  mention that people can earn prizes for taking part in a study - no expectations are given. 

What they found is that people only showed a short-term boost in intelligence if they signed up to enhance their intellect. After a mere hour of computerized brain training, the boost was substantial - ranging from a 5 to 10 point increase in IQ.  

The media response to these findings has been intense (see the Huffington Post, Boston Globe, Forbes and more). There tend to be three reactions:

  1. The industry of brain enhancing technology is a scam with misleading claims. Bad stuff.
  2. Placebos are real and the mind is profoundly interesting and powerful. Brain enhancing technology does not actually change your brain rather they make you think you can change your brain which in turn changes your brain. Good stuff.
  3. The research is shoddy. One hour is insufficient to test the value of brain enhancing technology. Brain training takes time. Bad stuff.

In some way, all of these responses are both right and wrong.

Yes, the brain enhancement industry continues to make fraudulent claims about what they do and have been fined accordingly. At the same time, the placebo effect is real. But the mechanism for why certain interventions work is unclear. If the effect is due to beliefs that one can become smarter with training then we need to figure out how to ethically transform thoughts into sustainable change. If we can identify people with  a high predisposition for placebo responses, they can be targeted. This could reduce the financial and psychological cost of interventions. The ethics are challenging. How can we create and offer services in a way that minimize exploitation while building intelligence at the individual level as a social good?

The reason that these brain enhancing programs might work is that if a person believes they can become more intelligent they are likely to invest additional energy and focus. If you ever worked out in the gym with a personal fitness trainer, this is obvious. When you pay somebody to extend your physical capabilities - whether it is strength, balance, endurance, flexibility, or speed - one's effort is magnified. You work harder, longer, and/or faster to justify the financial and time expenditure. There is also the social pressure of showing respect to your personal trainer. These workouts will be objectively fiercer than solo routines. The stronger the rationale for working hard, the harder you tend to work. People who believe that intelligence is malleable and that a training program can help them are likely to behave differently than skeptical, rigid peers. 

The best studies raise more questions than answers. This is one of them.

If intelligence solidifies in early adulthood then there is no need for adults to attend college or complete any form of continuing education. Do not let this study discourage the pursuit of data-driven strategies to enhance intelligence. What the world needs now is critical thinking critters who ask great questions and are invested in making meaningful contributions to society. Here's hoping this research guides inventors to create better cognitive training strategies.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in arranging a speaking engagement or workshop, visit