Can You Make Yourself Smarter? Only if You Try

Working memory may be key, but motivation is more important.

Posted Apr 19, 2012

Dan Hurley wrote a succinct, interesting article that summarizes some of the most recent studies related to “brain training” and the ability to increase intelligence. His focus is on the research conducted by Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl (University of Maryland). In a nutshell, Jaeggi and Buschkuehl have found that 15-25 minutes of training a day for even as little as 4 weeks improved subsequent performances on cognitive tasks that measure fluid intelligence (our capacity to problem solve, learn, reason, see patterns in the world). This training improves working memory which is a fundamental component of our intelligence.

It’s a well-written article and worth a read. However, my interests are not largely cognitive, so I won’t summarize the details here except to say that working memory is also a key component of that broad resource I have discussed before known as executive function. Executive function is the seat of self-control and self-regulation. Consequently, I am interested to learn if research shows whether these brain exercises serve to increase self-regulation as much as they seem to affect fluid intelligence. Let’s hope they do, as they may serve to bootstrap the process of brain exercise. Why? Well, the self-control to actually do the exercises seems to be a weak link in the “let’s get smarter” game.

A comment that Dan Hurley makes at the end of his article makes this clear. He explains how rewards have been used to motivate kids to spend time on the memory-task practice. For example, third graders were given a chance to win $10 prepaid Visa cards each week. However, not every child is interested. Hurly notes how a fourth-grade student that he observed had “a look of abject boredom on his freckled face.” This was not for him. In fact, even the researchers admitted that it’s the biggest challenge in the field, simply to get people engaged and motivated to play the working-memory game, to really stick with it. Of course, these memory games get increasingly difficult as you progress, and they are really challenging, sometimes frustrating, and always tiring given the intense nature of the practice.

Engagement, motivation – oh, now you have my attention. As a researcher interested in procrastination and as an educator with years of experience, I know that the real limit to human potential is mainly this issue of engagement. Once engaged, just about anything that we practice at with focused attention will increase our “intelligence”—as there is truly a wide variety of intelligences that matter in life. Want to increase your intelligence? Get engaged in things enough to think more deeply about stuff.

Hey, I wonder if there’s an exercise for that? Would you do it if there were? Catch-22?