'Brain training' boosts working memory, but not intelligence

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A recent study reveals that while Brain training games, apps and websites may strengthen the working memory, they do not benefit the intellect. (Reuters) A recent study reveals that while Brain training games, apps and websites may strengthen the working memory, they do not benefit the intellect. (Reuters)
SummaryEvidence shows a strong correlation between working memory capacity and general fluid intelligence.

Brain training games, apps and websites may strengthen your ability to hold information in mind, but they do not benefit the kind of intelligence that helps you reason and solve problems, according to a new study.

“It is hard to spend any time on the web and not see an ad for a website that promises to train your brain, fix your attention, and increase your IQ,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Randall Engle of Georgia Institute of Technology.

“These claims are particularly attractive to parents of

children who are struggling in school,” Engle said.

According to Engle, the claims are based on evidence that shows a strong correlation between working memory capacity (WMC) and general fluid intelligence.

Working memory capacity refers to our ability to keep information either in mind or quickly retrievable, particularly in the presence of distraction.

General fluid intelligence is the ability to infer relationships, do complex reasoning, and solve novel problems.

The correlation between WMC and fluid intelligence has led some to surmise that increasing WMC should lead to an increase in both fluid intelligence, but “this assumes that the two constructs are the same thing, or that WMC is the basis for fluid intelligence,” Engle noted.

Engle and colleagues asked 55 undergraduate students to complete 20 days of training on certain cognitive tasks. The students were paid extra for improving their performance each day to ensure that they were engaged in the training.

Students in the two experimental conditions trained on either complex span tasks, which have been consistently shown to be good measures of WMC, or simple span tasks.

With the simple span tasks, the students were asked to recall items in the order they were presented; for complex span tasks, the students had to remember items while performing another task in between item presentations.

A control group trained on a visual search task that, like the other tasks, became progressively harder each day.

The results showed that only students who trained on complex span tasks showed transfer to other WMC tasks. None of the groups showed any training benefit on measures of fluid intelligence.

“For over 100 years, psychologists have argued that general memory ability cannot be improved, that there is little or no generalisation of 'trained' tasks to 'untrained' tasks,” said Tyler Harrison, graduate student and lead author of the paper.

“So we were surprised to see evidence that new and untrained measures of working memory capacity may be improved with training on complex

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